There has never been a better time to be a beer drinker than right now. With more than 7,300 craft breweries located across the United States, it be a little overwhelming to choose a drink but there are plenty of under the radar gems out there. Sometimes, these places can be found in major metropolitan areas and sometimes they can be found in places like Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
In a town with a population of almost 30,000, Williamsport is considered somewhat of a beer desert, with just a couple of local offerings around the area. That landscape changed almost a year ago, when New Trail Brewing Company opened shop in the town known mostly as the site of the Little League World Series. Sure, New Trail might only distribute to the Pennsylvania area but what the company is currently brewing definitely deserves some recognition.
Steering aware from the term “New England IPA,” owner and head brewer Mike LaRosa and his crew at New Trail are making some top-notch hazy India Pale Ales and Double India Pale Ales, with a rotating door of varying limited releases. It should come as no surprise to those who know LaRosa, given his extensive brewing background for almost a decade – working with some of the region’s biggest names when it comes to craft beer.
After two recent trips to the brewery, a dog-friendly food truck hangout with a bonfire and games, I reached out and spoke to LaRosa to get more insight on just what his company is doing on the hazy IPA front and to learn more about the special beer New Trail has planned for its first anniversary. New Trail might just be one of the best kept secrets as far as Pennsylvania breweries go – and LaRosa is cool with that.
Dirtfork: First off, congratulations on the first anniversary.
Mike LaRosa: Aw, thanks man.
Dirtfork: That’s great stuff. I want to start out with how your idea for the brewery initially came about.
LaRosa: The idea for why we started the brewery?
Dirtfork: Yeah, what kind of sparked it? I know you worked with other breweries in the past such as Kane [Brewing Company] and Tired Hands [Brewing Company], so what kind of propelled you to start your own brewery?
LaRosa: So, when I left Tired Hands, I started a brewery consulting company. I was helping breweries start-up — everything, you know, from layout design, equipment selection, recipe development, things like that. I met my partners, David [Hertwig] and Charles [Imbro], through that process and they were restaurateurs in the north central Pennsylvania area that owned four or five nightclubs and four or five restaurants and I had been working with them for about a year and we realized we worked well together and he offered me a partnership in the business.
Dirtfork: Is that how you made your way from the Philadelphia area, working with like Manayunk [Brewing Company] and Tired Hands, to kind of up towards Williamsport?
LaRosa: I moved from Philadelphia to Williamsport for this position — being a partner in this operation. I’m from Downingtown originally, so I was working in that region even before I grew up. I went to school at Albright College in Reading and I was in college and looking for an internship, getting kind of hands-on, and I thought brewing at home was kind of fun, so maybe I could get in with a brewery, so I found one at the Rock Bottom Brewery in King of Prussia, under Brian McConell who now owns the Sterling Pig Brewery, and I worked with him for a couple of years and then I went from there to Head Brewer at Saucony Creek [Brewing Company], from there I went to Manayunk, then I landed the job at Kane and from there I got head-hunted to open Tired Hands.
Dirtfork: You definitely worked at some heavy-hitting breweries, what kind of knowledge did you gain at those places and did it help to eventually kind of evolve your own brand?
LaRosa: Sure. You know, working with Brian at Rock Bottom — I owe everything to Brian. He gave me a really solid foundation in brewing and the brewing practices — being able to crucially think and problem solve. When I left Brian, it wasn’t because I wanted to leave, it was just because there was no upward mobility at that location. It was like a one and a half person operation. So, when I presented the opportunity to be a head brewer at Saucony Creek, you know, you’re coming into a ground floor start-up in 2012 or 2013 and the industry isn’t what it is today. At the time, it might’ve been 3,000 brewers in the country. So, it was just a lot of trial and error. You work with different processes and develop your own style. Working with a brewery like Kane, and a brewer like Michael Kane, is extremely rewarding. He provided me with a lot of help, a lot of business knowledge and was able to teach me how to slow down and think critically about how to properly run a business. You know, I didn’t really know it at the time because I was just really running the brewing operation — I learned a lot. And then Tired Hands was just explosive. We started, when I came on board there, they were about 50 percent of the way through the build-up process at the fermentaria, so having been a part of a handful of other operations and knowing how to fix simple mistakes on design and layout, I didn’t really help with that. But, at the time, it was the forefront of making hazy IPAs, so it was certainly interesting for me to learn the Tired Hands technique and kind of decide what I did and didn’t like about technique and kind of develop my own style here, for New Trail.
Dirtfork: You mentioned the hazy IPAs. New Trail makes some top-level hazy IPAs — I would put them up against anything I’ve had in the northeast.
