A Life Together Builds “A Room with a Brew”
Denise and Bob Harter stumbled upon a dream. The idea — open and run a bed-and-breakfast with an on-premise brewery — sprang into Denise Harter’s mind as she sat on a porch swing at a bed-and-breakfast in Clarion, Pennsylvania.
“I know what I want, and I get it,” said Denise Harter with a smile.
She was not talking about the 1777 Americana Inn Bed & Breakfast in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, which she owns with her husband. She was talking about Bob.
The couple met out on the town when they were young, at the start of much different careers; in June the Harters will celebrate their 32nd anniversary.
Now that they are running the B&B together, “this is the most we’ve been together in years,” Denise said.
“Thank God the marriage is solid,” added Bob.
Denise graduated with a degree in home economics education (now known as family and consumer sciences) in 1983 from Misericordia University. She began her career in the admissions department at Alvernia College, and then took a teaching position at Governor Mifflin Middle School until she left to raise the couple’s three boys.
After an 11-year hiatus, she returned to teaching and immersed herself in the student classes as adviser and cheerleading coach. Those connections have not faded.
“I pretty much did everything they asked me to do,” said Denise. “I taught the entire freshman class, so I got the kids when they came in to the high school, and I got to put on their cap and gowns when they graduated.”
Bob spent 30 years in information technology as a network engineer for small companies and eventually moved on to project management and contracting work. He started brewing beer as a hobby in 2002 with a starter kit.
His passion grew, and he transitioned to all-grain brewing and turned his garage into a makeshift brewery. A family affair amongst Bob Harter and his sons, the idea for Black Forest Brewery began beside a campfire on the Black Forest Trail, a 42-mile loop through Tiadaghton State Forest in Washington Township, Franklin County, Pennsylvania.
But, before there could be a brewery, there needed to be a B&B.
“We always knew we wanted a room with a brew,” said Denise.
The combo B&B brewery was Denise’s idea; she proposed it, and Bob was slightly hesitant. He had only been a homebrewer for 10 years, and both had comfortable careers. Soon, his reluctance faded, and the couple spent two years looking for a property that could house guests and a brewery.
“Our friends thought we were nuts,” said Denise.
After considering locations in Jim Thorpe, East Tamaqua, and Marietta, the couple found the 1777 Americana Inn.
“Ephrata found us. We walked in the door, and everything was restored and in great shape. The borough was super easy to work with,” said Denise.
Their ironclad business plan needed a special exception from the borough zoning board and met with some pushback from community members, who worried about a brewpub in a residential area.
“We put a lot of time into putting a business plan together and getting finances. It was always a combination, a bed-and-breakfast and a brewery,” said Bob. “Our presentation turned a lot minds.”
The couple moved into the 1777 house on March 1, 2014, and the Black Forest Brewery opened nine months later.
“For the first year it was the ‘Bob and me’ show,” said Denise.
Then she started to reconnect with some of her former students who are now musicians for the brewery’s entertainment, joined with students who are now business owners for promotions, and partnered with a former student to host special events and showcase the beauty of the property.
In 2017, the Harters hired former student Eric Sears as the current bar manager, one of the greatest student-and-mentor successes. The Governor Mifflin graduate had gone on to get a degree from the Culinary Institute of America.
“We would have been lost without [Denise’s] former students,” said Bob.
“I think it’s because they know me, and they know my expectations,” said Denise.
The new business did experience its share of growing pains. During the first years of operation, Denise changed the menu at the brewery every other week. She cooks all the breakfasts for the inn and all soups, stews, and the shepherd’s pie for the brewery. Now under the direction of Sears, the menu has been expanded and changes quarterly.
In the constantly evolving world of brewing, keeping things fresh is a necessity. The brewery is ahead of the business plan by “two- or threefold,” said Bob. He’s currently brewing at 85 percent capacity.
“That’s a good place to be, I think,” said Bob. “We are selling a lot more beer than we expected.”
The B&B and brewery are part of a tentative 10-year plan for the Harters. Not close enough to — but not too far away from — their mid-60s, the Harters look at their new endeavor as a transition from their previous careers into eventual retirement. Somewhere between the ages of 60 and 65, they will evaluate their life in the B&B and brewery world.
“At 65 I don’t see myself having 13 toilets,” said Denise. “That said, four years has just flown by, and there’s nothing about this business I do not like.”
The Harter boys are off doing their own thing right now. The couple would love to hand the business over to their children, but only time will tell.
“It’s a great, fun life that we’ve built and that we now work every day,” said Denise. BW