With five in just a three-mile radius, local microbreweries are becoming staples in multiple Northside neighborhoods.
By: Neil Strebig
Greg Kamerdze greets construction workers as he steps onto the naked, untreated wooden floors of his soon-to-be-completed taproom. He continues past the unfinished bar, vortexes of dust swirl up into the sunlight dispersing themselves atop power tools and cords littered about the floor, alerting passersby there is still a lot of work to be done before the former Workingmen’s Beneficial Union (WBU) building is back operating as the neighborhood’s watering hole once again.
For Kamerdze turning the former neighborhood destination into a city-wide one is exactly the plan.
“In general what I’ve seen in other cities and other parts of town are the craft breweries tend to move in at first and a lot of stuff [follows] in after the fact,” said Kamerdze, co-owner of Spring Hill Brewing.
In addition to Spring Hill Brewing, the Northside is home to four other craft breweries within a three-mile radius including Penn Brewery in Troy Hill, Allegheny City Brewing in Deutschtown, War Streets Brewery in Allegheny West, and Southern Tier Brewing Co. on the North Shore. To Kamerdze each has the potential to become a focal point in their respective neighborhoods, a catalyst of sorts for both commerce and community.
“I think people are going to be surprised coming up here because there is not really a reason to come up to Spring Hill unless you live up here. And this place used to be such a cornerstone of the community,” said Kamerdze. “When it was the WBU this is where everyone went.”
Spring Hill Brewing is the brainchild of Kamerdze and Mike Seamans, it will operate as a nanobrewery producing about five barrels a week. The taproom will feature 8 taps and a “limited supply” of bottles and cans will also be available for patrons. He plans on featuring Saison-styled beers, low-alcoholic brews (a majority of the beers will hover at or around 5% ABV) with Belgian and farmhouse ale flavors. To him, the selling point of the Saison-styled is their drinkability as “session” beers.
“I always envisioned when I opened a place like this it would be a meeting place, where people can sit down and relax for a while,” Kamerdze said. “[They] can have a couple beers over the course of a couple hours and have a nice, relaxing evening.”
For Kamerdze the location is everything. Not just being able to rejuvenate the near-derelict WBU building but also having the chance to collaborate with Rescue Street Farms, an urban farm that also operates off the Varley St. property. Working with Rescue Street Farms allows Kamerdze valuable flexibility with his ingredient list. The implementation of fresh components embodies the sentiments that resonate with Kamerdze, Rescue Street Farms, and the craft brewing culture as a whole; they are creating an identity through local innovation.
Even for larger breweries like Southern Tier and Penn Brewery, there is an allure in establishing a separate microbrewery and brewpub for customers in specific locations with this notion in mind.
“Down here on the North Shore people can come down here for the day and hit four, five, six breweries,” said Southern Tier brewmaster, David Harries. “[To] see that kind of density in Pittsburgh where people can really make a day of it is cool.”
Harries joined the Southern Tier Brewing Co., team in 2011 and after a brief stint as a production manager at Wigle Whiskey in 2013, his affinity for craft beer led him back to Southern Tier in 2016. However, he will be leaving his current role at Southern Tier’s North Shore location next month to take on a similar role in one of the brewery’s North Carolina facilities. Manchester resident, Justin Schau, will be replacing him as head brewmaster.
According to Harries, the North Shore location works separately from the parent brewery in Lakewood, NY. They offer guests a selection of over thirty taps, four of which are brewed right on premise.
“We send it right from the serving tank to the draft tower. So when you order a pub-brewed here, they pull on the handle and the beer falls out of the facet, it is coming out of one of those tanks direct. So it is really as fresh as it gets,” said Harries.
Both Harries and Schau have been keen on utilizing their unique brewing system to experiment with what they call “small batches.” Southern Tier is well known for their 2XIPA and seasonals like the Pumpking Imperial Ale and Warlock Imperial Stout, but these “small batches” allow the brewing team to create what Harries refers to as “limited releases” for private parties and events, specific to the North Shore location only.
“[We’re] looking forward to getting more creative with the small batches and forming inspiration off the city here,” said Schau in response to the customer and cultural feedback they have received thus far on their specialized releases.
According to Harries, the North Shore location uses a 10-hectoliter system (1000 liters), which works out to about 8.5 barrels per batch, compared to a 110BBL system utilized in Southern Tier’s Lakewood headquarters. The brew team splits their significantly smaller system into two parts: half for serving and half for fermenting.
“The feeling here is kind of a hybrid approach of Lakewood,” said Harries. “Being down here, having that freedom to do things that are more creative or just less efficient, that take longer than something we can do [in Lakewood] that’s kind of a liberating thing. And it pushes us out of our comfort zones to do something a little whacky.”
That “whacky” take Harries speaks of might very well be the charm craft breweries have. They offer an escape from the routine. They skedaddle away from the comforting pints of Miller High Life, Coors, and Budweiser that many beer drinkers first grew up with; instead offering them something not just new, but something intimate, something hospitable, something that separates them from the wonted hoppy herd.
“I’m still working through a lot of my beers to find exactly what I want. Which is kind of a cool thing to sell the public in that this beer is never going to be exactly the same,” said War Streets Brewery owner, Jake Bier.
He shares his thoughts on his brewery and the craft scene with a nonchalant, laissez-faire ‘matter-of-factness’ tone in his voice. It is laced with confidence as he jokes, “Before I could buy beer legally, I made it.”
