What do I like to do when I have to burn vacation time? Why, rent a car, drive well over a thousand miles, visit some friends, and take in some brewpubs in areas remote and urban, of course!
One of the several Pennsylvania brewpubs I sought out (that you, Mr. Lander, for the recommendations!) is located in Bellefonte, a sleepy Victorian town just off the Interstate and near State College, home to the Penn State Nittany Lions.
The Gamble Mill dates from the 18th century. Though, like most wooden structures of a certain age, much has been rebuilt due to fire and wear, the building retains its charm both inside and out.
I was directed upstairs, on a narrow, claustrophobia-inducing staircase, to this rambling, rustic dining area. I arrived just before noon, and was one of the first diners of the day.
As it is indeed a brewpub, and I was indeed driving, I opted for the beer sampler. As seems to be tradition at small-town breweries, the beers had names tied to the area, and thus it was that I sampled the HB 48 Session Ale (HB 48 was a state bill that, once passed, allowed brewpubs like the Gamble Mill to exist), the J. Rose Pale Ale (Jeremy Rose is “an accomplished local jockey”), Victorian Secret raspberry wheat beer, the Brockerhoff Fest Beer (for the Brockerhoff Hotel, a local landmark dating from the Civil War era), and the Lit Wit Belgian ale (Bellefonte was the second municipality in the US to use electric streetlights). I hoped for a taste of all six beers on the menu, but alas, the Bush House Brown Ale was out, so I doubled up on the Fest.
Helpfully, a flip book was presented to explain each of the beers. To me — since you didn’t get one, here’s my take on the beers, in order:
– HB 48: Definitely the Budweiser substitute, very light on aroma, taste, and finish, but with a corny flavor likely from DMS, not from the flaked corn added (which is more to add alcohol without adding flavor, than any other reason).
– J. Rose: Easy-to-drink, mildly hoppy English-style pale ale, not overly bitter but clean, crisp, and lightly fruity. The best beer of the five.
– Victorian Secret: Yep, that’s raspberry! Not terribly sweet, so while it’s a definite “girl beer,” it isn’t cloying, but as an American-style wheat, the wheat part is almost an afterthought.
– Brockerhoff: Not an Oktoberfest, as it seems all the dark color and malt flavor can be attributed to caramel malt, not the festbier staple Munich malt (or Vienna malt) which would add a bready, cookie-dough sweetness to the beer. Not overhopped, at least, and certainly a drinkable beer.
– Lit Wit: Waaaaay too heavy a hand with the coriander. Instead of a refreshing, somewhat-complex Belgian wheat beer, I got a spiced beer with a twinge of Belgian-yeast character.
During the journey through my beer sampler, my lunch started to show up. First up, the clam chowder. Piping hot, the bowl ($4) was filled with potatoes and other vegetables among the clams, and…
… pancetta. Yes, that word on the menu caught my eye and rendered any internal discussion of other starters pointless. As expected, the creamy broth was on the salty side (which I like), but it was well-studded with chunks of clam. This was no ordinary chowder, and I think maybe I should have ordered three bowls of it.
I’m still not sure why I ordered the steak frites ($16), but I guess I just wasn’t feeling in a burger mood, and I won’t pay $14 for fish and chips. I think it was sirloin, but no mention was made of the cut. It was prepared rare, as I’d asked, and arrived warm and pre-sliced.
That would be a “burgundy sauce” and “tavern fries” adorning the plate. The sauce was a little sweet, but with enough salt to cut through that — similar to soy sauce. The steak, however expertly and nakedly prepared, just didn’t impart much flavor. Excellent fries, though, and the burgundy sauce proved an excellent dip.
While The Gamble Mill turned out to be somewhat hit-or-miss, its intangibles sold it for me. In addition to the beautiful old building, my server was friendly and fun; she only had a few tables to tend, but I felt she would have been as attentive in a packed house. The beer list varies in quality over the course of a year, so maybe the dead of winter showcases a better list, but the microbrewery side of things showed signs of high-quality brewing. If you aren’t a beer drinker, you can certainly “get by” here, but I think it’s better experienced if you’re open to drinking beer with your meal of choice. I say give it a look if you’re on the Interstate.