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Mountain Home Magazine

Stronger Waters

Apr 17, 2014 11:34AM

In April of 2013, Bill Brock, CEO and President of the Straub Brewery in St. Mary’s, Pennsylvania, and Tom Finkbiner, founder of the Brown Trout Club in Slate Run, stood in Pine Creek with a barrel full of brown trout. Like a bartender, they tipped the barrel and poured it into the glass that was the river. Dozens of brown trout plopped into the water and swam away.

“There we go,” Brock said.

“There’s one load,” Finkerbiner said. “They’ll spread out here.”

Finkbiner founded the Brown Trout Club in 2002 at first to champion the fish, which, by 2007, evolved to championing the fishing experience on Pine Creek once the fish were protected. He sells memberships to help pay for the cost it takes to raise brown trout—about $10 a fish—to stock the river. Around 2002, he noticed the state stocked the river with rainbow trout and fewer browns. “We could see the Pine Creek brown trout population declining,” Finkbiner says. “We started the club to collect money to buy a high quality brown trout—fifteen to sixteen-inch range—to stock Pine Creek.”

These fish develop in a spring-fed, mud-bottomed pond, as close to natural as possible, a reason why, when they get dumped into the river, they’re as wild as they come.

When the Pennsylvania Fishing Commission instituted a delayed harvest area on Pine Creek, that’s when Finkbiner shifted the focus of the club to “Develop a world-class fishery on public water with those trout,” he says. If people join the club and donate money to help keep the river stocked with the most charismatic brown trout this side of Montana, then he’ll smile through his beard and escort you down to the river himself.

The delayed harvest area is a stretch of river where the fish cannot be killed until June 15. After June 15, an angler may harvest three fish a day—so long as they’re no bigger than twelve inches—until Labor Day. After that, it’s back to no kill. No live bait either. The trout swallow live bait deeper and don’t have as great a chance of survival when put back in the river.

Finkbiner’s detractors dislike the delayed harvest because they can’t rake in the heavy, beautifully-colored fish he spent so much money and energy on. The fuller brown trout act as mascots. So long as people know they’re there, people will return to Slate Run to fish the river. Now Finkbiner is petitioning to extend the delayed harvest area by 1.6 miles. And he has a strong man in his corner: Bill Straub.

The trouble for Straub and Finkbiner becomes convincing people to preserve the fishing experience on Pine Creek. There’s an irony in trying to convince people that by extending the delayed harvest range and reducing the territory to kill the fish, that it helps future generations get into the sport. By extending the area of preservation of when the fish can be killed it ensures the experience can last a lifetime, not a single season.

So far the delayed harvest has been such a success that Pine Creek resembles a Cape Cod beach in the summer: elbow-to-elbow people. Try casting a fly when you can smell the morning breath of the man beside you.

Straub, too, sees the value in the stream and in extending the delayed harvest. It’s why you see Straub Brewery stamped down the left rail of the Slate Run Tackle Shop Web site. He knows the value embedded in the experience of being on the river. It’s how he met Finkbiner in the first place and how their partnership took flight.

*

Some people come along as if by a divine hand. One man, of average height, well spoken, well traveled, and well educated, walked up from the river and approached Finkbiner with a brown trout palmed in two hands. It was a stunning trout, something an ichthyologist could admire for hours.

“Did you have anything to do with this?” the man asked.

“I didn’t help you catch it,” replied Finkbiner. The man showed up again the following day swelled with the same sense of renewal. “How are you financing the club?” he asked. “Maybe I can help.”

Finkbiner told the man he sold memberships. The man pulled out his card: Straub Brewery, St. Mary’s, Pennsylvania. “I had this negative feeling in my body,” recalls Finkbiner. “I’m kind of a conservationist. The trout are special to me. He’s going to want to do a competitive fishing tournament where you win a Jeep if you catch No. 7. You fish for the love of the animal because he lives in a beautiful environment.”

On that day, with the business card in hand, Finkbiner, by his own admission, cringed. “I really appreciate your offer, but it took me years to get rid of a beer tournament.”

“Hold on a minute,” the man said, “all I want to do is donate money.”

