Working hard to wet our whistle

Back in 2009 or 2010, I first got the idea in my head of starting a beer site. I made a road trip to Milheim, Pa. to do a story that was supposed to be the start of the project. This is that story:

Tim Yarrington makes beer. Good beer.

If he didn’t, people would probably only stop in Milheim if they caught the red light.

Yarrington is the head brewer for Elk Creek Cafe & Ale Works, a funky little Colorado-chic joint in the village of Millheim, population 899, give or take a recent birth or a recent death.

It’s not easy to drink Yarrington’s beers. Milheim is in the middle of nowhere on U.S. 45, the two-lane drag over the mountain and through the woods between State College and Lewisburg. The hours are limited.

Elk Creek Cafe and Aleworks

The day we decided to drive up for lunch and a couple beers, we were lucky to get a late start on the two-hour drive from Harrisburg. We got there around 3 p.m., finding a sign that said they did not open until 4. They are only open for lunch on Friday and Saturday, and they are not open at all Mondays and Tuesdays. Sunday they serve brunch from 11-2.

“We’re not open for lunch during the week,” the barmaid explained as she poured me a Hairy John’s IPA, a big, hoppy 9.5 ABV Imperial Pale Ale that Yarrington brews occasionally.

Three years ago, he made a “homegrown” wet hops version with hops grown in the farmland near town.

“It was a hops hodge-podge,” Yarrington says. “When people gave me local hops, I threw them in there,”

The most recent edition had Chinook and Nugget hops in the kettle and was dry hopped with Chinook, Nugget, Centennial and Amarillo hops.

It’s the special stuff that makes it worth the trip to Milheim.The year-arounds are good, especially the Poe Paddy Porter, a dark pour full of chocolatey, coffee tinged maltiness with enough hop bitterness to offset the sweetness and keep it honest.

Poe Paddy Porter is a favorite of mine for growler fills when camping along Penns Creek. It’s perfect by the late night camp fire. Stands up nicely with anything you might decide to cook on that fire, from sausages to wings. Trail Dagger is one of Yarrington’s best efforts, which is saying a lot given the consistent quality of Elk Creek’s offerings.

That extends to the kitchen, too. The kitchen, by the way, does not open until five on weekdays.

Rich and malty, Elk Creek’s Poe Paddy Porter is even better when they age it in bourbon barrels and release it as Prince’s Porter.

Elk Creek prides itself on local sourcing, with breads baked in nearby State College, meats from local farms and butchers, produce, when possible, from local farmers. A sign on the wall lists more than 20 local purveyors they buy from.

The menu changes frequently; there are daily specials.

The bar seats maybe 8-10, the dining room is a bright, open space with lots of exposed wood and a brick pillar in the middle.

Check their Web site for the entertainment lineup. They feature an eclectic mix of mostly what you might call “roots” music, with live bands most Saturday nights, and random weeknights.

You can get Elk Creek’s beers off premises. About half its production is sold by the keg, mostly to bars in State College and Lewisburg. The special stuff is only available at the cafe. Don’t expect wider distribution any time soon.

“We’re staying regional,” Yarrington told us when we visited in November. “We’re not going into any urban markets.”

Right now, Yarrington figures he brews around 1,000 barrels a year on his eight-barrel, pieced together, “some of this, some of that,” system. He thinks gradually he could increase production another 500 barrels before maxing out his brewhouse. 

“We’re taking a conservative and incremental approach. The last thing we want to do is to get out into a market we can’t support,” Yarrington explains.”I don’t want to be everywhere. I want to be where we belong.”

The brewing operation is landlocked. There isn’t much space for any increased capacity.

Milheim seems like it is way too small to support a micro brewery. Surrounded by farm land, with Amish horse and buggies so common the local convenience store has a “parking area” where you can tie up your horses while you shop.

Yarrington says Elk Creek’s commitment to quality overcomes that. 

“People are seeking something of superior quality,” Yarrington says, adding, “We definitely cross some barriers.”

Yarrington likes to tell the tale of the guy who started out cursing about the cafe not carrying the fizzy yellow lite beer he was used to drinking. Grudgingly, he tried Yarrington’s Winkleblibk Ale, a bready, well-balanced light-colored ale that serves as Elk Creek’s “gateway drug” for Bud-Miller-Coors types.

“I wanna make that style of beer they like better and more satisfying. A lot of people don’t put much effort to that type beer.,” Yarrington says. “That’s how I get them. They’ll give (Winkleblink) a chance, then slowly they will bend to what I am doing.”

Now that guy is a regular, preferring the Elk Creek Copper Ale, a step “up” in some regards to the Winkleblink.

Because of the small market, Yarrington sticks to more mainstream styles of beers. You won’t find wild yeast sours and Belgian Quadruppels. Yarrington sticks pretty close to the traditional English ale styles. The market just is not there for that stuff in the east end of Centre County.

“That’s part of the reason you don’t see me choosing more esoteric beer styles,” says Yarrington.

According to the Elk Creek Web site, as of December 28, Hairy John’s IPA was still available, along with Anniversary Ale, an American pal ale.