It was a rainy late autumn afternoon when I recently headed east across the PA border to Sprague Farm and Brew Works. My in-laws live in Erie, and Mom DeLuca had saved me a copy of a local magazine that brought Brian and Minnie Sprague’s barley, hop farm and brewery to my attention. I decided to make the drive to small-town Venango, Pennsylvania and check it out for myself. Arriving up the drive, the dramatic wooden sculptures were the first things that caught my attention. But not the last!
Brian and Minnie greeted me cheerfully and offered to show me around the place. A home brewer since he was 19 (roasting barley in his parents’ oven at home), Brian has been running the Sprague brewery since 2006, and opened the spacious refurbished century-old barn on the property as a brewpub in 2009. The most recent addition is a pavillion for parties–featuring the mast from the brig of the U.S. Niagara as the bar!
As we chatted over a few of Brian’s beers, he explained why he decided to plant barley, and turn the place into an estate brewery. “I’d already planted an acre of hops, and those were doing quite well. People around here don’t want to buy their beer from California–they want to support local farmers and reduce their carbon footprint. So we planted five acres of barley. And we roast it ourselves.” (With much better results than he got in his parents’ kitchen!) After tasting the special malt, I can say it’s clearly a labor of love, and it shows in the quality of the beers.
The brew Brian calls “La Ferme” or “the farm,” is made with his homegrown ingredients. It’s light and delicious, very refreshing and sessionable. Other offerings include the Ale Mary American Wheat, the Hellbender Porter, and Scotchtoberfest. However, if you start drinking some of Sprague’s higher alcohol beers, like the M.L.B. (rumored to stand for “Minnie Loves Brian”), you can always crash at the farmhouse on the property. Minnie explains with a smile, “It’s not a B&B because I don’t make breakfast. We call it a ‘Sleep & Leave.’ We get a lot of overnight guests.” You’ll share your quarters with a few farm cats, including a particularly cuddly orange guy named Kevin; and you may encounter a friendly ghost known as Mr. Worthington. He was burned out of the local hotel down the road.
Open from Thursday evening through Saturday, with a few Sunday events along the way, the Sprague Farm and Brew Works attracts mainly locals “within staggering distance,” but also visitors from Erie, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and college students from nearby Edinboro. But they’ve also had folks stop in from as far away as England and Korea.
The Spragues have 8 part-time employees, and live in a loft apartment over the brewery. The farm is their life–though Brian still keeps his full-time job with a local gas company as well. In his “spare” time, he’s the one carving up those gorgeous wooden sculptures with a chain saw.
The brewery will have produced about 500 barrels this year–in a small brew house with equipment he purchased from Weyerbacher. They currently have no plans to start bottling their beers, but they do sell it to local restaurants to serve on tap.
If you’re interested in making the trip out, a good time to visit would be the Friday after Thanksgiving, when they host “Man-Up Day” on the property. (Women are welcome!) They play horseshoes, cornhole (with 25 lb. bags–it IS man-up day), there’s live music and Brian will do some chainsaw carving. The fun gets started around 11 a.m. and ends…whenever. Sounds better than watching football or Black Friday shopping to me! I’m thinking that after we visit Mom in Erie on Turkey Day, a trip to Sprague Farm and Brew Works may be just the thing to get the holiday season off to a celebratory start.