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On Tap: For Holiday Travelers, There Was No Room at the Brewpubs

In the end, Yuengling lager was served. (Valley News - Chris Fleisher)

In the end, Yuengling lager was served. (Valley News - Chris Fleisher)

The day disappeared faster than we’d expected and, after nine long hours of traveling in the car, my wife Val and I were ready to stop for the night.

We were driving back from visiting family in Virginia for Christmas and the car was packed with gifts and luggage.

As our toddler stirred awake in the back seat, Val pulled out her phone and researched dinner options in Bethlehem, Pa., where we’d be staying for the evening. Dinner options, of course, must be restaurants with good beer lists. To our delight, this city of around 75,000 people seemed to be brimming with them.

Taverns, a brewpub, highly acclaimed beer stores and, be still my beating heart, a homebrew store.

After an exhausting trip, I couldn’t have been happier. Beer is the lens through which I examine a place, serving as a litmus test of taste. Is this the kind of city that enjoys gently hopped English ales or do locals seek out barleywines and barrel-aged sours? Would the menu at Bethlehem Brew Works, a brewpub in the center of the historic downtown, be a generic selection of pale ale, stout and a winter lager, or something more daring.

I wish I could tell you.

Not unlike Mary and Joseph two millenia before us, we were turned away at nearly every point.

As we might have expected, Bethlehem tends to pick up around the holidays. It is a Christmas destination, with every storefront trimmed in winter greenery and horse-drawn carriage rides circling city blocks.

Parking was every bit as frustrating as finding a space in Hanover on homecoming weekend. When we approached Bethlehem Brew Works, I could see around a dozen hungry people waiting for a table. The hostess said there was a 30- to 40-minute wait.

“It’s never like this,” she told us, almost apologetically.

Perhaps infused with a little leftover Christmas cheer, we resolved to stay and hold out for what seemed the best option for sampling local beer.

We made the most of the wait, or at least I did, and visited the homebrew shop downstairs. The place was chock full of a healthy supply of books, equipment, glassware, T-shirts and beer-making kits. A city with a store like this, I thought, has a healthy respect for beer.

“Healthy” could be applied literally, as on a nearby store window was a poster for the “Light Lager Jogger,” a 5-K run sponsored by Pennsylvania’s own Yuengling brewery, America’s oldest beer maker. Yuengling is best known for its “Traditional Lager,” a beer that is not exactly exciting by contemporary American craft beer standards. It is an amber colored malty beer that garners average reviews on beer rating websites, but nevertheless commands working class respect. Yuengling is the little brewery that could.

Yuengling’s lager was not the beer I wanted that night. I had higher ambitions. A glass of the brewpub’s bourbon barrel aged “Rude Elf” was what I was fantasizing about.

When we returned 45 minutes later, however, the wait had not shrunk at all. No one was leaving the restaurant, and so we ventured onward.

Rejection became a theme of the night. Later that evening, we’d visited Abe’s Cold Beer, an unpretentious bodega-like store far beyond the reaches of “cute Bethlehem.” It advertised an impressive selection of more than 500 beers, including Mad Elf, a seasonal release from the Troegs’ brewery in nearby Harrisburg. I’ve never been able to find it in Vermont or New Hampshire and this was my chance to pick some up before coming home.

Mad Elf was nowhere to be found inside. I approached the lanky clerk with the wispy goatee and disaffected look. Did they have any bottles left?

He leaned on the counter, refusing to pull his eyes away from the third-tier bowl game being shown on a small television hanging by the door. He shook his head “no.” Did he know where I could find some? His head rotated a quarter turn to look straight at me.

“No,” he said.

It was as though I were confronting some kind of desert mirage. Good beer in Bethlehem seemed right in front of us and yet beyond reach, an apparition.

As we searched for other restaurants, every establishment either had long waits or prohibitively expensive menus. Nearly an hour had passed since we’d first put in our names at Bethlehem Brew Works.

Then, as we trudged back toward the parking garage, a light burst through the darkness like a beacon of hope. A neon “pizza” sign hung in a lit window where I could see empty seats.

We didn’t care about beer at this point. We needed food and warmth, and we needed it right then.

The place was named Rosanna’s Restaurant. It was the kind of cozy family Italian joint where you go for cheap dinner and team celebrations for youth soccer. The owner’s 10-year-old son, who would be our only dinner companion for the night, sat at a nearby table and shoveled pasta and broccoli into his mouth. A lit Christmas tree and Santa display inside kept my son entertained while we ordered dinner.

In the cooler behind the counter, I could see bottles of beer. The brands were as unspectacular as you’d expect. But we were getting food, we were warm and there would be no more complaints.

And so, we sat down and talked with the young boy next to us while we ate our dinner. My wife and son tucked into plates of pasta with meatballs while I devoured a meatball parmesan sandwich. To drink, Val had red wine poured from a jug that had been chilling in the cooler. I drank a bottle of Yeungling’s Traditional Lager.

Val looked at me and grinned, pasta sauce dotting the corner of her purple lips.

“This is perfect,” she said.

Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at 603-272-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.