Up on the south slope of Mount Nittany, back a single-lane road into the woods, I found a leafy oasis: Mount Nittany Vineyard and Winery, one of the first wineries in Centre County.
In downtown Philipsburg, the historic and restored Hoffer Building is a link to the town’s prosperous past, and the home of tiny but bold The Dead Canary Brewing Company, less than a year old.
Over in Penns Valley, little Millheim features both a winery and a brewery, each of which also offers the other’s products, a short minute’s walk apart (believe me, I’ve had ample opportunities to time it): Pisano Winery and Elk Creek Café + Aleworks.
Happy Valley is liberally sprinkled with wineries and breweries. Some of them are right in State College, some are in our singular small towns, and some are literally out in the woods. You can take an afternoon or a weekend to see a few, or space them out over the next few months and catch them all; there’s plenty to see and do and taste. Grab your phone, fire up Google Maps, and let’s go exploring.
We’ll start in State College. Otto’s Pub and Brewery is a Centre County staple, with over 20 years of brewing and cooking. You’re probably familiar with their beers like Red Mo and Black Mo, Apricot Wheat, and the bountiful Double D, but don’t think you’ve tried it all. There are new beers at Otto’s all the time (and weekly menu specials, too). Don’t forget their traditional cask ales – an authentic beer experience that’s getting harder to find – their Keewaydin ciders, and the spirits made at their distillery across the parking lot, Barrel 21.
Antifragile Brewing, in the heart of State College on funky little Calder Way, is a journey within four walls. Their tiny 1-barrel brewhouse means there are always new beers rotating through; brewer Paulo Nami likes trying new things. They also have a hard kombuchery setup, and you can try those as well. I loved the beers at Antifragile, and their Pennsylvania spirits cocktail program is wonderfully inventive.
If you get out on the suburban rim of town, west of The Waffle Shop West, and wind through the Foxpointe subdivision, you come to a sudden wilderness of vines. You’ve found Happy Valley Vineyard and Winery, ten acres and fourteen varieties of grapes. They offer a full range, from dry reds to happy, fruity wines like the Traminette, made from a Gewürztraminer-related grape that does well in this region. But it’s the friendliness that people come back for, and many people who’ve found this place did so through word of mouth.
All the way over on the other side of town, directly opposite Happy Valley winery, is the Happy Valley Brewing Company: oddly appropriate. This Happy Valley is within shouting distance of the Rt. 322 expressway, but you quickly forget that when you walk inside – either upstairs in the main dining room and bar, or downstairs in the darker, relaxing lounge. If you’re feeling peckish, the short rib nachos are the way to go: spicy, snappy, and richly beefy.
Right next door to Happy Valley Brewing Company is the State College outpost of Meadville-based Voodoo Brewing, tucked in beside Slab Cabin Run. It’s in the same building as the Maine Bay & Berry seafood market, and there’s a separate counter in the taproom where you can order up their tasty, fishy treats. I like to spend a Sunday on the balcony, looking at the creek and sipping Voodoo Love Child, a sweet, 9.5% ABV Belgian-type ale aged on cherries, raspberries, and passion fruit. Guilty pleasures can be the best.
There are two places you need to find out by Boalsburg. University Winery is actually a bit farther, out the Shingletown Road. Drive back their long lane, and you’ll see inviting outdoor tables, or walk inside the lofty tasting room to enjoy the wines and a great view of the valley. Last year I was told to try their excellent sparkling wines, and that’s been great advice: please consider it passed along, as well as a note that every day is a good day for sparkling wines!
Newcomer Boal City Brewing is right across from the Pennsylvania Military Museum. It’s only a few months old, but manager Dave Staab helmed Zeno’s Pub for decades, and brewer Mike Smith is an experienced local guy who’s honed his craft away and here. It all shows: Boal City hit the ground running with a small but growing set of beers and an excellent service program. Enjoy their exceptional outdoor areas while the weather’s good; there’s a growing program of food trucks and live music.
