Another Goodbye to Another Good Friend
One of my favorite bars burned to the ground yesterday: Schnitzel’s Tavern, in the little upstate Pennsylvania town of Bellefonte. It was a German restaurant with authentic atmosphere, a nice little bar and stone-patio seating along Spring Creek. Now it’s a heap of smoldering, stinking bricks and rubble… and I’m diminished by its passing.
About eight years ago, I was in State College, signing books at a beer festival. I wanted a quiet dinner between sessions, and a local beer lover recommended Schnitzel’s. An eight-mile run over fields and ridges, drenched in golden afternoon sun, got me to Bellefonte. Schnitzel’s was in the old Bush Hotel, across from the train station: a well-kept place, neat and tidy.
I was alone, so I decided to eat at the bar. There was one other guy there, a tall, pale, heavy guy, drinking a curvy glass of hefeweizen. I ran my eyes over the taps and saw Kostritzer Schwarzbier—at the time, a rare find. I stared at it, lost in pleasant anticipation. Then, from out of nowhere, the guy says, “This is a wheat beer I’m having. You ought to try one.”
I turned, caught off-guard by this unexpected reaching out of a beer lover. He kept going. “It looks cloudy, but it’s supposed to be; it’s got all the yeast in there. That’s special yeast; it makes the beer taste like it’s got bananas and spices in it, but it’s just the yeast. You should try one!”
So here’s this guy, out in the sticks (because whatever other wonderful things you can say about Bellefonte, it is the sticks). He’s all by himself in the bar, and he’s got the gumption to push wheat beer on a total stranger. I was impressed. No, I said, thanks, but I’m going to have a Schwarzbier. Have you ever had that?
“No, not yet,” he said. “This is my first beer, and it’s a great beer for the heat. I might have that Schwarzbier next. I like to try something new.”
Me too, I said, and handed him my card. I’m signing books down at the beer festival, I tell him. Did you go?
“Oh my, you know all about this!” he said, looking sheepish. “And here I was, I was going to tell you about beer.” Hey, I said, you were doing great! Is this your local bar?
“No, I live in Lock Haven,” he said. “I come over the mountains to get here. There’s no place in Lock Haven that has these beers.” And then he paused and I swear to God, he actually sighed. “It’s kind of lonely. I like these beers, and no one else does, and I don’t even like going to bars any more; they don’t have anything I like to drink. So I drive down here, where I don’t know anyone, just to have a couple beers.”
Look, I said, I’ve got an hour. Let’s talk beer. I ordered my dinner, and got him another hefeweizen, and we talked beer for an hour. We were happy geeks.
And when friends e-mailed me yesterday morning to tell me Schnitzel’s was burning, I was touched that people who loved Schnitzel’s (and beer, and German food, and the atmosphere of a great bar) knew that I would want to know, and thought to contact me. I posted the news on my site, and hoped and hoped that they would re-build Schnitzel’s.
But the first thing I thought about was that poor pudgy bastard in Lock Haven. Where was he going to go now? So I did what all good beer writers do: I Googled it. And don’t you know, even Lock Haven has a place for quality beer these days. I’ll bet he’s there every night, trying something new, and telling someone about it. Essentially he’s doing what I do, just one person at a time.
I used to drive 30 miles out of my way to stop at Schnitzel’s for a beer and a plate of smoked trout, and I’m going to miss the place. I’ll never forget it. But I think the next time I head up that direction, I’ll drive over the mountains to Lock Haven, and try something new.