Spotlight On… The Wooden Match!
If you follow the Star of Bethlehem just past the Hotel Bethlehem (don’t bother trying to get a room — you might end up in a stable), you’ll come upon some rarely-used train tracks. Not far from the campuses of Lehigh University and Moravian College — alma mater to three illustrious Brew Crew members: Sales Director Bill Zaninelli, Sales Manager Richie Rallo, and Social Media and Design Alchemist Courtney Rosenberg — if you follow those tracks nearly to their eastern terminus, you’ll see the old Bethlehem train station.
Of course, it hasn’t actually been used as a train station since sometime in the late 60s, when people everywhere simultaneously stopped using trains. Built in 1873, this place has seen some serious action. Truman stopped there in 1948 on the campaign trail, back when presidential candidates wore hats and did whistle-stop events (and comported themselves like gentlemen).
Now, it’s home to The Wooden Match: half craft beer bar, half gastropub, half cigar bar, and entirely a sum greater than its parts.
And, as you might imagine, in a town called Bethlehem, Christmastime is everything.
It is. It’s totally pretty.
This steel town downtown has been able to avoid the fate of many downtowns, thanks mostly to the influx of population every four years from Moravian and Lehigh. The street is Christmas Central — white lights abound alongside wreaths and ropes of evergreen. You can practically hear choirs of children singing every carol in Christendom.
It’s Christmas-Classy. Not Christmas-Tacky. A difficult line to navigate for many downtowns.
With the jewel of Moravian College, Comenius Hall, perched on a hill and bedecked in Christmastime glory, overlooking the scene on the street below like an anti-Grinch, if you’re one of those people who have trouble getting “into it” each year, you simply won’t be able to resist the charms of Bethlehem.
They don’t call themselves “Christmas City USA” for nothin’.
However, if all of the Christmassing becomes a little overwhelming, if you simply can’t bear to deck another hall or jingle another bell, you can retreat into the dark recesses of The Wooden Match.
And we say that with respect. The recesses are dark, but it’s a charming darkness. While it’s definitely one of those places where you take notice of the intruding shaft of light when the door is opened by someone upon entering, they’re welcomed warmly and frequently by name.
The sweet aroma of tobacco greets you as you walk through the door. Originally founded as a cigar club by Cigars International — one of the largest online cigar retailers in the world, headquartered in Bethlehem — owner Vince Randazzo has continued that tradition, taking advantage of an exemption in Pennsylvania’s Clean Air Act to allow smoking (and, as a consequence, barring anyone younger than 18-years-old).
Upstairs, behind a key-fobbed door, you’ll find the exclusive cigar club. The hundred-or-so members pay $300 a year or $30 a month for membership, entitling them to 15% off cigars. Open twenty hours a day, you’ll find comfy chairs, a pool table, a poker table, a private restroom, a vending machine stocked with both snacks and beers, and a chessboard curiously set up with the wrong color square in the right-hand corner (white on right, folks).
“It’s pretty sweet,” says General Manager Ronnie Younes — one of three Ronalds working at The Wooden Match. “It’s a little getaway for customers who want to come in and sit in a private area.”
With private events for members, they even have a barber come in on Sundays to use the permanent barber chair. He’s also available for bachelor parties and weddings upon special arrangement.
“You don’t see that anywhere,” he says. “It’s a little guys’ speakeasy.”
In the warmer months, the patio outside is jumping — not-so-much on a rainy Tuesday in December. Dog-friendly and canopied, on occasion revelers will be reminded that the tracks just beyond are still active.
“It shakes when you sit out there in the summertime,” says Sales Manager Ashley Pike. “I bring my dogs, but the tracks rumble and shake and make all kinds of noises.”
Norfolk Southern, the owner of the tracks and the largest rail freight company in the country, sometimes stores some of their maintenance cars close to the terminus up the tracks, requiring The Wooden Match to clear the patio.
“Right in the middle of service,” Ronnie laughs. “We’ll have to move customers off the tracks to get the trains through.”
Sometimes, they’ll get a half-hour notice to clear off the patio to make way for one of their trains.
“But when there’s a flashing light and a train siren coming through, people get the hint.”
The basement is full of oaken tables and gorgeous exposed stone: the well-maintained relic of a bygone age. Across the parking lot is a wine and cheese bar, same ownership but non-smoking.
