North Country Brewing Co. breathes new life into old buildings | Crain's Pittsburgh

North Country Brewing Co. breathes new life into old buildings

Bob McCafferty is the Indiana Jones of beer.

Throughout the late-1990s, the archeologist spent his weekdays digging up artifacts in West Virginia. When weekends rolled around, he packed up his tools and headed back to Slippery Rock, Penn., to refurbish an old building he and his wife, Jodi, planned to turn into a brewery.

Located about 50 miles outside of Pittsburgh, the little borough hadn’t served a drop of alcohol since the 1920s, but the McCaffertys saw potential in the long-standing structure. 

Erected in 1805 by Peter Uber, it served as an inn, tavern, cabinet shop, coffin factory and mortuary. The last funeral service was held in 1972, when Edward Uber, Peter’s great-great grandson, transformed it into a furniture store.

When the McCaffertys bought it in 1998, the landmark had housed antiques for four years.

“The town had remained dry since Prohibition,” Bob McCafferty said, “and the space we were looking for had to have a yard for our dogs, and enough space to create an apartment so that we could also live there while we renovated and planned for the inevitable ‘wet’ status the community would eventually vote in.”

After some resistance from local teetotalers, Slippery Rock welcomed back booze in 2001.

Although the Main Street storefront, which looks like it was plucked from an Old West ghost town, was gutted and reassembled before reopening as North Country Brewing Co., in 2005, it still holds the quirky charms of its bygone days.

“We recycled everything back into itself,” Bob McCafferty said. “The cobbles from the footers and the original foundation stones are now the chimney and fireplace out back. The slate bar is the original sidewalk before the ADA ramp, the copper backsplash is the original tin ceilings, all the wood used for the booths, trim and bars are the trees harvested from archeology sites. Basically, it is a new 1805 structure.”

The uneven floors, intricately carved tap handles, sandstone basement – which provides a perfectly chilled environment for conditioning beer – and “elvish colonial” bric-a-brac add a touch of whimsy.

There also are nods to the building’s former incarnation as a death merchant.

A “County Morgue” door separates the pub from the brewhouse, horseshoes worn by hearse-pulling stallions adorn the walls and visitors can sip glasses of Embalmer Barleywine.

Not content with just one macabre undertaking, the McCaffertys in 2013 purchased The Harmony Inn, another edificial relic in Harmony, Penn., that is reportedly haunted, and not just by alcoholic spirits.

Employees and customers attest to seeing inanimate objects move by themselves and shadowy figures wandering the halls of the Victorian mansion, which was built in 1856 by banker, mill owner and railroad tycoon Austin Pearce. Security cameras have captured orbs, as well as a translucent form creeping between the bar stools.

"I love knowing the history of the building," area resident Allison Tubridy says. "Along with both locations being absolutely gorgeous, the Harmony Inn servers will tell you stories about the place and if you're lucky (I was) they will give you a tour of the attic."

The Harmony Inn was the first beer bar in Butler County. Even in 1985, before the craft beer boom, there were 24 brews on tap, but the business almost became a phantom itself. Plagued by financial woes and in danger of having its liquor license absorbed by the state, longtime owners Carl Beers and Gary and Betsy Barnes sold to the McCaffertys.

Major upgrades were made to the historic site, but much like the Slippery Rock location, the building still has an old-fashioned charm. The McCaffertys even “repurposed” the original staff, including the Barnes’s son and grandson, who now are both North Country brewers.

“Sometimes our twisted paths do make sense,” Bob McCafferty said. "Just know the mud, but don’t get stuck in it for any length of time.”

November 8, 2017 - 4:46pm