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Susquehanna Life

The Rusty Rail

May 26, 2015 09:04AM ● By Anne P. Smith

Located at the corner of Chestnut and Eighth Streets in the old Mifflinburg Body Works, later Yorktowne Cabinetry, it was recently my great pleasure to tour the new brew pub and restaurant with fellow board members from Mifflinburg Heritage and Revitalization Association, (MHRA). To say we were treated to a VIP tour by owner and idealist Paul John, would be the understatement of the year. We saw a journey through history, we listened to tales of childhoods raised in a father's business, we heard about loyalty to community and a vision for something that will transform the way we think of small business in our area for years to come. The attention to detail, the sense of purpose and the high ideals espoused by the man, who with his brother Eric had a dream and followed it to its rainbow's end was truly impressive. We met the head brewer, the manager, and the head line cook, we saw the kitchens, both of them! We saw twelve bathrooms, Paul is a bit of an aficionado when it comes to a comfy place to pee, change a diaper or take a shower, and you can accomplish that in all of them. We met builders and painters and a mural artist who has captured in oil, on a very grand scale, graphics from amazing photos of the early days of the “body works” as it was once called. We looked at several photographs of some of the original vehicles that were made in this beautiful old building that formerly employed hundreds of local craftsmen and women. The brothers John have found, purchased and restored several of them to museum quality and they all run. They will be on display upstairs in one of the large rooms available for anything you can imagine. What do they imagine? Weddings and banquets and parties for 200 or more guests, or smaller intimate gatherings in “the cage” a sort of man-cave that is an homage to Mifflinburg, to hard work, and to history. 

Everything in the entire building that could be saved, restored and refinished has been incorporated into the functional and beautiful design. From stone, to bricks, to lumber, the feeling you get wherever you look is that you are in something that was purposeful for many years and cried out for salvation. When they bought the building and put in one of their other businesses, Legacy Crafted Cabinets, a kitchen and bath showroom, Paul and Eric really didn’t know what to do with the massive (some 100,000 square feet) remainder of the building. It was not in good repair, it served no real purpose, but it spoke to Paul. So he took brother Eric, an avid home brewer on tours to several micro breweries near and far and proposed a similar idea. Agreed, they hired a seasoned brewer and began working in a small kitchen in the basement of the old factory. Soon they were producing tasty, drinkable beers that were selling well in several local establishments. Now they make and sell to 83 restaurants and bars in 33 counties across the state. Both the John brothers have hearts and minds for business, taking over the successful Ritz-Craft homes from their dad, and making it into a world class, multi-faceted enterprise, they have a history of seeing and living up to potential.

When you enter the Rusty Rail, named of course for the railroad which begins in their front yard, served the factory and is now a bike/walk trail, the first thing you notice is the scale; it is indescribably enormous. It smells right now of a combination, which should it be bottled would be the best cologne ever; freshly cut lumber and beer. They have already partnered with Jessica Grill owner of Mifflinburg's Pompeii Soap Company where a beer soap is in the making, but I do think a the woodsy cologne would sell too. The next thing we all noticed was the attention to every tiny detail, the lighting; perfect replicas of old tin factory lights, the stair railing comprising balustrades made from the links of the chain belt once used for running cabinets under the paint and lacquer sprayer. There are thousands of refinished bricks, massive beams and beautifully restored herringbone doors on heavy black sliders. All the screws in these huge wooden structures are square as they would have been 100 years ago. The bar area which will feature the four main craft beers being brewed right now, as well as many other seasonal ales, is front and center, leaving no doubt that this is why you are here. Beer. You’ll see beautiful floors, all original wherever possible and faithfully reproduced where that was not an option, stone work and metalwork, carpentry and glazing each being undertaken by the best in their field. We met a young brick mason who has been on the job site for 18 months and will be on the job another year perhaps, to finish. Then the hush falls on the tourist as you approach the viewing area and first set your eyes on the tanks, tall and shiny and imposing, they loom up from the depths of the lower floor and remind you that you are in a very serious brewery. The purpose here is to make and sell beer. Lots of beer. Paul told us they can currently bottle 24 beers a minute at one station and hope to triple that soon. They have marketing and delivery, trucking and tracking in place across the nation because of their “day job” as Paul likes to call it, the modular home business. He told us the restaurant is going to employ 40 local people, he has hired three chefs a maitre d’ and floor manager. There is a brew team and there will be an event manager. There is space for small bands or a Grateful Dead concert and sound systems to accommodate both. 

There are three levels currently in the almost-finished stage and more will be added. There is every amenity imaginable here but alas no industrial condos as I could envision clearly. The chairs and barstools are big and comfortable as are the other furnishings we saw, the fixtures exude a style which while undeniably manly, is aimed at reminding you through heft, where you are, where this building comes from and what it means to truly invest in something you believe in. Everywhere we turned we met smiling, enthusiastic workers who cannot wait to get this party started, they love their jobs. This old building holds a place in the hearts of many Mifflinburgers, my mother in-law was a secretary at Yorktowne and my husband swept the floors at Ritz-Craft during his last high school summer. At its peak the body works employed hundreds of local people who made good lives for themselves and their families. The sense of returning that pride and craftsmanship permeates the atmosphere when you listen to those who are bringing it back to life. It is indeed a sentimental journey.

Our tour ended of course in the tasting room where we sampled four great beers, my favorite being the dark, coffee flavored stout. Also enjoyed, a blonde ale, a pale ale and a hoppier IPA all highly drinkable and well balanced. The creaminess of the stout was made possible by the introduction of nitrogen gas into the process, don’t ask me how that is undertaken, but if you have a couple of hours, head brewer, Michele Spuesens or Mish as he is affectionately known, will bend your ear handily with the exacting course his beers take in the making. In all, a great couple of hours left each of us in desperate anticipation for the soft opening which is hoped for in July. Fully licensed, there will also be fine wine and hearty mixed drinks for those not as enamored of the beer experience. Overseen by Executive Chef, Matt Lambert, with assistance from Sous Chef, Tommy McCoy, the food menu will comprise locally grown, fresh food, meat and poultry as well as in-house artisan baked goods. Not a complicated or fussy menu with unpronounceable fare but traditional pub food, hand made by people who care what goes on your plate and comes out of their kitchen. I had a quick chat with the head line cook Taylor Bower who was present, she said she couldn’t wait to get into “her” dream kitchen. She is young, already has several years under her belt at another place I like to eat so my confidence in her rose incrementally. She typified all those we met, each of whom wore their Rusty Rail uniform or a logo shirt, despite there being no customers anywhere near.  They showed a hopeful enthusiasm which will translate to their work, providing a food and libation experience for us very soon. When asked what scared and what excited him the most, Paul John said he was terrified of letting people down, but that he wanted to do something really great for Mifflinburg, and what he looks forward to most, is the hope that it will grow, be successful and give his grandkids something to be proud of too. I don’t think he has much to worry about.

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