On the main floor, one of the previous post-train station occupants added a central bar — both compact and imposing — with a gorgeous burnished copper top, reminiscent of accents one might find on 19th-century locomotives.
Behind the bar lay fourteen taps: The Wooden Match has growler fills available, with their own 32-ounce, double-walled, steel growlers.
But, perhaps most importantly, there’s nary a Big Brew domestic to be found on tap.
“I will not put domestics on. They’re available in bottles, but never on tap.”
That’s Ron Richter — Ronald #2. Slow talking and deliberate, himself a well-maintained relic of a bygone age, he’s been the Beer Manager at The Wooden Match since they opened under Cigar International’s ownership.
“I love tap beer, and I believe that’s the best representation of any brewery.”
Ron may be one of the most knowledgeable people we’ve ever had the honor to interview. Ashley referred to him as “a craft beer legend in the Lehigh Valley,” and he teaches a beer seminar during Senior Week at Moravian — also his alma mater, having attended roughly the same time as Bill.
“Why didn’t they have that when I was there?” Courtney lamented.
Nonetheless, the Ron Richter Stamp of Approval® (not actually a thing) upon King Porter Stomp — recently added to their draft list — is a high laurel, indeed.
“It’s good,” he says.
“He presented new beers to me,” he said. “He had two new breweries that I didn’t hear of, but one of my pet peeves is when you come into a market with new breweries and you have no samples. He had no samples!”
Ashley’s known Ron for practically her entire career — through her career at Origlio, to Weyerbacher, and now Cape May Brewing Company — so she didn’t need to do much talking to convince Ron to bring us on at The Wooden Match. But she did need samples.
“I get to know an enormous number of people in the business,” Ron said. “I’ve known Ashley for a while, and I’ve always enjoyed the beer she was representing. So, it was a natural thing to try Cape May.”
Ashley tells us that Ron sampled them all and really loved our beer, but it’s difficult for him to remember when he first found us.
“Honestly, I do an incredible number of beer fests,” he says, understandably. He takes his job very seriously, looking at his job as a science.
While the golden ales and lagers might not be the biggest sellers in the age where IPA is king, Ron pragmatically keeps them on.
“People will tell you they like craft beer,” he says, “but they’re really not knowledgeable on it. So, I’ll always keep Brooklyn Lager on and a golden ale, because I believe they’re two entry-level beers into the craft beer world.”
Ron recently had Always Ready on tap.
“I like Always Ready,” he tells us. “I had it on a week, two weeks ago. I love pale ales, and it’s almost like a lost style now.”
With sessions and lower-ABV IPAs, Ron says that it’s ruined pale ales, but Always Ready has been able to maintain the style without being a low-rent IPA.
“It’s a rarity, and it’s nice to see that there’s still some out there.”
Ron is a fan of Cape May IPA, as well.
“I think it’s a good IPA,” he says. “There are all these floral, juicy IPAs. I find myself going back to the American IPAs.”
While we waited for our food, we told him about our newest American IPA, Merry & Brite, and Ashley promised to bring him a can.
With the kitchen open during the week until 10pm and 12am on the weekends, the food at The Wooden Match is seriously out-of-this-world.
“I’ve never had anything sent back,” said our bartender Morgan who’s been there for about a year.
Ronnie says the menu is unique and one-of-a-kind.
“You’re not going to go anywhere else around here and get any kind of food like ours,” he says.
It’s very, very true. While we don’t have much knowledge of the cuisine of Bethlehem, it’s unlikely that many restaurants anywhere have something like the Fatman Scoop: Hoss pierogies, Cooper sharp, braised short rib, caramelized onions, demiglaze, and an over-easy egg.
As an appetizer.
“It’s ridiculous,” Ron said. “It’s phenomenal.”
King Porter Stomp and The Wooden Match’s short ribs are seriously a match made in heaven, with the flavors complementing each other perfectly. The tang of the Cooper sharp cheese cuts through these savory flavors, with their delectable caramelized onions bringing a hint of sweetness that’s perfect with the chocolate darkness of King Porter Stomp. The egg adds a hint of creaminess to an otherwise unapologetically dense dish, with the potato in the pierogies being lighter and fluffier than usual.
