Pittsburgh’s Booming and Diverse Brewing Industry

Brewers and other industry insiders were confident that Pittsburgh’s booming craft beer scene would eventually make the city a premiere destination for tipplers in search of the perfect pint.

In December, a report by SmartAsset.com, a financial technology company, ranked Pittsburgh as the third best city for beer drinkers in the nation.  The report calculated the rankings based on the number of breweries in each city, each brewer’s average Yelp score and the average price per pint.  Arch-rivals in both sports and beer, Pittsburgh edged out Cincinnati, which came in fourth. Although Cincinnati has more microbreweries, the Steel City brewers had a slightly higher Yelp rating. Both cities rose six spots since the initial report in 2015.

Rob Soltis, owner of CraftPittsburgh magazine which covers the regional brewing industry, said other cities, such as #1 ranked Asheville, NC, had a head start on Pittsburgh but it was only a matter of time before Pittsburgh broke into the top tier.

In the last five years, the local brewing industry has grown significantly.  In 2011, there were eight breweries in Pittsburgh and now there are about 20, with more scheduled to open this year.

“It seems like there is a new brewery opening every week,” Soltis says. “Pittsburgh is a city with deep hard-working industrial blue-collar roots.  That same spirit is leading this craft beer boom, and shit is being made in Pittsburgh again.  But until recently, if you wanted Pittsburgh-made beer your options were pretty limited.”

The Church Brew Works, which opened in 1996, was one producer that entered the Pittsburgh market long before the industry took off.  The Church Brew Works is located in a deconsecrated Catholic church on Liberty Avenue and celebrated its 20th anniversary last year.  The brewery offers a wide variety of beers ranging from pale ales to stouts and everything in between.  Brewery Manager Justin Viale has been working at The Church Brew Works since 2011 and says not only has the number of Pittsburgh breweries increased, but brewers have also become more innovative. Both trends have helped make Pittsburgh one of the top beer cities in the nation.

“Brewers are putting all sorts of stuff in beer now,” Viale says.  “Now just putting a little coconut in a stout might seem a little tame.  People have taken to it like cooking – they find some ingredients and look for what they can do with it in a beer.”

The Church Brew Works also includes a full restaurant and can seat about 400.  But, Viale says the current trend amongst Pittsburgh brewers is to open smaller neighborhood taprooms without a kitchen.

“In the new brewery model, they don’t need massive facilities,” Viale explains. “They don’t need to grow every year.  They’ve become watering hole-type places.”

Although they are competitors, local brewers often collaborate to create unique recipes, share information and assist each other, Soltis says.  Tony Zamperini, brewmaster and co-owner of Draai Laag Brewing Company, says the plethora of new breweries has created friendly competition that makes it harder for a taproom or brewpub to stand out.  Draai Laag, located in Millvale, specializes in Belgian and sour ales, but Zamperini says the decision to focus on a particular type of beer is not a gimmick.

“We brew what tastes good to us,” Zamperini declares.  “I like big bold flavorful things.  We push the envelope with flavors.  There are a million ways to skin a cat but we just do it a certain way.”

Zamperini uses special yeast strains to create flavors without adding additional ingredients, such as fruit.  In addition, most of Draai Laag’s beers are aged for at least six months in wine barrels, or less often bourbon barrels, to add oak or apple flavors.

“You can’t rush it,” Zamperini says.  “It tells you when it’s ready.”

Tony Zamperini, brewmaster at Draai Laag, inspects the brewery’s pilot system.

Because each barrel produces a slightly different flavor, Zamperini blends the beer together in varying proportions to create the final product.

“Blending is probably the most artistic part of what we do,” he says.  “We mimic the wine world in a lot of ways.”

Max Morrow, assistant brewer at Draai Laag, fills barrels.

Although most other Pittsburgh breweries avoid specializing in a particular type of beer, they do have their own distinctive styles.  Zamperini, Viale, Soltis and other experts praised many local brewers, including Insurrection AleWorks in Heidelberg, which specializes in Vermont-style bitter and unfiltered beers.  Penn Brewery, established in 1986, focuses on brewing beers in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot, a 16th-century German purity law.  Roundabout Brewery, in Lawrenceville, has a New Zealand-inspired theme that includes beer brewed with hops from the southern hemisphere and a menu that features meat pies.  Meadeville-based Voodoo Brewery is known for its barrel-aging program.  In addition to numerous noteworthy local producers, Carnegie-based Apis makes honey wine, known as mead, and Lawrenceville-based Arsenal creates cider.

Despite the competition, local artist and craft beer enthusiast Mark Brewer agrees that there is still room for additional capacity in Pittsburgh, although some businesses may close.

“I don’t think there’s a craft beer bubble,” asserts Brewer.  “I feel like we are in the beginning because so many people are still learning about craft beer.”

There’s no shortage of opportunities for novices and aficionados alike to sample local beers.  There are several beer festivals throughout the year, including Oktoberfest in the fall and the Pittsburgh Winter Beerfest in February.  There are numerous tastings and other special events as well, including beer dinners where craft beer enthusiasts and foodies alike can enjoy a multi-course menu paired with local brews.  There are many other examples of the synergy between Pittsburgh’s booming brewing industry and local restaurants.  Hop Farm Brewing Company has a coffee-infused porter and the Butcher on Butler uses the grinds to create coffee-cured bacon.  Eliza’s Oven uses local beer and whiskey to produces pies, cakes and cookies.  Zamperini, brewmaster at Draai Laag, has collaborated with several regional chefs to create a beer-infused sorbet as well as a beer that mimicked the flavor of blue cheese.

