It’s a new route, but the steps feel familiar: an abrupt highway exit, a few turns followed by a stretch of road that leaves the civil side of civilization behind. Then signs of industry, creeping suggestions that we might just be on the right track.
After visiting more than 60 breweries, the things that used to be exciting can become rote. What once felt like fun quirks of location or setup become tropes, items to check off a well-worn list. But as beer fans, we push through this brewery fatigue, confident that the next pleasant surprise – a major discovery to justify our ongoing exploration –is just around the corner.
One Saturday afternoon, that sense of adventure led my wife and I to take a day trip to Tired Hands Brewing in Aardmore, Pennsylvania.
Any seasoned US beer traveler can rattle off the most common types of locations for a brewery. Two prevailing variations: a nearly impossible-to-find oasis in the middle of an otherwise dour and seemingly empty industrial park, or a bustling destination in the middle of a small town that might have seen better days.
Tired Hands Brew Café, the brewery’s original location (the newer and larger Fermentaria is just a few blocks away) belongs to the latter category. Strolling the surrounding blocks in downtown Aardmore, we spot an actual, fully stocked, not-going-out-of-business video store, a presumably hip wine bar called “Local,” and signs that strike us as incredibly odd but are probably well understood or ignored by natives.
|One of Tired Hands’ signature beers, it defied my expectations right away. I know there can be huge variation in the style, but I tend to get locked into the mindset of expecting Saison Dupont every time: mid-level ABV, gently sweet, driven by yeast that turns it into the mild white wine of beer. Instead, SaisonHands is very light in color and body, almost see-through, with quite a bit of tartness up front. From there you get some hay and a slight funk, but not enough to prevent it from finishing light. I try to arrive at breweries fully hydrated, so I don’t chug the first beer, but that didn’t keep me from downing the sample in a few short minutes.|
|A stinging nettle saison, I expected it to be much more extreme than SaisonHands, but I found the reverse—that sting must disappear in the brewing process. This one was even cleaner than SaisonHands but very similar, with less tartness and a subtle peppery quality that probably comes from the nettle.|
The Tired Hands parking lot greets visitors with a mural whose theme I might summarize as “discovery,” though of what I’m not sure. The building feels old, converted from some noble prior use, with elements strategically retained to remind us of its past glory: an abbreviated stretch of red brick wall, an indoor window with a view onto nothing.
No space is wasted: enter through the front door and you’ll find the host station within arm’s reach, about 4 tables on the left, an L-shaped bar seating 15-20 straight ahead. Behind the bar, along with the expected collection of 8 tap handles, is the kitchen in its entirety – a small prep station with enough room for two cooks to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, slicing vegetables, pulling fresh fruit from a small cooler, and feeding sandwiches to a panini press. Beyond them is a steamy dishwashing station, the washer turning from the heat every minute or two to dribble bits of conversation to the patrons at the far end of the bar.
|The other flagship. With this one, an overarching identity starts to emerge—as with the saisons, it’s much paler than I expected from an APA, with a slight haze that’s more like freshly poured champagne than orange juice. The body is as light as an American pilsner, with a bitterness that skips across the tongue for just a few seconds before springing away. What’s left is a finish that manages to be both refreshing and gently dry, making it very easy to jump back in for the next sip.|
|Like Nowtro, if this wheat saison isn’t built directly on the SaisonHands recipe, it’s at least a very close cousin. Here, the wheat darkens the pour by just a few turns of the dial, also increasing the smoothness and weight in the mouth. The big difference here is the funk level –the hay that lurked at the edges of SaisonHands is now fully present. It’s not Brett-level, but the aroma and hint of leather on the tongue will definitely take you out of the taproom and into the barnyard.|
As at many local cafés, the proprietor seems to have taken full advantage of a sale on chalkboards. A partial inventory: there’s a chalkboard for the tap list, a chalkboard listing a limited series of specially fermented beers, a double chalkboard with today’s meats, cheeses, and food specials (one is a pickled root something-or-other), a mini chalkboard for today’s cask offering, which gets an X through it in blue chalk about 20 minutes after we arrive, an arguably superfluous chalkboard advertising growler fills, gift certificates, and t-shirts, and an inarguably superfluous chalkboard marked solely by an icon that my wife interprets as a declaration that the brewery is now “The Artist Formerly Known as Tired Hands.”
