Vintner to Brewer?

Times-Shamrock Writer

After making a name as a vintner, the owner of Nimble Hill Winery hopes to build a reputation as a brewer.

Gary Toczko expects to open Nimble Hill Brewery in Mehoopany early next year, uniting his passion for the cork and the keg under one brand. He and brewer Mike Simmons have produced small batches and shared them with local restaurants that are interested in tapping into the upstate brewery after it receives final state regulatory approval.

Simmons had long been a home brewer and worked at Lion Brewery in Wilkes-Barre.

Rich History

Toczko got the idea visiting Crown Valley Winery in Ste. Genevieve, Mo., which operates a brewery and a distillery. When he began researching the Endless Mountains’ history of brewing, he found the region was not only home to several breweries before Prohibition, but also a sizeable hop industry. The borough of Hop Bottom, for example, earned its name as a center of hop production.

Prohibition and blight ended hop cultivation, Toczko said. But just as new winegrape varieties improved the prospects for the wine industry, improved hop varieties such as Cascade and Centennial have made hop cultivation economically viable. He planted several acres last year and plans to plant more. Because of the growing demand for beer, the world is in the midst of a hop shortage. Toczko met with farmers who exited low-margin dairy business thanks to lucrative gas leases. They want to keep themselves busy and their land productive, and Toczko thinks hops may be an option. Nimble Hill is trying to rekindle an industry that is part of the region’s heritage.

Bar, Restaurant Sales

“The Northeast used to be a major hop-producing area,” he said. “Why not get into a business that is local, promotes agritourism and delivers an artisinal product?”

The brewery will initially market a pale ale, wheat beer, porter and seasonal beers in kegs and 22-ounce bottles, which can be run on the winery’s bottling line. The brewery is contemplating 12-ounce bottles. There won’t be a tasting room, or a brew pub. Initial sales will be to bars and restaurants.

“We have a good product, but a main sales proposition is that it is local,” he said. “When we call on a place, we have the winemaker, the brewmaster, and the owner offering local products.”

The brewery will grow slowly and judiciously, Toczko said. The brewery will spend its first year or two in Toczko’s garage, just as the winery began in 2006. A brewery building is on the drawing board.

The effort is more visible in the vineyards. Visitors inquire about odd-looking grapes, surprised to learn they are hops, which climb on trellises similar to grapevines. The winery and brewery are already complementing each other. Winemaker Kevin Durland and Simmons work closely with each other.

Nimble Hill may be the first combined winery-brewery combo among the state’s 130-plus wineries. The state has winery/cideries and winery/distilleries, said Jennifer Eckinger, executive director of the Pennsylvania Winery Association, but so far wineries’ plans to expand from grapes to grain are just that – plans.

“This represents an exciting way to promote drinking local to a new level,” she said. “Local beer provides an entry to drinking local wine. There is no question local brewers and wineries are allies in this effort.”

That’s a good strategy, said Lew Bryson, author of the book “Pennsylvania Breweries.” People want locally made products, and particularly beer, like never before.

“Most people are interested in a good beer from someplace within an hour or two hours drive,” he said. “And if a consumer can say they know the people personally – it’s a big thing.”


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