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A historic whodunnit with lots of beer

Alois Bube was urging us on. "Drink plenty of beer!" he cried. "I put plenty of myself into every keg!"

Not needing any more prompting, I went up to the bar and ordered a Bube bock draft -- rich, slightly sweet and with a hint of a coffee taste. As I sipped the dark brew, I wondered just what parts of Alois Bube I was drinking.

This wasn't the real Alois Bube, of course. He died in 1908. Our Alois Bube was an actor portraying the brewmaster in the murder mystery we were about to watch: "The Central Hotel Grand Opening."

The Central Hotel bar is decorated like a fin de siecle Parisian brothel, with dark wallpaper, low lights, a ceiling painted green and portraits of scantily clad ladies in various poses gracing the walls. Great atmosphere. Perfect for a murder.

My wife and I were making a weekend of it at Bube's Brewery in tiny Mount Joy, Pa., between Harrisburg and Lancaster. This lovely area of rolling farmland has long been dominated by residents of German descent; back in 1876, Bube, an immigrant from Bavaria, opened a brewery in a two-story stone structure on North Market Street to serve his popular lager. As his fortunes rose, he outgrew the old brewery and added a bottling works next door.

In 1879, he built the three-story, Victorian-style Central Hotel, notable for its intricate brickwork. It backed onto the other side of the original brewery building, completing the block-long row that still stands today. Bube's empire lasted until 1920, the year Prohibition was introduced, and the brewery closed for good.

Bube's current owner is Samuel Allen, who bought the idle brewery and adjacent buildings in 1982. These historic structures (on the National Register of Historic Places) now house a modern microbrewery and an outdoor Biergarten. Restaurant options include the Catacombs, which offers fine dining in the old beer cellar; the restaurant Alois, for group events in the Central Hotel; and the Bottling Works tavern. The microbrewery occupies the original brewery's icehouse.

Allen's vision also includes murder mysteries in the Central Hotel, themed feasts in the Catacombs (a pirate feast was going on the night we dined there) and ghost tours in all the buildings. Allen has also opened a public art gallery promoting local talent. His newest project is offering limited lodging in the hotel. Starting this month, groups may rent its several rooms for a flat fee.

"I always have four or five projects in the hopper," Allen said.

The Mount Joy area is underlain by hundreds of limestone caverns, which were ideal for storing beer in prerefrigeration days. On our first night in town, we dined in the Catacombs, 43 feet below the ground, in a candlelit stone chamber lined with huge white-oak casks that once held Alois Bube's long-lost recipe. Carol had a New York strip, and I chose the grilled pork chop, complemented by the microbrewery's malty red ale and hoppy India Pale Ale.

The top draw to Bube's is the Saturday night murder mystery dinner held in Alois restaurant. On the night we attended, about 60 guests crowded into the bar before the show started. Unknown to us, we were being sized up by the actors, who were looking for audience members to take on critical roles in the action. I happened to be standing beside Steve Perrault, 73, of Reisterstown, Md., when an actress in a Victorian dress plopped a top hat on his head and informed him that he was now the mayor of Mount Joy and she was his lovely wife.

Then we were all ordered to our assigned seating in the five dining rooms that would be our stage. Our room had two tables of eight, with people ranging in age from mid-20s to 70s. I was glad to see that the mayor of Mount Joy was assigned to our table.

Because there is no central stage, all the action occurs in the dining rooms or "offstage" in the corridors. The audience hears and sees only bits and pieces and must interact with the actors for clues and information as they pass through a room. As we ate, we speculated with our tablemates about who the victim and murderer would be. Then a shot rang out, followed by a scream. A body lay at the foot of the stairs, shot in the chest. Moments later, Carol found a clue outside the ladies' bathroom: an unsigned IOU bearing the initials A.B. Could this clue help explain the motive for the murder? We passed it to the guests at the other table for their perusal.

The actors of RoundTable Productions write and produce the several mysteries performed most Saturday nights at Bube's. Kate Hopkins of Lititz, Pa., a founding member, looks at performing at the old hotel as a challenge that calls on all the playwright's ingenuity.

"Magic happens in this venue because of the separation of the rooms," said Hopkins, who played Mrs. Alois Bube in the night's production. But the best part is performing with the visitors, she said. "It's amazing how often they floor us."

At the end of the performance, everybody was called into the bar, where the constable read out the clues, drawing gasps, howls and protestations of innocence. The killer was revealed right in our midst, and justice was done.

As we were filing out of the building, I spied the mayor returning his top hat. The magic was over until next time.