D. G. Yuengling & Son had already been brewing beer for 45 years when the Kempton Hotel was built in 1874. Last summer we sat at the bar of the Kempton and drank draft Yuengling beer. The Kempton isn’t on any lists of historic inns, and the Institute for Brewing Studies doesn’t classify Yuengling as “craft” beer because of adjuncts the brewery uses, but that doesn’t make either less distinctive.
Both survived the period from the 1950s through the ’80s when any style of beer other than the pale lager most Americans drank was on the endangered species list, and so were many bars you would call old-fashioned taverns. Yuengling has since flourished and at least the Kempton has stayed in business, unlike many taverns and corner bars.
On this particular day, we were traveling with Lew Bryson, author of the book, Pennsylvania Breweries, as well as a frequent contributor to many periodicals. Bryson is a champion of the Pennsylvania hotel bars. He frequently prowls the back roads with friends, drinking regional beers while perched on a bar stool in places where “you feel instantly at home.”
We began our journey at “Yocco’s, The Hot Dog King,” just west of Allentown, not for hot dogs but because it was a place to stash one car. Bryson was carrying a detailed Pennsylvania map–necessary in the rolling hills north of Reading even after many trips through them–and a dog-eared copy of The Bars of Reading and Berks by Suds Kroge and Dregs Donnigan.
We knew we were in good hands.
Suds and Dregs
As is the case with us, most of the time when Bryson writes about beer, his focus is on specialty beers. Also like us, he would have been comfortable prowling the bars of Reading and Berks with Suds and Dregs during the 1970s and ’80s. While those authors reviewed taverns with an eye toward beer, the sameness of beer from bar to bar kept it from being an important component.
More important to them, as they wrote in their last book in 1988, “Former readers know that we have exhibited a penchant for old original establishments in the past. That has not changed. A two- or three-man urinal still brings tears to our eyes, as does an expansive stamped tin ceiling or a massive, ornate, carved and mirrored antique back bar. Most of our ratings reflect a pristine quality or unique features found in few contemporary quafferies.”
They obviously struck a chord with many readers. David Wardrop and Bob Weirich visited every bar in town to write Beer Drinkers Guide to the Bars of Reading in 1975. Being high school teachers and understandably concerned about how their book would be taken in the community, they chose to use pen names that stuck with them through four more volumes.
Suds and Dregs became something of celebrities, and not only in Reading. They appeared on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and were written about in many national newspapers. Calvin Trillin spent a couple of evenings drinking with them and described that in a New Yorker essay.
They followed the first book with one on Berks County bars, then books called Eat and Eat II before revisiting every bar in Reading and Berks County to write their last book in 1988.
“We knew that extensive damage had been done to that beloved gathering place, the neighborhood tavern…. But we did not realize the extent of the damage. The number of city taprooms dwindled from 133 in 1975 to 109 we found open in 1988 and county taprooms, which numbered 238 in 1977 have now been reduced to just over 200,” they reported at the time.
Hotel Bars and Other Treats
Things haven’t gotten better in the 13 years since. Fact is, after we toured the Yuengling brewery in Pottsville, we headed for New Philadelphia to check out the Shive Wheel. “A locals’ place,” Bryson said. “The first time we walked in everybody turned and looked at us.” When we got there it was closed, not just for the day but apparently for good.
This happened again later in the day, when we stopped at the Windsor Castle Hotel in Windsor Castle. Suds and Dregs gave this place 5 Beers (their top rating) and wrote that they fell in love with “Miss Windsor Castle.” We hung out on the porch, we peeked into the windows. It looked like it could still be operating but definitely not this day.
These were minor setbacks. In New Philadelphia we walked across the street from the Shive Wheel to a place called Malzooms. It had a horseshoe bar with pennies embedded in the top, and it felt like we were drinking in somebody’s house, probably because we were. You could walk right out the sliding doors behind us and dive into their pool. The beers were served in what some folks call schooners. We weren’t sure if they held 8 ounces or 10, but we were sure that at 40 cents for a glass of Yuengling’s Premium, they constituted a bargain.
We made it inside four hotel bars and each was a treat. The hotel (Bryson points out that these are pronounced “HO-tel” and usually have the same name as the town you are in) is a holdover from the colonial and stagecoach days. What were once hotels and inns evolved into hotel bars although most ceased to offer lodging. Another hotel owner once explained to us that something in the Pennsylvania liquor laws after Prohibition encouraged bars to keep hotel as part of their name.
We ate lunch at the Kempton Hotel, passing on pickled quail eggs and the pig-stomach stew but enjoying local produce cooked to order in the kitchen. Potato dressing on the side was particularly impressive. The Kempton was built in 1874 to house the workers building the Berks-Lehigh railroad. The bar and back bar are impressive and we liked the Top Dawg bowling game, but the real reason we were there is on the ceilings. A mural with local history is painted on the ceiling of the bar, one with American history is on the dining room ceiling, and the Life of Christ is on the ceiling of the back banquet room.
At the Virginville Hotel (great carved back bar and really nice butterfly lights), we resisted the temptation to buy a T-shirt, while at the Bowers Hotel we admired the history. It was built in 1820 and run for 54 years by Calista “Sis” Mathias, when it attracted a “drinking crowd.” We were only a little sad that we couldn’t try the pickled Brussels sprouts that Suds and Dregs had written about.
Then there was the Stony Run Hotel. The beer menu was venturesome by country hotel bar standards–Sam Adams Boston Lager in the bottle, Murphy’s and Guinness in cans. We stuck with Schmidt’s, a long lost Pennsylvania beer now contract brewed. A Stegmaier promotional bottle opener from the 1940s was used to open the bottles. The new owners found a box of these when they bought the place in 1998, and they had the good sense to start using them.
The Stony Run belongs on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1988, Suds and Dregs wrote, “Excuse us while we take you back a few decades. Snyder’s has been run by the same family for over 100 years. The exterior features a horse rail, hug porch and wrought iron fence. The pristine interior has a magnificent back bar, Art Deco front bar, brass cash register, …an exemplary stamped tin ceiling and artifacts galore. The unheated men’s room is still outside by the barn. If Snyder’s doesn’t bring a nostalgic tear to your eye, you’re reading the wrong book.”
It no longer belongs to the same family, and now there’s indoor plumbing. But you can still visit the outhouse in back. That can be as intoxicating as any beer you might order.
It’s easier to find places serving characterful beer than when Suds and Dregs were on the prowl 25 years ago, but it’s getting tougher to find characterful places to enjoy that beer. Bryson devotes a short chapter in his book to hotel bars and gives directions to some, but writes that you don’t have to stop with that list: “…you can try any small town along the Appalachian front, and chances are you’ll find a hotel. Enjoy the thrill of discovery…. It’s out there, waiting. Go and find it.”