By Beverly Molnar
Photo: Antifragile Brewing Co.
When you think of “craft beer towns,” you might think of Asheville, North Carolina, which was first named Beer City USA in 2009, or Burlington, Vermont, which holds the record for the highest number of breweries per capita. But brewers in Happy Valley aim to change that. Over the past several decades, Happy Valley has steadily been growing its brew scene, from Happy Valley’s longest-operating brew pub, Otto’s Pub, to cult favorite Elk Creek Cafe + Aleworks, and a growing list that includes Happy Valley Brewing, Robin Hood Brewing and Axemann Brewery. Meet some of the area’s newest makers, and hear why they chose to set up shop here.
Antifragile Brewing Co. opened in downtown State College in 2022, with partners John Schaffer and Lisa Harpster at the helm. Both are Penn State alumni and Harpster is a Happy Valley native, and both left the area to pursue careers elsewhere for several years before returning. Before launching Antifragile, Schaffer and Harpster were already entrepreneurs, as the founders of another Happy Valley business, Moody Culture Kombucha.
According to Schaffer, they had “always been into craft beer,” and a lot of the same equipment and similar processes that go into fermenting beer is used in making kombucha. After a beer trip to Burlington, Vermont, in 2017, he said that they realized Happy Valley had “none of that here.” While craft beer is big throughout New England and in nearby Mid-Atlantic cities, like Philadelphia, they recognized a gap in the market in Happy Valley specifically. So, in 2019, they set out to create a destination brewery in downtown State College.
Schaffer found a brewer — Paulo Nami, an exchange student from Brazil — and took over a space previously occupied by a Colombian café. After giving a lot of thought to the business model, not wanting to be just a taproom, but also not wanting to offer extensive food offerings, he and Harpster opened Antifragile Brewing Co. post-pandemic. As for where they got the name, Schaffer said it came from the book “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
“The book changed the way I think about things,” said Schaffer. “[I] approached the brewery and business in an antifragile way, starting small and pivoting quickly. If that worked well, things would go well.”
Today, Antifragile attracts a mixture of downtown adults and the local, older community, with Schaffer saying the visitor mix is about 95% local adults and 5% students. The brewing company offers plenty of fresh beers, of course, but also fresh cocktails and live music events.
Photo: Voodoo Brewing Co.
Employee-owned Voodoo Brewing Co. opened a few years before Antifragile, in 2019. Unlike Antifragile, which started local and has stayed local (so far), Voodoo Brewing Co. is a craft beer company based in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and has five locations throughout the state, plus franchises in the state and beyond.
Still, Voodoo boasts State College roots in its own way. The general manager, Wes Day, is a graduate of Penn State and previously worked at other area breweries. He said he had already noticed an untapped market in Happy Valley for destination breweries, and felt that State College could do more to become a destination, “like Asheville, North Carolina, on a smaller scale.”
The brewery sits beneath Maine Bay & Berry, a foodie-favorite shop and restaurant with a focus on fresh seafood and New England products, and Voodoo has benefited from Maine Bay & Berry’s existing reputation and customer base. At first, CEO Matteo Rachocki said the team anticipated attracting more of the student population, but it didn’t turn out that way. Instead, their shared customer base is predominantly Penn State faculty, alumni and local families. Luckily, this outcome was in line with the brand’s goals.
“We want to cultivate an environment where everyone feels comfortable hanging out,” commented Rachocki, referencing “Cheers” and the effort to create an environment “where everybody knows your name.” “We want people to appreciate our efforts and support that by consistently coming back.”
Photo: Voodoo Brewing Co.
For the past three years, Voodoo Brewing Co. has shared awards with Maine Bay & Berry for some of the best area outdoor dining, thanks to its creekside seating, fire pits and a “rustic and reclaimed” aesthetic.
Happy Valley is known for a lot of things … Will it add “Craft Beer Destination” to the list?