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Axemann Brewery: Making Customers Comfortable and Keeping the Focus on Local

 

With the official start of winter just weeks away and predictions that the next few weeks of the pandemic may be the most devastating, many of us are anticipating spending a lot of time in our houses. Are we really stuck at home? Is there a place we can go to have a meal or enjoy a beverage that doesn’t put us at risk? One of the many local businesses that is working hard to keep their patrons safe is Bellefonte’s new Axemann Brewery.

Axemann Brewery opened in July of 2020 – smack dab in the middle of the pandemic – at the site of the former Cerro Metal factory on Axemann Road. Axemann Brewery is one of the flagship businesses of what is now called Titan Energy Park. Owners Rod and Dorothea Stahl and Stephen Hirlinger are hoping to be a “great destination for great beer” in Centre County.

The path to Axemann Brewery and their anchor Blue Stripe beer is an incredible story.  Raised in Selinsgrove, co-owner Rod Stahl graduated from Penn State with a degree in civil engineering. He met his wife, Dorothea, originally from Baltimore, at Dorothea’s sister’s wedding. Rod was a friend of the groom. They came to State College in 1999 when Rod took a job with Ferguson Township.

“Rod is used to opening businesses under stressful circumstances,” Dorothea laughed when we met at Axemann Brewer for Sunday brunch. “He opened his engineering firm in 2006, right as the economy tanked. We opened the brewery in the middle of a pandemic.”

Rod got into home brewing when a surveyor with connections to his company, Stahl Sheaffer Engineering, expressed an interest in getting together outside of work to brew some beer. Other employees soon jumped in and they began brewing beer for fun and for sharing with friends from the barn on their residence in Boalsburg. It wasn’t long before the beer became more than just a hobby.

“Rod is kind of an understated guy,” Dorothea said. “When he told me he ran cross country at Penn State, I figured it was one of those things where anyone who tries out can make the team. We hadn’t been dating long and I met him in Harrisburg to cheer him on for the Harrisburg City Marathon. I noted the guy leading the pack over the bridge onto City Island and it turned out to be Rod in first place. Along those same lines, when we started taking the beer that they made in our barn to local beer festivals and he was getting accolades, I figured it was the same kind of thing. I don’t drink beer so I didn’t know. But then he started getting notice at the larger, regional beer festivals and I figured out I needed to start paying better attention!”


Rod Stahl, left, and Stephen Hirlinger first began brewing beer out of a barn in Boalsburg before opening Axemann Brewery in Spring Township. Photo provided

Friends and family who enjoyed the beers made in the Stahl’s barn in Boalsburg and served at their annual OktoberFest party began asking where they could get more.

“Our initial vision was space for brewing and a small tasting or taproom,” Rod said. “We started looking for space that would provide us with easy road access for distribution and space to offer the beer. Through research and conversations with people at beer festivals, I learned that about 30% of sales and profit in a microbrewery like ours can come through the tap or tasting room.”

After ruling out sites closer to and in State College where rent and restrictions raised some hurdles, the team at Axemann Brewery were welcomed by the folks in Spring Township. Working with the owners of Titan Energy Park, they found the industrial site they were looking for: a site that would offer space for beer making and a large, welcoming tap room, as well as provide a destination for fun.


Old wooden locker doors from the former Cerro Metal plant are used in the base of the bar at Axemann Brewery. Photo provided

Using much of the original architecture of the old Cerro Metal, Axemann Brewery features an expansive first floor with opportunities for social distancing but also room to gather for a bit of fun and a great meal. The upstairs (all ADA accessible) offers room for special events and private parties and a patio overlooking the Logan Branch of Spring Creek. Both upstairs and downstairs feature garage-type doors that can be open in warm weather.  Current occupancy is at about 521 people although COVID restrictions are at 50% of that. Plans include a large game area (cornhole, shuffleboard, etc.) as well as regular live entertainment.

The features in the space at Axemann Brewery are unique as well as local in their design. From the lighting and original locker doors from the employee locker room of Cerro Metal to the “cage” that will be space for entertainers, the space is open and welcoming. Rod and his team have made great use of recycling and reuse by bringing in tables and chairs from Penn State’s salvage barn, as well as building tables made of old rail beams and lab table tops from Penn State to create an expansive yet relaxing feel to the brewery. If you order a flight of beers, they are served in specially designed rustic trays with copper piping, all in line with the history of the site.

“We wanted to keep the history and local feel,” Stahl said. “When we took over the space, the original 32-foot furnaces were still in the area where we now brew beer.”