“Food and beer go hand in hand for sure,” Zamperini argues.  “Pittsburgh is definitely turning into a hip city.”

The construction of a proposed beer museum in 2018 could also help cement Pittsburgh’s reputation as a premiere destination for craft beer enthusiasts. The proposed museum would have 20,000 feet of exhibit space and a 300 seat-brew pub. It could accommodate up to 40,000 visitors, including many from out of town.

Pittsburgh also has a strong homebrewing community which contributes to the city’s rich brewing culture. Both Zamperini and Viale, as well as many brewers in Pittsburgh, started by brewing beer at home.  Viale says he learned a lot through trial and error and became a volunteer at a brewery in Chattanooga before becoming the manager at Church Brew Works.  Zamperini quit his job as a carpenter to become an informal apprentice at Draai Laag.  His advice to anyone interested in becoming a brewer is to start experimenting with homebrewing kits and then find an opportunity to get involved at a local brewery.

“You have to be willing to make sacrifices,” Zamperini says.  “It really is an art form.”

Pittsburgh has two local homebrewing clubs – the Three Rivers Alliance of Serious Homebrewers (TRASH) and Three Rivers Underground Brewers (TRUB).  The clubs hold meetings where members share their latest batch of homebrewed beer and swap advice or recipes.  TRASH has grown from 40 members a decade ago to more than 100.  The clubs also host and participate in brewing competitions where beers are judged according to taste, color and mouthfeel.  Shane Walters, secretary for TRUB, says homebrewed beer originally had a stigma of being “basement swill,” but that label has disappeared as the hobby has become more popular.

“It’s no longer this weird taboo thing,” Walters says.

Homebrewing tends to attract individuals who have careers in information technology or engineering because they enjoy solving problems, Walters says.  He began brewing malt extract kits and later created a more expensive and complex all-grain system that eventually occupied his entire garage.  Walters says it’s common for homebrewers to continually upgrade and expand their systems.

“It’s a never-ending process,” he laments.

Walters suggests that anyone interested in becoming a homebrewer start by making malt extract kits which don’t require as much equipment as all-grain brewing.  Making sure everything is sanitized after you take the pot off the burner is the most important part of homebrewing, he says.

“If you get some bacteria in there it’s going to taste like crap,” Walters warns.

Anthony Rowsick, vice president of South Hills Brewing Supply company, says, in addition to sanitation, paying attention to detail is also important in order to succeed as a homebrewer.  He also suggests that first time homebrewers treat yeast like the living organism that it is and clean their equipment soon after they are done brewing.

“It’s not rocket science but you can’t just throw it together either,” Rowsick says.

South Hills Brewing Supply has been open for more than 20 years and is where most homebrewers in Pittsburgh get the ingredients they need.  Rowsick says interest in homebrewing spiked a few years ago but has declined slightly since then.  He says younger men seem to be more interested in homebrewing, however more women are participating both at as amateurs and professionals.

“We have a lot of bearded guys in here doing their own thing,” Rowsick says.  “It’s kind of big toys for big boys for some people.  But women are making inroads too.”

The local chapter of the Pink Boots Society is trying to accelerate that trend.  The organization wants to increase women’s participation in brewing at all levels.  The western Pennsylvania chapter has about 15 members. Meg Evans, head brewer at Rock Bottom and chair lady of the local Pink Books chapter, says the society has provided a lot of guidance and other members are very supportive of each other because they understand the struggles women face in in the brewing industry. She became interested in brewing because it felt like a boy’s club.

“It felt like forbidden territory and I liked the idea of a challenge,” Evans says. “I felt inclined to try something that not many females were dabbling in yet.”

The Pink Boots Society has increased the number of women involved in the industry both locally and nationally, but Evans says she hopes to see even more progress in the future. Historically, women dominated the brewing industry until about 1700 because it was regarded as a household chore. When the industry began to become more commercial and profitable, men took over, Evans says. Women were also discouraged from doing physical labor and were taught to drink wine rather than beer.

“Patriarchy seems to be at the core,” Evans says.

However, attitudes in the last few decades have begun to change.

“There isn’t as much of a stigma or restriction on women making beer or doing a physical job,” Evans explains. “Once we stop stereotyping beer as male dominated or focusing on ‘female beer,’ we will find that gender neutralizing beer will move the industry into a place that includes more women.”

Thus, the Pittsburgh brewing industry is not only becoming more innovative but also more diverse.  However, the current brewing boom is not new in Pittsburgh’s history.  Edward Vidunas, a local amateur historian, says brewing has been an important part of the city’s economy since the first brewery opened in Pittsburgh in 1795.  Production increased and the late 19th century was the golden age of Pittsburgh’s brewing industry, Vidunas says, although the lack of documents makes it hard to get an exact count of breweries in the city at the time.

The ongoing expansion of the brewing industry is probably the largest number of local producers since the end of the 1800s.  Although it is may not be as dramatic as the growth of the technology sector in Pittsburgh, the expansion of the brewing industry creates jobs and generates tax revenue, Vidunas says.  There’s no reason to think the trend will stop any time soon, he says.

“Pittsburgh always has been and always will be a beer-drinking town,” Vidunas says.

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