“It’s mine and Brett’s love of food,” he explains. “Just blending things together and being willing to experiment. We really just sit around and say, ‘Let’s try this with this,’ and it always seems to work out.”
We happened to be at The Wooden Match during the debut of a new menu. They switch things out twice a year: a menu for the warmer months and something for when things turn colder.
“When we launch a new menu,” Ronnie explains, “it’s basically the same menu as before, but we remove a few items and we add a few items.”
Ronnie recommends the Half and Half: a ten-ounce bacon and beef patty, barbecue sauce, cheddar, Monterey Jack, french fries, caramelized onions, and dill pickles on a branded brioche roll.
“It’s unbelievable,” Ronnie says. “It’s a helluva burger. Something you need to try.”
We weren’t going to leave without giving it a whirl. This burger is huge — huge — and overflowing with cheese and fries. King Porter Stomp is perfect with nearly any burger, but there’s something about The Wooden Match’s caramelized onions that make the combination one you’ll need to seek out.
“There is not one bad thing on this table,” said Regional Sales Manager Erin Gale, enjoying the spread.
We sampled the Pride of Philly, as well. This writer has always been vehemently against the “wiz with” — use American cheese, people! –, but his objection has always been to the relative disgustingness of Cheez Wiz. (After all, it’s not even cheese: it’s “Cheez”!) Regardless, The Wooden Match’s house-made cheese sauce is superior to Wiz in every way imaginable: creamy, soft, and actually made of cheese. With shaved ribeye and featuring their much-lauded caramelized onions, King Porter Stomp brought out many of the same flavors as in the Fatman Scoop and the Half and Half. On an impossibly light and flaky roll, the Pride of Philly is a classy turn on a decidedly unclassy dish.
We also tried the Gulf of Naples: grilled tomato, burrata, sharp provolone, fresh basil, pork belly, and balsamic reduction sandwiched between two amazing slices of rosemary ciabatta.
“This rosemary bread is unbelievable,” Ashley said.
King Porter Stomp brought out the flavors of the pork belly — usually greasy, chewy, and barely palatable, The Wooden Match’s treatment was a delight sandwiched between so much cheese. The cheese brought down some of the stronger flavors in King Porter Stomp; their creaminess being the perfect counterpoint to the beer.
The Wooden Match hosts trivia and karaoke on Monday nights, as well as live music on Friday and Saturday. Happy hour is nightly, and Open Jam nights are Thursdays and Sundays.
“You can bring your guitar and jump on stage and show everybody what you’ve got,” Ronnie explains.
“He’s an exceptional guitar player,” Ron says. “People will come with guitars, bass guitars, trumpets, saxophones, and many other instruments. It’s become a standard for years.”
Last week, The Wooden Match hosted a surprise guest: Steve Kimock. Currently touring with Hot Tuna, Kimock made a name for himself as a guitarist in several successor bands to the Grateful Dead after the death of Jerry Garcia, including The Other Ones, Phil Lesh and Friends, and others. Kimock hails from Bethlehem, and his cousin often sits in on Thursday nights.
During Bethlehem’s famed Musikfest in August — a ten-day festival of music, art, dance, comedy, and spectacle drawing nearly a million people to this small town — The Wooden Match is the place to be.
“There’s a craft beer and cigar mecca in this parking lot,” Ashley says.
They set up a huge cigar tent and bring in food vendors of all sorts — it’s not only The Wooden Match food that you’ll find here during Musikfest, although we’re not sure why you’d want anything else. And, while the remainder of Musikfest is beholden to Big Brew, The Wooden Match is one of the only spots in town where you’ll be able to find craft beer with fair retail pricing.
This past year was perfect — “the gods aligned,” Ron said — with ten days of perfect weather. We’ll be hoping for much of the same next year.
“Do you think Cape May will be here again for Musikfest?” Ashley asks. “Not to put you on the spot or anything, but to put you on the spot.”
“I don’t see any reason why not,” Ron said.
So you heard it here first, kids! Expect to see CMBC on tap at The Wooden Match during Musikfest!
Ultimately, Ron attributes the success of The Wooden Match to good food and good beer.
“Come hungry,” Ronnie says. “You’re gonna be full when you leave.”
No lie. This writer skipped breakfast on Wednesday.