Up a twisting stairway, the entire scene is repeated, albeit with a bit more space and a full bar that doesn’t have to compete with food preparation.
Even at 1:30 PM, the space is warm, crowded, and noisy. Beyond the competing customer conversations, all of the employees (7-8 downstairs, about 3 more upstairs, with partial overlap) are talking completely in the open, and a soundtrack of vintage punk and metal bounces from wall to wall and clangs along the perimeter.
The bartender moves in a flurry, balancing precipitously on the right side of stressed. She corrects my pronunciation on 2 of the first 3 beers I order, so I shift to descriptions. With names like Nowtro, Jornetha, and Cheyina, I’m neither embarrassed by my mistakes nor confident of future success.
|My favorite sample, a ginger and lemon balm saison that departs more significantly from the others we tried. The color, body, and alcohol are more in line with my saison stereotypes, but the adjuncts offset both the slight heat and the single-note fruitiness that can render some lesser saisons one-dimensional. I downed the two flagships very quickly, but this one was worth savoring.|
|Residual Self-Image||Imperial IPA||8.8% ABV|
|We missed a special release of one of Tired Hands’ highly sought-after “Milkshake IPAs” just the night before (it sold out within about 4-5 hours), leaving us with the sole IPA of the day’s tasting, unanimously deemed the weakling of the bunch. It was by far the strongest, but that alcohol stagnated on the palate, without sufficient bitterness or complexity to mix it up. The Yuzu was certainly present, but unlike the adjuncts in other offerings, it sat on top of the alcohol without offering any surprises.|
Beers are offered as 4, 8, and 16-ounce pours, a choice I always say I want but never take advantage of. Staying true to form, my wife and I each order 3 4-ounce pours. They are ordered and arrive one at a time, as Tired Hands doesn’t do samplers or flights.
Between the noise, bustle, and close quarters, we move through the beers much more quickly than we normally would, me penning cramped notes on a notebook, both of us struggling to be heard over everything around us. No one hurries us, but we feel a bit harried, like volunteers with nothing to do at a busy event. After our three rounds, we decide to move on. We’ve traveled several hours for a very short experience, but we’re not excited for more of the same at the nearby Fermentaria.
As a compromise, we walk to the Tired Hands General Store next door.
Here, we discover the significance of that loud music and the depth of Tired Hands’ identity crisis. While the café felt like a hangout for small-town artisans, charcuterie lovers, and foragers of restoration hardware, the store looks like a metalhead’s dorm room. The dominant theme here is death, with depictions of skulls, reapers, and demons. One t-shirt shows what appears to be a mutated ram’s head and the words “Life is a Joke.”
|Purchased at the General Store, this big bottle pours pale gold. The nose is reminiscent of a low-alcohol oak-edged sour, with mown grass, freshly sliced lemon, and a bit of barnyard and lumber at the edges. Fresh from the bottle, the taste is not as sour as I expected, and the funk is also more subdued than the other saisons. There’s a hint of smokiness and weight from the oak, with a finish that’s among the driest I’ve ever experienced. My saliva seemed to evaporate in an instant, demanding another sip – no, gulp.|
With that, I could say our brewery visit (and my recap in this article) was complete, that I’ve covered all the key aspects. From my description to this point, you’d probably assume that this visit would do nothing to ease our brewery fatigue. And judging by the environment –too familiar, too much at war with itself –you’d probably be right.
But we’d be leaving out one thing: the beer.
Scan the descriptions littered throughout this article and you’ll find a series of small surprises: innovative adjuncts, well-used yeasts, and above all, an extremely light touch that betrays the brewer’s Belgian influences. For the most part, Tired Hands beers are clean, light, and dry, somehow gentler than the typical American brew. They are truly distinctive, not the stuff of an Anytown brewpub.
Yielding to constraints of site or location, breweries often try hard –too hard – to set themselves apart. We appreciate quality food, cool music, unusual art, but these attempts to be unique often yield strikingly similar results. In the end, there’s one surefire way for a brewery to distinguish itself, and it’s the reason it exists in the first place.
Come to Tired Hands –come to any brewery, fighting fatigue over superficial elements – for the beer.
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