LaRosa: Thanks man, I appreciate it!
Dirtfork: Do you think it’s New Trail’s specialty and something you kind of picked up, especially from Tired Hands, to make your own?
LaRosa: That’s a tough question. The time that I really got interested in brewing, when I was working with Brian, I was interested in low bitterness and higher aromatic beers. I seem to remember a beer called Backdraft there, which was a clear IPA which was all we really did at the time, but it was clear I think with Amarillo [hops], I’d have to really dig through notes to find it, but that was when I first became interested in what’s now become the hazy IPA style. I think what distinguishes my IPAs from some of the other IPAs in the area, whether it be hazy IPAs in the area, is that I typically don’t call them “New England” because I don’t believe that they’re the same. New England in itself really demands that there’s no bitterness and I want the balance where I want them to have a little bit of bitterness — it’s not like a ton of bitterness but it’s not just haze juice.
Dirtfork: Yeah, the typical New England IPA seems like it’s a little more on the juicy side, like you hear the term “juicebomb” thrown around a lot and it seems like that’s more of the way that style is going.
LaRosa: Right. And I don’t necessarily identify that way with my IPAs.
Dirtfork: New Trail makes a new hazy every couple of weeks it seems like — there’s always a new one. What is it about toying with that category that you enjoy? Is that what you’re drawn to and you like to drink as well?
LaRosa: Personally, we obviously make a ton of it but I drink pilsners — a lot of pilsners. If you can brew a good pilsner without flaws, that’s crisp and clean — what interests me about these IPAs though is the limitless options of hops combinations. I’m trying to identify what ratio of certain poundage of hops together can create very unique flavors.
Dirtfork: The first one I was introduced to was Goggles. That and Worlds End are definitely the benchmarks for me. Will those beers come back down the road — I know you are building limited releases and know that you’ve been going for about a year, so will drinkers get to see these beers come back down the road? Or is it, ‘That’s done and let’s move to what’s next?’
LaRosa: I mean, it’s kind of a process thing. That is my intention, to have those beers come back but, you know, not every quarter or every six months — you might see them about once a year. We’ll be doing a beer in July called Shades which is sort of like a joke about Goggles. It’ll be the basic Goggles recipe. Goggles is Galaxy [hops] and Citra [hops] and Shade will be Citra and Galaxy— the ratios will be a little different.
Dirtfork: With consistently toying with the IPA, do you like to experiment and focus as much on other categories, as far as limited releases?
LaRosa: Yeah. My intention is — let me give you a little bit of background on where we are at right now. As of today, or as of six months ago, I’m at 100 percent capacity in my brewhouse. I run a 15-barrel brewhouse with four 15-barrel fermenters and four 30-barrel fermenters. On April 19, I’m getting four 60-barrel fermenters so that’s effectively over doubling my capacity capabilities here. We haven’t had a lot of time or energy to be able to experiment outside of the very hazy IPAs just because I don’t have the space.
Dirtfork: But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because you want that signature beer that people are going to be drawn to — even if it’s something that’s limited, like your hazys. They all sort of have a similar vibe to them. You want to get that beer that gets people in the door, that gets them excited.
LaRosa: Well also, we created these partnerships with our wholesalers and we intend to honor them, right? So, we don’t want to overextend ourselves. If I’m promising my State College wholesaler x-amount of cases, I intend to deliver them. I have to make sure that my partners are being taken care of. I’d like to extend my barrel program and brew a little more dark beers. We’ve been toying with the possibility of, down the road, starting a sour program or a wild ale program. This is all just conceptual talk.
Dirtfork: Do you have anything in your head that you want to do that’s a little more innovative or outside the box? I spoke to Cape May’s brewer recently and they just made what they call a “Shake IPA” and it’s named after Krusty from The Simpsons but they wanted to make it without any lactose. It’s something that’s just a little bit off the map but it’s not that much different. Are you guys looking to do anything like that — as far as once you expand?
LaRosa: Yeah, I mean like I said, I’d like to explore mix-fermentation here and explore a larger bourbon barrel-aged program. I’m certainly interested in looking at other segments working craft, whether it’s trying to figure out what hard seltzer is or looking in to natural wine — that certainly interests me. I can’t say definitively that’s something that we’re going to do here though, you know.
Dirtfork: For your anniversary, New Trail is releasing First Orbit, which is a hazy triple IPA. What kind of sets that apart from previous hazy efforts? What can drinkers expect from this anniversary beer?
