All through the Dark Ages of medieval Europe,monks and nuns kept the spark of learning alive. They copied scriptures, practiced medicine, composed music — and brewed beer.
Back in the 12th century, the Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen wrote about the health benefits of hops and, even today, you still can visit monasteries in Belgium, Germany and the Czech Republic that have earned a reputation for crafting high-quality beverages from fermented grains.
So it seems fitting that two local entrepreneurs have found a new home for the Breaker Brewing Co. in what was once a four-room schoolhouse connected to the former St. Joseph’s Monastery in Wilkes-Barre Township.
“To me, the atmosphere is great, so quiet and peaceful. We plan to keep it that way,” said Mark Lehman, 41, of Hanover Township.
“You get a great view of the Valley,” added Chris Miller, 39, of Plains Township, noting the location high on the steep hill of Northampton Street.
The two men, friends since their high-school days when they worked together stocking shelves and rounding up shopping carts at the former Sunshine Market, expect to open Breaker Brewing Co. for tours and tastings as early as next week.
“We’ll announce (the official opening) on our Facebook page,” Miller said.
For those who aren’t into Facebook, Lehman offered a phone number: 570-392-9078.
The hours they’ll be open could well be 4 to 8 p.m. on weekdays, longer on weekends, Miller said.
When you visit, you’ll find the classroom chalkboards still intact, except for the one in the tap room where a row of gleaming faucets has been attached to the wall. Avid do-it-yourselfers Miller and Lehman handled that task themselves, along with building a bar from recycled oak pews, pouring concrete, installing new bathrooms and building their own brewing equipment.
“This is the kind of wood you can use for wainscoting. You can get it at Lowe’s,” Lehman said, pointing out the material they used to dress up the outside of the stainless-steel “kettle” and “mash tun” that are part of the beer-making process.
They did have help from friends and relatives, including Lehman’s father-in-law, Tom Fender, who loaned his carpentry skills and Miller’s father, Art, who contributed old-time photographs of miners and tonnage reports that reflect the area’s anthracite heritage.
“This is a favorite of everyone who comes in,” Miller said, pointing to a sepia-toned picture behind the bar that shows an official pouring alcohol on the ground during Prohibition.
Nowadays, most people would be reluctant to waste the craft beers that Lehman and Miller consider a labor of love — adding such touches as freshly ground coriander or homemade strawberry extract to enhance the flavor.
Their most popular brew is Lunch Pail Ale, which Miller describes as “a hoppy pale ale, golden in color, with a nice floral aroma.” Other beers they offer year-round include Olde King Coal Stout, 5 Whistle Wheat and Malty Maguires.
Seasonally, they offer a “chocolatey” beer named Black Mariah in honor of the horse-drawn vehicle that sometimes was used as an ambulance or hearse; Quiet Canary, which honors the caged birds who died as an indicator of toxic fumes in the mines, and a Christmas-time beer called Belsnickler in honor of “the sinister Santa” who carried a switch for naughty children.
Lehman admitted he learned that bit of folklore only recently, because his grandmother used the term in a different way.
“When we went out Halloweening, she’d say, ‘Oh, you’re going out Belsnickling,’ ” he remembered with a laugh.
For the past few years Lehman and Miller have brewed beer in Miller’s Plains Township garage, eventually supplying 25 taverns from Nanticoke to Nicholson. As they outgrew the space, they looked for a new location.
The roughly 2.5-acre property on Northampton Street, which includes the former rectory, church and convent as well as the school, seemed ideal.
“We keep hearing from people who used to go to school here,” Lehman said. “They’re excited about what we’re doing.”
“Congratulations on breathing life into an iconic township structure which was probably destined for the wrecking ball,” a well-wisher named Jim posted on the brewing company’s Facebook page.
“I can’t believe the original lights and blackboards are still there,” wrote a 1968 alum named Kathryn whose father graduated from the grade school in 1919, back when “the boys wore knickers.”
“Visiting W-B in late June for a high-school reunion,” a California man named Bill chimed in. “Want to see progress in your refurbishing the old school building. I went there in the 1950s. May I visit?”
Much sooner than that, the building will be open and welcoming the curious and the thirsty. Some could be friends from the neighborhood, and some might be people who otherwise would never have a reason to stop in the residential sections of Wilkes-Barre Township.
“We’d like to see this place become a destination,” Miller said.