Kegs & Kombucha: Antifragile Brewing Company opens at Downtown State College

Simply put, Downtown State College is something special. There’s a cafe for every mood, a bar on every block and niche shops we all know and love. However, the charming town was always missing…something — at least that’s what two Penn State alumni think.

Lisa Harpster and John Schaffer think they’ve finally found the missing piece of the puzzle: the county’s first brewery. Antifragile Brewing Company opens at 324 E. Calder Way on the former location of Pablo’s Chicken and Barranquero Café. A soft opening is planned for the end of the week.

Harpster and Schaffer, who will serve as co-owners of Antifragile, started their brewing journey not with a passion for beer, but for kombucha.

Years ago, Schaffer was in San Francisco for the Super Bowl and drank fermented tea, which he really enjoyed. When he returned to state college, he couldn’t find anything like it. Time passed, he took a beer trip to Vermont and noticed that all the craft breweries had kombucha on tap too.

Why can’t we do that at State College?” he asked himself.

So Schaffer came home, embraced this idea, and eventually the duo landed on their regular naked kombucha. Schaffer worked on the brewing aspect while Harpster spent time experimenting with flavors and eventually social media and branding.

The couple started out brewing kombucha for friends and family, but Rothrock Coffee asked if they would consider selling it. Rothrock became the first customer Atmospheric culture Kombucha was born and their adventure took off.

Moody Culture has been brewed and sold in and around State College since 2017. The glass bottles are available at Cafe Lemont, Cheese Shoppe, Pump Station Cafe and many other local businesses.

“Anytime you ferment something, it’s a product of the environment,” Harpster said. “Sometimes we would make a batch of kombucha and the SCOBY would look one way. Other times it would look different. Sometimes the taste was a little different, be it the temperature, the environment or the type of aroma.”

“We started talking about what it was like moody‘ Harpster continued. “It had a life of its own. We talked about what it’s like, how we live and breathe as humans. We can also be in different moods while brewing. There are many different mood variations that go into the final product.”

As for “culture,” the owners included the word in the brand name in homage to “SCOBY,” a brewing ingredient that stands for “Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast.” Combined with their attempt to promote a community culture that comes together to enjoy drinks, the name hit home.

Moody Culture Kombucha retains its name and is brewed and sold at the Antifragile Brewing Company’s downtown location.

The owners had been brewing kombucha in a basement apartment for the past four years and said they really needed to expand.

Before the pandemic, Harpster and Schaffer knew they wanted to expand into more heavily fermented beverages. They first began looking at large lots outside of State College, but saw an opportunity to bring a new scene downtown.

“We both have a passion for craft drinks,” explained Harpster. “We wanted to include fermenting beer in addition to kombucha.”

Both kombucha and beer are similar in that they are brewed by converting sugars into carbon dioxide, alcohol, and heat. Brewing kombucha involves open fermentation with bacteria and yeast, with the bacteria then converting most of the alcohol into acetic acid. However, beer involves closed fermentation using only yeast.

About three years ago, the duo met an award-winning brewer from Brazil who had previously been an exchange student at a state college school in the area. This person will brew beer for Antifragile and will be an important addition to Harpster and Schaffer’s team.

Antifragile’s Calder Way location occupies the former site of the Barranquero Café, a Colombian café that Harpster liked to frequent. It’s an intimate space already geared toward selling drinks to customers, and features a quaint lounge area upstairs.

“I did a lot of design work, which was really fun,” said Harpster. “To see a space start as something, come up with ideas, bring people together and put our heads together to create this end product is really cool. Both John and I are project-oriented, and we have a reputation for taking on a little more than we probably should. It was really fun to see the process from birth to the finished product.”

Antifragile will have a small taproom feel that aims for a modern, upscale experience.

“We wanted to add value to the quality beverages we produce,” said Harpster. “Whether it’s kombucha, beer or cocktails, we want people to feel they are in a special place. People can expect to see a mid-century modern vibe. it feels moody. It has an artistic flair, clean lines and the upper floor is made of leather and velvet. There is plenty of walnut, raw wood and brass lighting below. It’s an elevated experience.”

The inspiration behind the Antifragile Brewing Company name began with a Book written by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Harpster and Schaffer both read Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder a few years ago, and the themes in the story resonated with both of them. It spoke of being resilient rather than resilient. People get through tough times and get through them, but they also get stronger as a result.

You have to find the lessons and go through difficult times. According to Harpster, fermentation is also a growing process, which is why they felt this concept was a very good fit for their brewery.

Antifragile’s logo is inspired by the Hydra in Greek mythology. The largest head is immortal and cannot be damaged by typical weapons. As for the other heads, two grow for each cut off. The logo is an ode to resilience, a consistent theme throughout the brewery.

When Antifragile opens for the first time this spring, beer, kombucha and cocktails will be the main focus. Eventually, however, the owners plan to add hard seltzer and an alcoholic kombucha to the mix. Antifragile also serves gourmet popcorn as an option for people looking for a light snack.

While some places add alcohol to their non-alcoholic kombucha, Antifragile will ferment it to create the alcohol.

Antifragile sits near a Lebanese restaurant, a Chinese restaurant and there is pizza nearby. The local cuisine is something the owners love about the location, so they allow customers to bring food to the brewery if they’re looking for something other than a snack.

“John and I have a history in the restaurant business,” Harpster said. “We both enjoy this process very much. [We enjoy] engage with people, especially about the drinks we create. It’s super exciting. I look forward to seeing people’s faces, whether they’re trying our kombucha, beer or cocktails for the first time.”

Antifragile will offer a variety of beers to suit everyone’s beer palette. IPAs will be a focus, but owners want to create a well-rounded beer menu. Customers can expect quality beer in a variety of styles including pale ales, stouts, lager, saisons and more.

The beers are named after themes like the Grateful Dead and Phish references, phrases from the Antifragile book, and even a fluffy little pup.

The new downtown brewery will be open a few days a week, although exact hours aren’t official. It will probably be open Friday and Saturday with a day or two more. For now, the owners want to focus on having enough quality products for their customers. Outdoor seating is also to be gradually introduced.

Harpster said they want to create another downtown space for the local community. Her goal is to include Penn State students, but also to prioritize Penn State faculty and state college residents.

Finally, people can stop by and buy four packs of beer and kombucha to take away. When the brewery first opens, it will focus on its dispensing equipment and eventually launch its canning lines a few weeks after opening.

Fans of Moody Culture can also look forward to a brand relaunch of his kombucha.

As Antifragile Brewing Company opens to the public in the coming weeks, Harpster and Schaffer say they’re excited to accomplish their mission of bringing craft beverages downtown.

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