The Who Behind the Brew: Olde Bedford Brewing Company

Although so many towns and communities in Pennsylvania have documented brewing histories, some absolutely do not. For instance, Bedford, PA, a borough about halfway between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, has long traditions of distilling and agriculture woven into its history — this is where President George Washington dispatched Federal Army troops in 1794 to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. The soldiers assembled near the Jean Bonnet Tavern, a bit west of Bedford, while Washington quartered in the Espy House, which still stands in town to this day. Farmers in this grain-rich area made whiskey, not beer. In fact, Bedford had never had an established brewery in its borders, pre- or post-Prohibition. That is, until Olde Bedford Brewing Company opened in 2018.

Mary and Dave Heller (center and right) with partner Joe Black (left)

Dave Heller, a military veteran and self-described history buff, was born and raised in Bedford County before enlisting, and afterwards, traveling across the country working for the FBI. When he and his wife Mary decided to retire, they looked back to their hometown as a place to settle and start their next chapter. They moved onto Heller’s family farm, Hideaway Ranch, on 65 acres of land, and started growing hops for their homemade beer. But, over the course of a few years, they developed a concept for a craft brewery — Bedford’s first in the borough’s nearly 300-year old history.

Learn more about how Olde Bedford Brewing Company was founded, and how it became an ingrained component of this tight-knit community, in this Q&A with Dave Heller:

PA Eats: Your career background was not in food or beverage, so how and when did the idea of starting a brewery first begin to percolate for you?

Dave Heller: Mainly, I was just a consumer of craft beer. While I worked for the FBI, we lived in Alaska, and the area was just exploding with craft beer. Alaskan Brewing, which is a brewery in Juno, was the precursor of my passion for craft beer. Their Alaskan Amber, is a a rich Altbier but low ABV, just one of those beers you want to have after work at night. My wife also got me a little home brewing kit, and I started making beer with that.

We moved back to Pennsylvania in 2012 onto our old family farm, Hideaway Ranch, and we started growing our own hops for home brewing. I got involved with Penn State Extension to learn more about agriculture, and started befriending some of our local business leaders, like Downtown Bedford Inc., and they said suggested that we open a brewery in downtown Bedford.

Olde Bedford Brewing

From there, did you decide to just go for it?

Yeah. I would brew sometimes at Railroad City Brewing in Altoona, and would talk with the owner at the time, Matt Winrick, who introduced me to two different books on how to open a brewery. There was no place to go in the state of PA to get all the info you needed, like all the policies and procedures, to open a brewery. So I read the books cover to cover and started putting a business plan together, working with the St. Frances University business office, who helped guide us. I also did some market research on my own, looking at what do other bars sell, and what does the public want? I’m a historian and researcher anywhere I go.

Did your research help to inform what kind of brewery you wanted to open?

There was nothing as unique as what we were asking Bedford to accept. You had your typical pubs and bars open til 2 a.m., but there was no where you could walk into buy a Belgian tripel. There is Bedford Springs here, which is a huge resort, and when tourists come to town they’re looking for diversity of options that weren’t anywhere in the county. We were really looking at the “third spaces” model, a meeting place where people can gather with friends and hold events.

Olde Bedford Brewing

Tell us more about Olde Bedford’s taproom space.

We aren’t right down town, we’re about a five minute walk across the Juniata River that flows through the town. We’re in an industrial area, co-located with a bike shop. We chose this building for parking and infrastructure. We have the most parking of any location in the town! When we have events, we can park everyone here, and no one is scrambling for street parking. The building itself had three-phase electricity and gas, and a concrete floor, it was an open canvas just perfect for a brewery.

Olde Bedford Brewing interior

For our design, we looked at the history of Bedford; there’s Fort Bedford here, and log houses spattered throughout the county, and we wanted to make our space look like you’re actually walking back in time. Like you’re drinking in 1794! We have a bar made from old beams, and custom doors build out of 100-year old chestnut trees. We’re a veteran-owned brewery as well, and we wanted to incorporate that into how the brewery looks. We wanted to have comfortable seating for people to sit and chat, and a large open area where we display art from some of our local artists. Some of the finest pieces are hanging right here! We incorporated lighting and we have the brew yard with a stage in the back. Our outdoor space has a lot of games, and we’re kid-friendly.

What were some of the challenges of opening the first-ever brewery in your town?

The largest challenge was that our borough council did not know what a brewery is. They were confused because they didn’t have to approve a liquor license, because we have a brewery permit licensed by the federal government. Another big challenge was educating and promoting our business to people who were just unaware about craft beer. There are breweries in PA, but not in this county. A lot of people throughout these mountains were distillers, and that’s the tradition here.

Olde Bedford Brewing tap list

How did you educate your guests about the beer Olde Bedford makes?

We make a Kolsch, a simple yellow beer, that’s our top selling beer. It’s sort of a gateway for a lot of folks, and then we can explain taste profiles and styles for other kinds of beer. I think people like talking to the people who make the stuff they’re eating and drinking. Over time, our customers have started to branch out.  We make an English Special Bitter, a style no one here had ever heard of, and now it’s one of our best-selling beers. We do cask ales and Firkin Fridays, and started doing mixed fermentations in barrels from Wigle Whiskey and Liberty Pole Spirits. We’ve developed a pretty good sour program that really brings in a lot of people in.

Also, we also make custom beers for nonprofits, peoples’ weddings, rotaries, Bedford Chamber leadership, fundraisers, pickle ball tournaments. We did a special beer for two Medal of Honor winners from Bedford, and sold out of that right away. We even make beers for the Town Council! We collaborate with local artists and a local print shop on the artwork and custom labels.

Olde Bedford Brewing

A custom Olde Bedford beer made for a pickleball tournament

You call Olde Bedford a “Farm to Cask” brewery. Are you still growing hops for your beers at your farm?

We do one beer a year with Hideaway Ranch hops, called Ranch Life IPL. It’s an India Pale Lager. We have a hop-picking party where people come in and help us pick them, and we wet hop the beer the next day. We also use some of the fruits we grow up there, like raspberries and apples, to make beers during the appropriate time of the year. Bedford is a big agricultural county, it’s our number one industry. We’re always promoting local grains and using them in our beers. People here really appreciate when I say a beer is made from Bedford County grain.

Hideaway Ranch hop bines

Hideaway Ranch hop bines

Craft breweries have become such anchors of small towns in PA. What does it means for you to be part of this community?

For me personally, it’s been great. I moved around during my career so much, that I was part of communities but was never a building block in them. Now, I get to appreciate what I’ve built with other people who appreciate it. It’s a beer family, and our guests expect us to be behind the bar!

For more on Olde Bedford Brewing Co., including its current tap list, check out its website, and follow on Instagram and Facebook. Most of its beers are only available on tap and in cans to-go at the brewery, though you can occasionally find Olde Bedford’s beers on tap at the The Knickerbocker Tavern in Altoona, PA.

Find Olde Bedford Brewing Co. at 109 Railroad St. in Bedford, Pennsylvania; phone: (907) 229-7942.

This series is made possible by support from the Pennsylvania Malt and Brewed Beverage Industry Promotion Board and grant funding from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

  • Photos: Olde Bedford Brewing Co.