LaRosa: We picked it up by using Galaxy, Citra and Sabro [hops] — kind of the dry hops of the beer. So, we can expect that juicy and hazy vibe from it to be full mouthfeel. It’s going to be extremely tropical — the Galaxy that I’ve been finding are really like white peach heavy, which I really like. The Sabro has been a newer experiment for me. I just started using it in my last beer, Rained Out and it’s got this great like pineapple-coconut thing going.
Dirtfork: That’s interesting.
LaRosa: Yeah, I hadn’t really ever found that flavor in a hop before. I’m just hoping that it’s super tropical. It’s coming in somewhere around 10 and a half, 11 percent [alcohol by volume].
Dirtfork: Is that going to be something only found at the brewery or will it also be hitting distribution shelves?
LaRosa: No, our intention is just to keep it at the brewery.
Dirtfork: That’s cool. You are also doing a couple of collaborations. I know when I was there the one time you had a guest tap with Foreign Objects [Beer Company], which I think it is pretty awesome that you’re introducing people to other beer. What would be a dream collaboration for you, like if you could pair up with a brewery, what brewery would you like to pair up with, on something together?
LaRosa: That’s a hard question.
Dirtfork: I know, it’d be like choosing your favorite child.
LaRosa: Yeah, you know what, like I said, I’m a big lager guy so working with local people that make some of my favorite pilsners would be kind of cool. I like Prima Pils or Braumeister Pils from Victory [Brewing Company]…
Dirtfork: Those are like the gold standard.
LaRosa: For me, if I could drink Braumeister every day, I would. It’s not available up here. But yeah, working with that would be cool. It would be neat to work with some of the guys up in New England. I’ve been in the industry for about 10 years now, so it’s sort of just like working my way through the roladex of friends — like we just collabed with Almanac [Beer Company] in January out in San Francisco. Phil [Emerson] is a buddy of mine from a few years ago and we brewed an IPA based that was aged and fermented in one of the scooters that just had second use strawberries and tangerines in it. It developed a mixed fermentation character as it got there. We’re going to brew the same recipe up here as a hazy IPA and that’ll be available, mid-May, I guess is when we’re scheduled to get that.
Dirtfork: It’s interesting where it’s going and how people aren’t satisfied with the IPA. They’re looking for any kind of tweak or anything they can do with it — and I’m all for trying new stuff.
LaRosa: Yeah. We have a couple of collaborations coming up that are for the anniversary, a collaboration with Foreign Objects which we’d done last August called Heliotropia Bound, it’s a Citric IPA. It’s light and fruity — were re-releasing that for the anniversary. And I have a collab with Imprint [Beer Company] coming up for the anniversary as well called Something Deep And Meaningful, it’s a hazy DIPA that uses either Rakau [hops] or Citra, I’d have to go back and look at the recipe, to be totally honest (laughs). We have so many IPAs it’s hard to keep track sometimes, which hops go with which beer.
Dirtfork: New Trail was the first brewery of its kind in Williamsport. From your vantage point, how has the craft beer movement grown in smaller-tier cities?
LaRosa: It’s a little different up here, right? The population density and socioeconomic are totally different than being in a tier-one city like Philadelphia or Boston, you know. If I were to release a beer, down there, in cans, in four-packs, you’ll have a line out the door just from the sheer volume of people but, up here, the population density is like a tenth of the size — Williamsport might have 30,000 people. To get people to come is a lot different. For us, we’ve found great success in developing a pretty regular crowd out here that comes, they drink their beer, they get their four-pack and they get out of here. It requires us to wholesale. We’re not a tasting room only brewery. Our intention was never to be a tasting room only brewery but I’d say that’s one of the largest differences between the culture up here and major metropolitan areas.
Dirtfork: Word of mouth, especially for a brewery of your size, is definitely key. You make stuff that’s good, so people try it and you’re hoping that they tell others, and they tell others, and with the power of social media, it just kind of snowballs and continues from there.
LaRosa: True. That’s our intention. We’re not looking to be the next, you know, 50,000 barrel a year brewery. I think we’d be comfortable making 10,000 to 15,000 barrels a year and doing cool stuff and making cool IPAs and experimenting with other stuff — and just enjoying life. It’s such a beautiful area and there’s so much to do — hiking, kayaking.
Dirtfork: Do you have plans to enter any of your beers in the Great American Beer Festival?
LaRosa: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I have a few awards from GABF from previous breweries. I try to enter every year if I remember to, you know (laughs). That’s if I’m lucky enough to get one of the slots in the lottery. We entered last year and we made it through pretty well in the rounds and we advanced to the final round on a few beers. I’m happy to take a stab at it again.
Dirtfork: And it’s a nice little award to have on your wall — there’s no doubt about that.