Well, in that case. “I’d love to have you in our club,” Finkbiner said, thinking the man sincere in his words.

The checks, four digits long, poured in. Signed William Brock, President and CEO of Straub Brewery.

*

Bill Brock took the bait many years ago when his grandfather, Carl Straub, took him fly-fishing. Brock’s grandfather dropped him off at the creek and gave him a few pointers like pretending to squeeze a book under his casting arm. He had thirteen grandchildren and fishing bridged the two. “He started us on worms, salmon eggs,” Brock says. “He didn’t jam fly- fishing down my throat.”

Brock’s father, Harry, a Naval Academy graduate, and grandfather fared well, but were wired tight in tense jobs. The river flowing around their waders, the way the reel buzzed, and the way a trout took a fly dissolved that tension. “The river was the one place I saw them totally relaxed,” says Brock. “You could see how relaxed they got the longer they were on the stream. It was amazing. You become different. You just. Slow. Down. It takes a day or two to toss your watch.”

Much of the Straub Brewery imagery is tied closely to this scene. Business cards, stickers, and beer labels show a creek—Any Creek, U.S.A.— tracing the trough of a valley carved out by a retreating glacier in an Ice Age long ago. And Straub’s relationship with the Brown Trout Club, and specifically Brock’s relationship with Pine Creek, resonates with a greater vision, of a job yet to do.

Brock supports the delayed harvest expansion on Pine Creek, though he understands the opposition. The expansion adds 1.6 miles to space out the creek to give fishermen some elbowroom. It’s a safe haven, for a time, when the fish can be caught and re-caught by other fishermen. The bigger, iconic brown trout must be put back in the river. They are the river’s mascots and as long as fishermen the world over know they’re there, then people will come back. It’s as much an economic initiative as it is an environmental one.

“It lines up with our company,” Brock says. “My great-great-grandfather started [the brewery] and expected to do the right thing. In this case it upsets big fishermen because they can’t kill the fish. I’m not against big fishermen…we’re doing something powerful that helps the community.”

Bill Brock (left) and Vince Assetta with their great browns.

Brock has a portrait framed on the wall of his office. He points to it and says it reminds him of his grandfather: an image of a man in waders in the middle of an anonymous creek casting his flies above the surface to the fish below.

“The Straub story is not just about beer,” Brock says. “There’s such a history of how we make beer, a commitment to the natural. Is there something we can change? Something we can keep?”

That question remains at the heart of the brewery and at the heart of Pine Creek. Preserving keeps tradition alive. “You fish, talk, take sandwiches, learn the territory of the fish,” says Brock.

“It’s the experience and interactions with the other people you’re with,” says Vince Assetta, vice president, general manager, and head brewer at Straub. “They’re the memories that endure. The social part of it. Usually you fish alone, your buddy is up or down the stream. It’s before and after, the social part where most of the memories are.”

Assetta is the first non-family member to be on the executive board. He brought a fresh palette to the brewery, creating such crisp brews as the India Pale Lager.

Brock and Assetta met late in their senior year of college at St. Vincent’s in Latrobe. In the spring of 1987, Assetta joined Brock at his grandfather’s camp. “It’s where I had my first Straub beer,” Assetta says. Later, Brock and his father took Assetta fishing where Assetta caught his first fish with a fly. It was the same hole Brock caught his first fish on a fly years before.

Assetta became a CPA at Prince Waterhouse in Pittsburgh for steel companies, where he also held financial and management positions. In the back of his mind was always this idea that Brock would come back to St. Mary’s to run the brewery. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion, but there was the potential and, if that was the case and the timing was right, perhaps they could pair up.

Their friendship remained strong over the years while Brock went from Alaska to Maine to State College and Lewisburg. Assetta remained near Pittsburgh and West Virginia. In Assetta’s last job, there was a Russian takeover, lots of turmoil, layoffs, firings, reshuffling. “Work was not fun,” he recalls. By this time, Brock had decided it was his turn to drive the brewery. The timing was right.

Vince met with a mutual friend and said, “Bill asked me to come to the brewery.”

“Don’t do it!” the friend said. “You’re going to lose your friendship!”

