By: Nan McCreary
Tröegs Independent Brewing in Hershey, Pennsylvania, is not your ordinary brewery. Situated along a confluence of highways connecting seven million tourists annually to central Pennsylvania, the brewery’s location is a perfect model for generating traffic. But it’s not the locale that truly captivates the visitor, it’s what’s inside. Whether you’re in the 5000-square-foot tasting room enjoying one of Tröegs’ award-winning brews or exploring the menu at the Snack Bar for scratch-made food to complement your beer, you are actually immersed in the brewhouse, with views of open-air tanks, and a glass-lined self-guided tour path that cuts through the center of the facility and allows you to experience — firsthand — the entire beer-making process, from fermentation to bottling lines to barrel-aging. It’s clearly a place for the adventurous and the curious.
“We’re not a bar, and we’re not a pub,” said Chris Trogner, who co-founded the brewery in 1997 with his brother, John. “It’s a place where people can walk around and discover and learn. Our entire operation is on view, including the fermentation/filtration hall, packaging lines, an art gallery, a general store and our new Scratch Lab, where we experiment with new recipes. This is not just a place to drink beer, it’s where you can come and have a semi-immersive experience.”
The Tröegs story is one of extraordinary growth and innovation. The Trogner brothers, who were always inventing something new when they were young — from skateboard ramps to homemade cannons — reunited after leaving home and going their separate ways, only to discover that a craft brewery might be in their future. Chris was attending college in Colorado in the midst of the craft beer explosion, and John, at Chris’s urging, joined him in Boulder. John began taking brewing classes and working at Oasis Brewing Company, and Chris went to England to study English brewing techniques. The two then hatched a plan to return to their native central Pennsylvania and open a small brewery in Harrisburg. They decided to name it Tröegs, a combination of their last name with “kroeg,” the Flemish word for pub. John was 25 at the time, and Chris was 23.
Chris Trogner recalls rough patches during the brewery’s early days. “It was just my brother, John, and me,” Trogner told Beverage Master Magazine. “We started primarily as a packaging brewery, selling only bottles and kegs.” Their first pint sold was a Tröegs Pale Ale, and it helped get the little brewery off the ground. The first keg sold went to a Harrisburg restaurant shortly after the brewery opened.
Fast forward 25 years — the brewery just celebrated its anniversary in July— and Tröegs has changed dramatically since its humble beginnings. Despite early challenges, Tröegs managed to gather such a large fan base of family, friends and “kindred spirits” that they quickly outgrew their facility in Harrisburg. In 2011, they built a new 90,000-square foot brewery (three times the size of the original) in nearby Hershey. With the craft beer industry booming, the move opened up an entirely new realm of possibilities for the Trogners’ innovative spirit. “As the industry grew, we were able to grow with it,” Trogner remembered. “Each year, as we’d sell more beer, we’d reinvest in more equipment and hire more people.” Now, Tröegs boasts three brewhouses: a three-barrel brewhouse for experimental brewing, a 15-barrel brewhouse and a 100-barrel brewhouse, which the brewery uses for distribution. Annual production is 118,000 barrels. The brewery employs 250 people, with distribution in nine Mid-Atlantic states, plus Washington, D.C. “We look and feel a lot different than we did 25 years ago,” Trogner recalled, “but we’re still very much a family business. Because we’ve stayed true to our core values of independence and family ownership, we’ve kept the small-brewery DNA we all hold dear.”
Today, their production focuses on specialty and seasonal beers. Their signature beer, the Perpetual IPA, is the best-selling IPA in Pennsylvania and is brewed with six different hops. Other standard beers include Tröegenator Double Bock, brewed in the German tradition of malty, sweet beers; DreamWeaver Wheat, a German-style hefeweizen; Sunshine Pilsner, a classic German-style pilsner and Haze Charmer, a hazy pale ale. In June, Tröegs released a limited amount of one of its most loved beers, Nimble Giant, described by Trogner as a “big beer that goes down easy.” Nimble Giant is always rated “outstanding” by Beer Advocate and is a fan favorite on Untappd. Equally popular is the seasonal holiday beer, Mad Elf, a legendary ale made from five varieties of tree-ripened cherries. “We’re always adding new beers,” Trogner said. “We try to have something for everyone.”