Axemann Brewery made use of recycling and reuse by bringing in tables and chairs from Penn State’s salvage barn. Photo provided

And there is beer. It is, after all, about the beer.  

With a nod to Penn State’s signature blue stripe on their white football helmets, Axeman’s Blue Stripe, a Kölsch style beer,  is available on premise as well as throughout the state in bars and other distributors, including in grocery stores. The Stahls credit Chris Hickey of W.R. Hickey for having faith in their product and not only helping them sell it from Hickey’s beer distributor on East College Avenue in College Township, but also helping to get the word out to other outlets. Blue Stripe is available throughout Pennsylvania and is becoming a favorite of Penn State fans.

“We started selling right before the pandemic,” said Dorothea. “People were bored in those first few weeks of lockdown and looking for something new so it started selling from Hickey’s. We laughed when a friend called to say that the recycling bin where she dropped off her recycling was full of Blue Stripe cans.”

The Stahls are transplants to Happy Valley who after 21 years of living in the area, consider themselves “almost locals.” They moved to State College from Harrisburg.  Rod opened his engineering firm in 2006. That business has grown to include eight satellite locations in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. Dorothea has a teaching background and served on the State College Area School Board for several terms. The Stahls were fixtures on the lacrosse and field hockey fields when their children  – Calvin (25), Olivia (23) and Sally (20) were growing up in State College.  

In casual conversation with Rod, his passion and knowledge for making beer is evident.  

There are a variety of IPAs, stouts, pilsners and other beers available at Axemann Brewery – my favorite is the Black Razz, which is brewed with a fresh black raspberry puree.  Every other Friday, Axemann taps a special keg at 4 p.m. that is only available on-site and until it runs out. We were there a few weeks ago and the Friday beer was a chocolate coffee porter made with Rothrock coffee – further demonstrating how the team at Axemann is supporting local businesses.


The expansive taproom at Axemann Brewery opens onto a deck overlooking the Logan Branch. Photo provided

The food is good too.

“We knew we wanted to offer food options,” Dorothea said, “but we wanted to avoid the additional drama of running a restaurant.” Axemann Brewery partnered with the Blonde Bistro of Bellefonte.  Owner Ciara Semack has a permanent space on site offering Italian cuisine, pizza, subs and great hand- held foods.   

“Ciara was the perfect partner,” Rod said. “She had built a reputation in Bellefonte and knows everyone.”  

Food is ordered online from your table or at the counter at Blonde Bistro and is almost contact-free if you don’t count the folks who bring your final order to your table.  They work together for special events including their first annual OktoberFest this past fall which included a four-course, German-style dinner with different beers at each course.

I highly recommend the aioli Blonde Bistro serves with their hand cut fries. That stuff is to die for.

Partnering with Seven Mountains Winery, Mount Nittany Winery, University Wine, 814 Cider Works and Big Springs Spirits, there is something for everyone at Axemann Brewery. When the patio and garage doors are open and the game area is in full operation, they hope to continue to welcome families as well as beer aficionados. Their space allows for food trucks, patio entertainment and COVID safe practices with lots of physical distancing. The Sunday brunch at Axemann is phenomenal. The menu includes a unique “flight” of mimosas.


The author enjoyed Axemann’s Black Razz fruit beer and fries with aioli from the adjoining Blonde Bistro.  

They currently have 22 paid employees including brewers and the service staff.  The management team, including Rod and Dorothea, are managing social media, marketing to new distributors across the state and managing the merchandise area – and brewing the beer. The Stahls attribute the creative genius of their logos and beer labels as well as their web design to Cristina Barnes.

Opening a new business is tough but opening a business smack dab in the middle of a pandemic is even tougher.  

“We opened in July,” Rod said. “I looked into the payroll protection support program but there wasn’t a place for new businesses to sign up. I didn’t have payroll data from 2019.”  He laughed, “I guess they figured no one would be stupid enough to try to open a new business in a pandemic.”

Despite the challenges of COVID and the seemingly ever-changing virus management regulations, Axemann Brewery is moving forward.  As Titan Energy park continues to expand its offerings including the year-round Titan Market with local craft and artisan vendors, plans for new restaurants, a cidery and a distillery, they hope that traffic will continue to grow. Axemann is becoming the cool place to hang out. It is exciting for everyone when the trains go right by the brewery.

If you are stuck in the house this winter, I strongly urge you to try it. Axeman Brewery is big, spacious and compliant with COVID management procedures. The beer is great. The food is amazing. Live entertainment. Football on the screens. A local vibe. It is a win-win for our community.