Mount Nittany looms to the northeast of Boalsburg, and high up the southern slope is Mount Nittany Vineyard and Winery. Finding the winery would be a real adventure, but plentiful signs make it a fun hunt, with a table under the trees by the pond as the goal. What are you drinking? Tailgate White and Tailgate Red have been best-sellers since the early days of the 1990s; why mess with success?
Keep your explorer’s compass pointed in that same northeasterly direction and you’ll find Millheim. Square in the center of town at the traffic light is Elk Creek Café + Aleworks, home to classic beers, locally-sourced food, and outstanding live music since 2007. Walk in, and feel like a regular immediately. This is my local spot, and my wife and I moved to Centre County because of it. Not kidding. You owe yourself a visit.
As I said earlier, it’s only a minute from Elk Creek to Pisano Winery, a shady oasis by the flowing waters of the Millheim Race. Andy Pisano and his family make an array of wines that range from sweet peach and blueberry to Italian classics like their Fuhgeddaboudit Montepulciano and my favorite, the Nostalgic Hardware Nebbiolo. They also have a solid live music program. (One more tip: the Millheim Hotel has a wine shop with over a dozen Pennsylvania wineries represented!)
Feeling extra adventurous? Take the Millheim-Siglerville Pike back toward Poe Valley State Park – be warned, it’s not paved, but the scenery is spectacular – and you’re on the way to Seven Mountains Wine Cellars. Their forest lodge tasting room is a fantastic experience, where you and your friends can sprawl out like the lumber tycoons of old, drinking wine and spinning yarns.
Come down off the ridge and back over Nittany Mountain through Pleasant Gap, and you’ll wind along the rippling curves of the Logan Branch to Axemann Brewery. Axemann is a huge place, sprawling through the former Cerro Metal Factory, big enough for indoor cornhole courts. The beers are similarly heroic: liter mugs are available, and there’s a liter special on Wednesdays. Prost, my friends!
Slip through Bellefonte’s Victorian streets to the east on Rt. 550, and even though it’s not Sherwood Forest, there’s Robin Hood! Robin Hood Brewing, that is, where Caleb Peachey is brewing up fun beers full of fruit, coffee, vanilla, chocolate, all the stuff that makes old beer geeks shudder and the rest of us smile. (Don’t worry, he also makes a fine pilsner and IPA.) Be sure to come hungry; the menu is extensive and well-executed.
Farther out Rt. 550 is another brewery that I have yet to explore myself. Blonde Bistro Brew Works is out in Zion, and just opened earlier this year in what was The Old Farmhouse brewpub. I enjoyed Ciara Semack’s food when she ran the Blonde Bistro at Axemann Brewery, and I hope to try her beer soon; maybe I’ll see you there.
One more to go, and it’s definitely the farthest out. The Dead Canary in Philipsburg is literally two blocks from Moshannon Creek, the northwestern border of Centre County. All the beer is made in a tiny brewery, sitting right there in the eccentrically decorated taproom. But Brent Baskin made the transition from homebrewer to pub brewer much better than most. This is beer that’s worth the trip; try it, and you’ll agree.
That’s the state of beer and wine in Happy Valley, Pennsylvania. There are plenty of good times and good drinks to discover, and the splendor of our valleys and ridges, the tree-lined streets of our towns, make getting there just as enjoyable. Get a driver and start exploring.
About Lew Bryson
My new podcast, "Seen Through A Glass," about good drinks and food in central Pennsylvania has launched! Download it today!
Watch "Whiskey Master Class Tastings, illustrative flights of whiskey (other spirits and beers, too) tasted with whiskey historian Sam Komlenic.
Author of Whiskey Master Class, Harvard Common Press (2/18/2020 release, and now available in Audiobook format, read by myself!);
Another great whiskey book I wrote: Tasting Whiskey, Storey Publishing.
Columnist for Craft Spirits Magazine.