In their never-ending quest for flavorful beers, the Trogners established the three-barrel Scratch Lab so that a dedicated team of tasters could meet weekly to test new flavors, equipment and brewing techniques. Beers are not given a name, but rather a number. Today, there are over 450 varieties in the Scratch Series, and in fact, many signature brews started in the scratch tanks. “We’re into getting to know the whys of our beers, where the flavors come from and how the process affects the flavor,” Trogner told Beverage Master Magazine. “We try around 100 new recipes a year. The recipes may not all become beers, but the experiments can make us more knowledgeable and help us become better brewers.” The Scratch Lab at Tröegs is on the self-guided tour and the Guided Production Tour (named in 2020 by readers of USA Today as the Best Brewery Tour in America). Here, visitors can have a ringside seat to see what the staff is doing and enjoy that same learning experience.
While the Trogners are always seeking innovation in the Scratch Beer Lab, they’re just as inventive in providing refreshments to their visitors. Soon after opening, they added a Snack Bar to offer foods as original and interesting as the beer. The menu ranges from soups to salads, sandwiches, sweets and even a kids’ menu, with the majority of food made from scratch using local ingredients. “We develop our Snack Bar menu items much like we do beer recipes with our Scratch Series,” Trogner said. “We’ve thought long and hard about not just what food pairs with our beer, but why. We’re not out to tell you what to eat, but to inspire you to create pairings that perfectly suit your own palate.” For those who want to try a new food and beer adventure, Tröegs offers regular beer dinners with local restaurants, complete with tasting notes and recommendations on what hops variety may pair well with fruit or cheese, for example. “It’s our way of constantly experimenting and moving forward,” Trogner stated.
Clearly, the Trogners’ desire to create is the heart and soul of their operation. Not only is this evident in the Scratch Beer Lab and the Snack Bar but also in a distinctive feature of the self-guided tour, the Art of Tröegs Gallery. “Artwork is important to us,” Trogner explained. “As brewers, we express our creativity with ingredients, tastes and flavors, but we enjoy what others are able to do, whether it’s making art with our bottle caps, labels and cans — anything that will give a sense of what’s in the bottle or the keg.” Every year Tröegs sponsors a contest and narrows the submissions down to the top two dozen for final judging. The grand prize artwork is featured in the gallery, and the winner receives a limited-release beer label created in honor of their artwork by Tröegs’ in-house artists. Over the years, entries have included a video game, a Smurfy miniature of the Hershey brewery, a multi-tiered cake, a hand-embroidered jean jacket and custom Tröegs sneakers.
While the Trogners are committed to providing visitors with a unique experience at their brewery, they also focus on remaining active in their local community. Every year, they participate in local activities, whether it’s a large, organized event like a mountain biking ride or a fly fishing contest, or a simple beer tasting set up by a local distributor. Every year, the brewery also donates to more than 150 nonprofits involved in animal advocacy, arts and culture, education, health services and more. Additionally, the brewery buys more than 225,000 pounds of local grain, honey and fruit for use in their beer and seasonal fruits and vegetables for their Snack Bar.
As Chris Trogner looks back on his 25 years in the craft brewing industry, he has witnessed many changes. “When we opened, there were fewer than 2,000 craft breweries in the country,” he said. “Today there are close to 10,000. There’s more innovation and more diversity. Now is one of the best times to be a beer drinker.” Trogner is equally optimistic about the future of Tröegs Independent Brewing. “We’re young and we have a lot of gas left in the tank. We’re making long-term investments to increase capacity and improve infrastructure to set us up for the next 25 years. And, with good geography — Baltimore, DC and Philly are only two hours away, Pittsburgh is three hours away— we’re right in the sweet spot, distribution-wise.”
Undoubtedly, the Trogner brothers will continue to be driven by adventure and a sense of curiosity. With creative brewers like them, it is indeed a good time to be a beer drinker.
For more information on Tröegs Independent Brewing, visit www.troegs.com