He took the job anyway. “I was seeking a lifestyle in northcentral Pennsylvania I didn’t have in Pittsburgh,” Assetta says. “It was the feeling of the area, more of a small town atmosphere. To work at a brewery is exciting. I never home brewed, but I made wine for twelve years so I had some knowledge of making alcoholic beverages from grapes.”

Assetta earned an associates degree in brewing from the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago. It provided the theory to dive into the R&D brew system and usher Straub into the craft-beer age. Assetta said the average American is only ten miles away from a brewery.

It was a certain measure of fulfillment he hadn’t found in his work. Assetta mires his work in the details where Brock is a big-picture thinker. They’ve had their moments of friction, but it often ends in a request to come over for dinner later that night. “It’ll be four years on April 1st,” Assetta says. “It’s been my purpose.”

*

Before Assetta came aboard in 2010, and before Brock made the decision to return to St. Mary’s to take over the brewery in 2008, Brock had been away for some time. Like a salmon, he left home for the great beyond before he felt the inevitable pull back home.

He graduated from Saint Vincent’s in Latrobe and soon went to graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh with a concentration in public policy and management. He traveled to Juneau, Alaska, and did economic consulting and research. He worked on forests, transportation, petroleum, economic impacts, benefits, even the study of building new roads to help native populations develop and grow.

Brock moved back to Pennsylvania, working for the Central Pennsylvania Work Force Development Corporation. Into the new millennium, he had been in contact with his cousin, Dan Straub, about coming back to St. Mary’s. Brock had spent his time away and the looming presence of the brewery was inescapable. “Everybody has to step up when it’s their turn,” Brock says. “The brewery was good to me. I’m just borrowing the keys.”

(Left to right) Bill Brock, Roy Magaragol (who runs the fishery that supplies the Brown Trout Club), Vince Assetta, and Tom Finkbiner, toasting a check with Straub beer.

Peter Straub, Brock’s great- great-grandfather—a stern-looking man with narrow eyes, a widow’s peak, a thick goatee, and a frowning mouth—founded the brewery. He learned the basics of brewing beer while in Germany. He moved to the United States in 1869, just four years after the Civil War, at the age of nineteen. He settled in central Pennsylvania where he worked for several breweries. Beer was in Straub’s blood.

Soon Francis Sorg, the namesake of Sorg Street where today’s Straub Brewery resides, hired Straub as his brew master and manager. It wasn’t until 1878 that Straub took over the brewery completely.

Straub began courting Sorg’s daughter, Sabina. They had ten children and when they were old enough he introduced them to the craft of brewing. What he found, in America, was a six-row barley as opposed to the two-row barley he knew from Germany. To mellow out that American strain, he mixed eighty percent barley to twenty percent corn or rice. It helped mellow the flavor and lighten the color.

That was the Straub lager. When Straub died in 1913, he left that legacy in the hands of his sons. “Today we do a better job committing to our history,” Brock says. “It’s impressive to be a one hundred forty-year-old brewery owned by one family.”

When the mayflies hatch, feeding the trout, Finkbiner will be looking for the brown trout that inflate him with so much pride. He hopes to see an expanded area where anglers can enjoy the bounty of the river. He feels all the more buoyed, all the more emboldened by conviction knowing that Brock is in his corner.

Finkbiner says, “When you leave, when you pass away you have to leave something behind for future generations and Bill is instrumental in its growth. Bill is a pretty decent human. He wants things better for the next generation.”

Brock wishes he could approach every day at the brewery the way he approaches a trout stream. He finds a surprising amount of overlap between the two. Fly-fishing teaches him, informs him. Fly-fishing teaches him to let go, to remain in the moment. Patience, if he makes a mistake he loses the fish. It teaches humility. “You can’t take yourself too seriously,” Brock says. “The higher you are on the horse, the harder the fall will be.”

Come May when Brock will be out on Pine Creek with his friends, maybe having cast his wristwatch aside, letting the water wash away the worry. He’ll be wading in a thriving ecosystem, a tangled web of bugs and brown trout. Below the water’s surface they swim “polished and muscular and torsional.” It may find the fly, but like Brock says, “It’s called fishing, not catching.” There he’ll stand with the rising sun at his back, basking in nature, casting a fly into the west.