State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

On Tap: The Fellowship of Beer

by on October 02, 2017 2:52 PM

In the process of writing this column over the last few years, I have tried to encourage you to experience beer culture in all its forms. Visiting beer bars, breweries, and brewpubs allows you to not only taste some unusual and outstanding products of the brewer’s art, it also exposes you to true beer culture; the gathering of a diverse group of like-minded people in search of fun and fellowship.

Fellowship … I believe that word exemplifies beer culture more than any other. Beer has a centuries-old reputation for bringing people together, and in the age of smartphones and the instant gratification of the Internet, beer still has the power to physically draw us together like no other beverage.

Sure, wine and spirits have a long social history too, but looking back in time, it’s almost always beer that best crosses the human boundaries of economic, social, and employment status to bring us together at any given time.

Look no further than the German biergarten, or beer garden, tradition to understand the concept. With roots going back to the 16th century, the beer garden really took off in the early 1800s, when caves were dug near the rivers to enable long-term storage of lager beers during the summer. With the addition of gravel on those banks and the planting of trees to provide shade, it didn’t take long for these cool, beer-centric places to attract the public, so breweries began to offer beer direct to their customers, right where it was being aged. The serving of food soon followed, and further increased the beer garden’s popularity, so much so that other eating establishments (and breweries that did not serve food) petitioned Maximilian I to eliminate the practice.

Once the serving of food was banned, breweries with beer gardens encouraged their patrons to bring their own food, creating perhaps the first commercially sponsored “pot luck” parties. Thus evolved the beer garden as they know it today, an establishment that serves draft beer to patrons seated at communal tables, sharing food of their own making with friends and strangers. (Yes, even today many German beer gardens allow patrons to provide their own food, even if food is served on the premises.)

The other exceptional part of the beer garden experience is that it was created for the enjoyment of the entire family. Children are exposed to the warmth and fellowship of the gathering, and gain respect for the drinking tradition that they will one day carry on.

That warmth and fellowship even have a name in the language. “Gemütlichkeit” encompasses the happiness of a gathering of family, friends, and strangers enjoying good company, cold beer, and delicious food, accompanied by music and song in a cool, shady setting. Man, does it get any better?

On our own shores, beer, and more specifically, ale, was the catalyst for one of the first means of the fast transmission of the news of the day: the colonial tavern. They were the daily rest stops for travelers of all kinds, private and commercial, and those patrons shared the latest news from wherever they had been on their journeys.

Though distilled spirits (rum and whiskey) ruled the early days of the tavern trade, the rising popularity of beer during the late 19th century ousted spirits to become the beverage of choice.

Taverns provided lodging for both patrons and their animals, a warm fire, a meal, and drinks to accompany games and conversation. Again, this was mostly a gathering of relative strangers sharing the experience of human interaction over food and beer. The tavern encouraged the exchange of ideas, to the point where major events in American history were shaped by those who met and drank together. The American Revolution and the Whiskey Rebellion are two that spring to mind.

So where does this leave us today, in these increasingly busy and information-packed times? The answer to that question is no farther away than your local watering hole, many of which are much like the beer garden or tavern of yesteryear.

The Jean Bonnet Tavern in Bedford remains a thriving symbol of the colonial tavern. Built in the 1760s, it was the gathering place for the “whiskey rebels,” western Pennsylvania farmer-distillers protesting Alexander Hamilton’s federal tax on distilled spirits. They raised a “liberty pole” in protest at the Jean Bonnet before heading back to their farms in the west.

To illustrate his counterpoint, the Jean Bonnet also became the place where President George Washington camped with his troops, an army of 13,000 strong, before they too headed west in pursuit of the rebels. It remains the only time in our history that a standing president personally led a militia in the field.

Closer to home, Duffy’s Tavern in Boalsburg still offers up hospitality to its devoted clientele. Built in 1818, Duffy’s is a welcoming destination to a diverse group of patrons, many of whom hold the place dear to their hearts. You can still enjoy home-cooked meals in a historic setting, along with a cold beer next to a stranger and engage in discussion about current events.

Beyond these historic gems, your local brewpub or beer bar generally encourages the gemütlichkeit one might find in the beer garden, and many offer outside seating to enable the enjoyment of their wares in the great outdoors. The focus on family is becoming more evident in these establishments too, encouraging the next generation of social drinkers.

To my knowledge, our closest brewpub with a dedicated outdoor beer garden is the Berwick Brewing Company in Berwick, Columbia County. Their beer garden features great beer and food served on communal tables, a view of the Susquehanna River from high above, and live music on the weekends. It’s worth the trip.

So there you have it. I believe that beer encourages fellowship unlike any other type of adult beverage, and countless numbers of patrons validate that concept every time they step inside the door of their local establishment, whether it was built 200 years ago or last week.  Stop in sometime, maybe bring the family, and experience the joys of the fellowship of beer for yourself.


Sam Komlenic, whose dad worked for a Pennsylvania brewery for 35 years, grew up immersed in the brewing business. He slung kegs at a distributor in State College while attending Penn State, and represented local beers as a salesman here during the 1990s. He has toured scores of breweries, large and small, from coast to coast. When he’s not writing about beer, he’s enjoying it with good friends!
Disclaimer: Copyright © 2018 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.