Cruise the River Rat Brew Trail in Central Pennsylvania

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Ceramic beer mugs circle the bar at Old Forge Brewpub in Danville, a stop on the new River Rat Brew Trail.

I'm a firm believer that there's no better way to discover a new town than from a bar stool, and that was never better illustrated than my trek last weekend to north-central Pennsylvania.

This big-city boy has lived in Philadelphia nearly his entire life, never bothering to venture a mere two hours to the small towns that cling to the Susquehanna River and its western branch. Places like Berwick, Shamokin, and Mifflinburg.

But offer me a beer and, well . . .

That's the idea behind the River Rat Brew Trail linking nine breweries in Columbia, Montour, Northumberland, and Union Counties - the state's midsection, where old coal mines give way to rolling farms and game lands. The local visitor agencies that created the trail hosted me and several other journalists for its opening.

I bellied up to a bunch of bars. Here's what I found.

Mifflinburg

* Claim to fame: Once home to more than 50 carriage manufacturers, giving it the nickname "Buggy Town, USA."

You'll still catch glimpses of the area's Amish in horse-drawn buggies, but the main attraction here today is one of the most ambitious brewpub projects I've encountered: Rusty Rail Brewing Co. Opened last year in a massive former brick factory at an astounding cost of more than $7 million, the brewpub spans 24,000 feet over three floors, and expansion plans are already in the works.

Its portfolio focuses on the basics, including a very aromatic pale ale and Wolf King Stout, made with cold-brewed coffee produced through a partnership with nearby Lycoming College.

Lewisburg

* Claim to fame: The nearby federal penitentiary was home to Henry Hill, of Goodfellas infamy.

Situated on the west branch of the Susquehanna, the seat of Union County is a tidy little town with well-trimmed storefronts and an active arts and culture scene. At night, it teems with students from Bucknell University, many of whom head for the Bull Run Tap House.

Though its 48 taps are overly populated by the ho-hum likes of Blue Moon and Kona, Bull Run just opened its own in-house West Branch Craft Brewery. It won't be long till its smooth-as-silk Dark Side English Dark Mild is outselling the faux crafts from Coors and Anheuser-Busch.

Shamokin

* Claim to fame: Officially designated by Pennsylvania as a "distressed city."

The sad sight of the downtown's empty, dilapidated buildings and nearby abandoned coal mines did not discourage Eric Kuijpers, a Dutch immigrant, from setting up shop here. His one-room Covered Bridge Brewhaus is a quirky gem, serving unusual brews - including a very tasty Sunset Coconut Porter - that he brews in his garage.

"The rent was cheap," he said, explaining how he ended up in Shamokin.

For now, it's open only on Thursday nights and the first Saturday of the month.

Bloomsburg

* Claim to fame: Home of Berkeley Breathed, Opus and . . . oh, never mind, that was Bloomsbury.

If you've ever been to Bloomsburg, it was probably because you were dropping your kid off at the local state university. If you were smart, you spent the night at the friendly Inn at Turkey Hill, where its adjoining Turkey Hill Brewing Co. earned it recognition from Condé Nast as one of America's best beer hotels.

Stroll over in your bathrobe and you'll discover that brewer Donny Abraczinskas is turning out a solid, occasionally exceptional (Revelation Pale Ale) line of styles ranging from a deceptively simple Kolsch to complex barrel-aged ales.

Danville

* Claim to fame: The T-rail, used by railroads nationwide, was first made here in 1845 by the Montour Iron Works.

You may already know that because the local brewery, Old Forge, packages its criminally underrated T-Rail Pale Ale in 16-ounce cans for the Philadelphia market. What you may not know, though, is brewer Damien Malfara also produces a world-class variety of draft-only ales, including Gouden, a strong Belgian ale made with Pennsylvania maple syrup.

You can try them at the Old Forge Brewpub, a handsome downtown spot decorated with old steel forge equipment, including a massive antique bellows that is a reminder of the region's industrial past.

And don't miss

* Berwick Brewing, with a bird's-eye view of the river from a beer garden, and killer pizza.

* Marley's Brewpub & Grille (Bloomsburg), where they go through a keg of Pack Dog Peanut Butter Ale, a two-time Great American Beer Festival medalist, every day.

* Marzoni's Brick Oven & Brewing Co. (Selinsgrove), with a big menu and six-packs to go.

* Three Beards Brewing (Sunbury) isn't open yet but serves test samples when available.

The River Rat Beer Trail is a self-guided tour. Figure on a full weekend to hit all of the destinations. More info at RiverRatBrewTrail.com.

"Joe Sixpack" is written by Don Russell. For more on the beer scene, download Bar Talk with Glen Macnow and Joe Sixpack, and sign up for his weekly email update at joesixpack.net. Email: joe@joesixpack.net.