Bier started War Streets Brewery in 2015 and will be exclusively selling the products at his new brewpub, affectionately called Bier’s Pub on Western Ave., the former site of the local burger joint, Benjamin’s.
And while he admits that “repeatability” is the goal of any brewery and finding that consistency may be key, to him it is unique to be able to offer guests “a one-off beer that is never going to be created again.”
This notion of “one-off” beers is partially due to the size of War Streets Brewery, which like Spring Hill Brewery is also a nanobrewery.*
“We’re very small scale. I’m only making about 50 gallons at a time,” said Bier.
Similar to Harries and Schau’s small batch system at Southern Tier that modest yield is something that allows him to experiment with numerous recipes, creating a “low-risk” which is something Bier cherishes because it allows him to have “a diverse set of beer.”
Currently, Bier has two War Streets beers on tap, the Sherman Avenue Stout and Brighton Road Black IPA. He plans to add four more on by the end of October. Each of the small operation’s beverages is named after streets located in the Mexican War Streets neighborhood where Bier currently resides.
For Bier, the goal was to always remain small and produce a sundry, local product. He speaks with great pride and conviction about the Northside, the craft beer scene and the privilege to not only represent his Central Northside neighborhood with WSB but also to now have a business in the heart of Allegheny West.
“I’m just happy to be part of a community that cares so much about their neighborhood and to have such a local crowd that supports local,” Bier said. “I think it is great that these many people are interested and there are that many beer drinkers in the city supporting these places instead of buying generic macro beers.”
That concept of supporting local is evident just a mile and half down the road where Allegheny City Brewing in Deutschtown and Penn Brewery in Troy Hill are bringing in a sense of community with each frothy pint.
“Honestly, the reason we wanted to open the brewery was to be a neighborhood spot,” said ACB owner and brewer Al Grasso. “We have always focused on and feel like we’ve been pretty successful at being a place for the Northside in general and Deutschtown.”
ACB is owned and operated by Grasso and siblings, Amy and Matt Yurkovich. The trio focuses on bringing variety with their beers, offering a few “flagships” as Grasso describes like the Deutschtown Brown and Morning Dew IPA.
Yet, for Grasso, the success of ACB is about connecting with customers, something that has been made easier with the proximity to multiple bars within the area and the support of local brewers and breweries.
“I can’t say I have run into a fellow, local brewer who hasn’t been very supportive,” said Grasso.
“Locally it is a huge family. It is really awesome how everybody knows everybody,” said Penn Brewery brewer, Steve Crist. “We all feed off each other.”
A Pittsburgh native, Crist first began making beer with his brother in North Carolina. After moving back to Pittsburgh he landed at Penn Brewery, where he has been for the last 8 years and attests, “Most of my knowledge [with brewing] comes from what I’ve learned here.”
A large portion of that he accredits to how close-knit the local craft scene is. Even as a large-scale production brewery like Penn –which houses a 6-person brew team, a daily production of 1,000 gallons, and bottling and keg production twice a week – still value the comradery of their team in addition to the input from neighboring brewers.
He cites a number of collaborations over the years with fellow brewers and the recalls an invitation from Southern Tier, where Bier, Crist, Grasso, and others were invited to the Lakewood headquarters for a team-building exercise of sorts.
“How do you make the beer scene a better place? There is a lot of opportunity for collaborations and inner play between the breweries [here],” said Harries about the Lakewood trip and its purpose.
Crist mentions a recent brew team partnership with Penn and ACB for ACB’s seasonal ‘O-Fest’ brew. It is a two-fold situation; Crist can dial up the phone, ask any of his fellow brewers on the Northside for ingredients or feedback and expect an honest answer in return. For him, the humility and the absence of egos within the scene is an integral attribute that can see the Pittsburgh craft culture grow and possibly rival larger, more established beer scenes in cities like Portland, Austin, and Asheville.
“Everybody gives honest opinions,” Crist said on behalf of the culture’s candid nature and believes that the perfection each brewery seeks for singular products is a valuable commodity for the maturity of the scene as a whole.
As Grasso mentions, there is “plenty of room for growth” but the question is now migrating towards how can the breweries collectively work together to bring more visitors into the city, into their breweries – into their neighborhoods.
“How can we market ourselves collectively as a place that people will take trips too like Asheville, Portland, San Diego, Denver, and Austin? We feel like we’re getting to that critical mass with highly regarded breweries in the area, but how can we pull our concepts, ideas, and resources to drop people in Pittsburgh to be a destination?”
While Grasso, still considers this to be the “explorative” stage of the city’s brewery scene, he believes the right steps are currently being taken.
“I think everyone is on that same thought of supporting local beer. We’re not trying to put each other out of business,” said Bier. To him, the presence of multiple breweries sprouting up in such close vicinities to one another allows the city a chance to become “a destination of sorts for beer drinkers.”
*According to the Brewer’s Association there is no specific number to define a microbrewry versus a nanobrewery. However, a microbrewery is classified as any brewery that makes less than 15,000 barrels annually. Nanobreweries tend to be identified as smaller, entrepreneurial operations.
Editor’s Note: Rivertowne on the North Shore is a brewpub, for the Rivertowne microbrewery. However they do not brew anything on site, everything is received from their brewery in Export, PA.