You’re hard-pressed, these days at least, to find an area that is still largely underserved by craft breweries. But up until last summer, the Pocono Mountains region in eastern Pennsylvania was one such swath of the United States. Sure, there were some small taprooms and brewpubs that had opened over the years, and the cities on the outskirts, such as Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, house some legacy and larger breweries, but among the mountains and lakes proper, there was little that was big.
Then along came the sister and brother duo of Becky and Christopher Ryman. Their family has run a propane tank–refurbishing business in the area for years, lives nearby, and has a lake house on Lake Wallenpaupack—a well-loved and well-known recreational area. “We’d be here on the weekends and thinking about what the area needs, what the people are doing, and how can we capitalize on the area and contribute,” says Becky Ryman.
The idea for the Wallenpaupack Brewing Company, however, came from their cousin, the owner of Marker 48 Brewing in Spring Hill, Florida. He began homebrewing in his garage before going pro and extolled the benefits of the business. As Ryman traveled the country for work, she began visiting breweries, taking notes, asking questions, and tasting her way through all the offerings—both beer and food—that places had. A business plan began to form in her mind, and by Christmas 2016, when she and her brother exchanged homebrew kits with each other, they knew it was time to start a business.
Knowing the System
I’ve been visiting the Lake Wallenpaupack area of the Poconos for the better part of two decades. Like a lot of folks who take long weekends or summer vacations in the area, we have our regular spots for ice cream, burgers, and general fun. Life moves a little slower here and progress can be marked in the small things, such as a new sign outside the carpet shop or the opening of the drive-through at the Dunkin’ Donuts. So, last summer when I was pulling out of the grocery-store parking lot, it was somewhat jarring to see the large pale-colored and stone-accented warehouse space that stood on the spot that held a long-closed Arby’s. Two-story windows showed off gleaming fermentors, and workers were affixing a sign to the façade.
The Rymans purchased three lots comprising five acres, consolidated them into one property, and were able to get the permits and permissions to build, plumb, and outfit a 12,000-square-foot building that includes a 5,000-square-foot kitchen and restaurant and a 5,000-square-foot production brewery that is home to a 20 bbl brewhouse, fermentors to match (for now—they are already eyeing larger vessels), and a bunch of 10 bbl bright tanks.
“We’ve built buildings in the past, so we know all the loops and hoops you have to jump through,” says Ryman. “So we went into the planning meetings with all the paperwork, the full plans, everything that we’d need; and that knowledge and practice got us approved, building in January 2017, and brewing by July.”
Being able to tee up all the necessary approvals in advance saved them a lot of the usual zoning and building-permit hassles that can often trip up first-time (or even repeat) breweries going into a new space.
“There were two years of planning behind it,” says Ryman, “but it was all behind the scenes, so it took some folks by surprise.”
Realizing that their strengths are in business, not brewing—at least not beyond a hobby—the Rymans hired C. J. Penzone to be the head brewer. (Editor's Note: Penzone recently left the brewery for a different brewing opportunity.) A longtime Pennsylvania brewer who cut his teeth at Fegley’s Brew Works in Bethlehem before working at Tröegs Independent Brewing (Hershey, Pennsylvania), he came into the space knowing how to work on both small and large systems and with a clear idea about the beers that he could develop for the brewery that would appeal to both the dedicated “craft” crowd and the new-to-non-macro set.
Finding A Groove
The most popular beer in the area, by a country mile, is Yuengling. The pre-Prohibition beer is a Keystone State institution, and it’s ordered not by name, but by style. Ask for a lager, and you’ll get Yuengling. Penzone was acutely aware of this and says it was important to have on offer from day one a beer that mimicked the classic amber lager. From there, he offered twists on other mainstream staples, such as lite beer and Pilsner. While other breweries might see IPA as king, here it’s the beers of the people that are best sellers.
Having quickly earned trust from regulars and first-timers, Penzone is seeing success in offering other beers, from New England–style IPAs to smoked lagers and fruited wheats. “People come in, they ask for something familiar, and then they trust us enough to try something new,” he says. “That also means we can have a robust seasonal program.” That philosophy extends to the kitchen. It changes with the seasons, as abruptly as the climate outside. Because things have a habit of staying the same in this area and folks come to accept the status quo, by regularly shaking up the menus, Ryman keeps residents engaged and eager to come back often.
The kitchen “also keeps [customers] here longer,” she says. Being a disrupter could rub people the wrong way, but as Wallenpaupack Brewing neared its first anniversary, Ryman says that other local business owners expressed nothing but admiration and excitement.
“We’ve had families come in and say, ‘This makes the area cool again for my kids’.” It’s similar for longtime tourists.
“There’s a population of tourists who have a lake house and have been coming up here for fifteen or, even, forty years, and maybe as their kids hit their twenties and thirties, they weren’t as excited about coming up. Now that there’s a brewery, we’re seeing them come back. It’s helped make the area hip again; there’s a coolness factor.” Listening locally has been to their benefit. Having an approachable taproom for every kind of visitor, from starter beers to more experimental beers, has endeared them to the community and, as such, has introduced a whole new population center to craft beer.
There was a risk in installing a 20 bbl brewhouse in an area that was largely untested, and Ryman says there were contingency plans in place, including being prepared to “eat a lot of Cheerios for each meal.”
The original plan was to add to the bottom line by contract brewing for others in the area. Now, Wallenpaupack Brewing is on pace to make 2,000 barrels of beer in their first year, and Ryman is talking with other nearby breweries to contract their own beer, which “will bring us to about 6,000 barrels next year.”
Right now, the brewery is looking at canning lines to replace their existing mobile-canning arrangement, and that 5-acre lot barely got a rest. The backhoes were fired back up earlier this summer, grading out a spot that will soon become an event space.
As Ryman traveled the country and talked with brewers, the one thing she heard over and over again was to plan ahead for growth and to think about space to expand. Almost immediately after opening, they were hit with private-party requests, from class reunions to weddings. A tent that will occupy the space as a beer garden for the next few months will be replaced with a full structure that will also serve as a barrel-conditioning space.
“We can grow everything around us and control our destiny,” Ryman says. By listening to a community, meeting the needs that were expected all while making sure that clean, quality, and flavorful beer flowed from the taps from day one, Wallenpaupack Brewing Company has firmly planted roots in an area that it plans to serve for years to come.
“We’ve worked hard to make all this happen, and we’re still writing our story, but we want to become a regional-sized brewery.”