Drinking Beer with Ghosts at Pennsylvania’s Haunted Brewery

October 25, 2019

By Alexandra Jones, October 25, 2019

Cruising down Route 724 through Douglassville, about an hour outside Philadelphia in rural Berks County, it’s easy to drive right by Hidden River Brewing Co. Located inside a 300-year-old farmhouse-turned-mansion on the banks of its namesake Schuylkill River, Doug Reeser and Kevin Margitch’s nanobrewery is one of Pennsylvania brewing’s best-kept secrets.

With its Pennsylvania Dutch roots and wide swaths of preserved farmland, Berks County is dotted with old buildings like this, but none of them have a history like Brinton Lodge.

I’d been to Hidden River several times before a friend casually mentioned that Brinton Lodge had reputation in the neighborhood. As far as I knew, the cozy, quirky brewpub was simply a place to kick back with locally sourced bar fare and tiny-batch beers. But every month—and as many as three times a night in the weeks leading up to Halloween—the lodge’s owners conduct tours of the three-story, 28-room structure that’s allegedly home to a handful of ghosts.

Long before they bought broken-down Brinton Lodge in 2013, Tim and Eileen Reeser had a thing for ghosts. After a bad first summer with a family canoeing business they ran in the ’90s, the couple got the chance to manage their first haunted house in the off-season. Soon, they learned that they didn’t need corny animatronics and jump scares to draw thrillseekers—because that house already had a documented record of ghost sightings. They’ve been running ghost tours with an eye to the real stories behind the haunts at historical landmarks like Philadelphia’s famed Eastern State Penitentiary ever since.

Before the Reesers saved it from demolition, Brinton Lodge sat abandoned for four years, with the roof over what is now Hidden River’s large bar collapsed and the interior exposed to the elements. The Reesers began holding Halloween events in the rest of the space and putting revenue back into repairs. To liven up the building and make the most use of the huge space, they brought in their son Doug and son-in-law Margitch. The duo took the opportunity to turn eight years of obsessive homebrewing together into new careers, opening the brewery in 2015.

“We as a family decided that if we were going to do this as a career, we needed to take it a little bit more seriously,” said Doug, who manages pub operations while Margitch heads up brewing. “There’s added value to the whole haunt where you're not just getting scared—you get something that's also rooted in history. There's a deeper connection.”

It doesn’t hurt that thrillseekers and local history buffs can enjoy a quality pint before, during, or after their communion with the spirits. But just because a bustling brewpub moved in doesn’t mean the spooky upstairs tenants have moved on. So far, the family says, five ghosts have been observed: one that may be namesake hotelier Caleb Brinton; another called Dapper Dan, who likes to make his presence known by blowing in ladies’ ears; a “lady in white” who tends to appear on the stairs from which she fell to her death; an older woman; and another of a little girl who, according to mediums who have inspected the space, tends to follow Eileen Reeser around whenever she’s on the property.

When I pulled up to Brinton Lodge on an unseasonably warm October evening, both of Hidden River’s brewery’s bars were bustling, and guests relaxed outdoors on the deck overlooking the Schuylkill Canal. There, you’re as likely to run into old country hippies and suburb-dwellers out for dinner with the family there as you are dedicated beer snobs; the region’s community of young organic farmers, many of whom supply the pub’s all-local kitchen, make it a meeting place.

One door on the building’s ground floor takes you past Hidden River’s original 3bbl brewing operation (they built a separate space to house a 10bbl system earlier this year) and into the cozy small bar. There, the full beer list of malty brown ales, hazy IPAs juiced with four kinds of hops, rustic saisons, and sours infused with seasonal ingredients such as dandelion, elderflower, or beets are available. Down the hallway—past a giant mounted moose head—a fateful staircase leads to the large bar, which serves food and a truncated draft list. The high-ceilinged space is done up in dark wood with kitschy art in rococo frames and colorful blown glass light fixtures for a sort of crunchy hunting lodge vibe. 

I sip a glass of Sphere Weaver, a dry-hopped Brett saison, and pair it with a massive soft pretzel with kohlrabi pickles and whole-grain mustard before lining up the bottom of the grand staircase with the other members of the tour group, who are giggling nervously and holding beers of their own. 

The hour-long tour is conducted by a guide decked out in spats, a cloak, and a cane. It’s a fascinating mix of local lore, showmanship, and history. Each room is decorated in period-perfect fashion: there’s Victorian-era opulence—mirrors in gilded frames, rows of daguerreotypes out of which stern faces stare, a jungle-themed bedroom adorned with carved African masks and animal skins, and a midcentury party room plastered with photos of celebrities who partied there back in Caleb Brinton’s day: Elizabeth Taylor, Eddie Fisher, Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman.

We learn the history of the lodge, starting when the original farmhouse was constructed in 1711 for one of the region’s first millers to its stewardship under the Kirlin family, who made munitions used in the War of 1812. The wealthy Wittman family purchased the home in the early 1900s, expanding it into a luxe country manse. In the 1920s, Brinton purchased the lodge and turned it into a exclusive, invite-only party spot where he entertained personal friends and celebrities of the era alike with drinking and dancing and, according to lore, prostitution.

Maybe it’s the alcohol, but by the time we get to the hallway outside Brinton’s bedroom—where he’s said to have died of a heart attack—the giggles in our group have subsided. The cheerful sounds of the brewpub filtering up to the second floor give our guide’s combination of scary stories, local lore, and detailed history an eerie verisimilitude; the only difference is that instead of big band or jazz, Bob Marley is playing on the bar’s sound system.

While the Reesers don’t cross-promote between the haunted history tours and the brewpub, the two family businesses complement each other. “It adds to the atmosphere helps kind of maintain our uniqueness. It gives something else to talk about other than just the beer, or just the food,” Doug said. “I think it adds to the whole experience here.”

The rest of the tour progresses with a story about a suicide by hanging, a 19th-century free love cult, the ghost of a little girl, and lots of creepy handmade dolls. Guests are given the chance to try out ghost-hunting equipment like EMF meters and dowsing rods before returning to the taproom for another beer to calm the nerves.

The Reesers are matter-of-fact about their (mostly) invisible houseguests. Eileen—who, in addition to her child-like ghostly friend, has seen a tall, solid black figure moving through the halls—doesn’t like to spend nights in the building alone. Hidden River staff team up in pairs to make supply runs to the bar’s second-floor storage area, where employees have reported feeling an unseen hand scratching them on the back.

Doug, on the other hand, actually lived upstairs for the brewery’s first four years of operation. In addition to the sound of knocking and shadows out of the corner of your eye, he says, he’s also seen the spirit of the little girl. “I don't claim to know what it is,” he said. “But there is definitely something else going on beyond the everyday perception.”

Previous owners found pictures smashed on the ground or objects that went missing and suddenly turned up—typical ghost behavior—in addition to two of waking up in bed to the sensation of being choked. Luckily, nothing this hostile has happened since current ownership took over five years ago.

Maybe it’s because of the respectful way the Reesers approach their otherworldly tenants and saved their home from demolition. Or maybe it’s because, as the family learned only after they bought Brinton Lodge, a great-great-great-grandfather of Tim Reeser was related to the long-ago Kirlins. Or maybe it’s because they love beer just as much as we do. 

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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