Image via Colony Meadery
For many college students, drinking is a casual way to relax with friends and decompress after a difficult week. But for two Pitt alumni, alcohol is more than just a beverage — it’s a career.
Greg Heller-LaBelle, who graduated in 2006, and Brett Taylor, who graduated in 1999, each own their own breweries after starting out as home brewers. Both worked at The Pitt News — Heller-LaBelle as the editor-in-chief and Taylor as a news editor — and attribute their journalism experience as a key part in their journeys to opening up their breweries.
Heller-LaBelle, an English writing, religious studies, psychology and art history major, founded Colony Meadery in 2012. The meadery, run by 15 employees, consists of “the hive” — where the mead is actually produced — as well as a storefront that offers mead tastings, food and music. The hive is located in Allentown and the storefront is in South Bethlehem, and Colony Meadery’s beverages can be found in Pennsylvania liquor stores.
He said the mead-making process is different when compared to making beer. When making mead, as described by Heller-LaBelle, honey is mixed with water and then left to ferment in temperatures “not dissimilar to winemaking.” Heller-LaBelle said he wants his business to stand out among other alcohol establishments in the nation by creating a wide variety of flavors.
“We believe in complexity and balance, so we don’t do super sweet meads, we don’t do really bone-dry mead and we don’t do really hot ghost pepper meads that will make your eyes water,” Heller-LaBelle said.
He said working as a writer for The Pitt News, and eventually the first two-term Editor-in-Chief, indirectly led to his inspiration of exploring the craft beverage world. While Heller-Labelle was working for the news section, he was part of The Pitt News class, a journalism class that met at Fuel and Fuddle. The class and his journalism professor, Peter Leo, would analyze the newspaper. During The Pitt News’ 100th anniversary, Heller-LaBelle had his first victory drink of a double hop — a drink with the addition of hops post fermentation on two different days to add more flavor — to celebrate the end of classes. It was after this drink that he became interested in brewing his own drinks.
LaBelle said he was inspired to create beverages at his college apartment with his roommate, since there were not too many breweries in Pittsburgh at the time.
“I made a batch with my roommate in college when we were living in Squirrel Hill,” Heller-LaBelle said. “I’d always sort of wondered why it wasn’t more available in the market. When [my roommate] brought this homemade mead into the picture, I tried it and it was the best thing that I’ve ever had.”
From that point on, Heller-LaBelle said he and his roommate spent the next few months in a “bad mood,” frustrated that they were strangers in the mead-making industry. Despite mead being unpopular at the time they started, he said they pushed on and pursued having their beverages placed on store shelves.
“I certainly knew that perhaps even though tough times were coming, part of the reason to open a meadery at that point rather than a brewery was that there were a lot of breweries, but only 50 meaderies in the nation,” Heller-LaBelle said.
He said this happened eight years ago, before 500 meaderies sprouted throughout the country. According to Heller-LaBelle, he became one of the “world’s leading experts” on design and branding in the craft beer industry because he was “the first one to care about it.”
“There are only so many ways to be an expert,” Heller-LaBelle said, “You can devote enormous amounts of time and energy to reading, talking to people and publishing. Or you can be the first person to care about something, in which case you are by default an expert.”
Even though Heller-LaBelle is an influential designer of mead, he said his favorite part of working in the industry is working with his customers who enjoy his product. He said he prefers a bar setting where he can launch his product so that he can be in an enclosed social setting that is bustling with customers. Heller-LaBelle said he also likes the process of talking with people in his business as they discuss strategies, launches and naming the meads.
However, it was not all that easy to start the business as it is to run it. Federal laws for meaderies were still in the making at the time, and it took him nearly 16 months to have a license to officially make mead to be sold on shelves. In fact, according to Heller-LaBelle, because mead production was less common, Colony Meadery was included the first meadery law in Pennsylvania to allow for the commercial production of mead.
For Heller-LaBelle, working at The Pitt News and spending time at Fuel and Fuddle sparked his love for brewing his own alcohol. But for Taylor, the road to opening his own brewery was a bit less straightforward.
Taylor, an English writing major, started his own brewery, Wild East Brewing Co., in 2008. Before this, he wrote at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review after his time as editor-in-chief at The Pitt News. He then eventually landed a job in New York as a journalist for The Wall Street Journal covering current events and local politics. Even though Taylor was grateful for the experience in journalism, he felt like it was time to move on to something else, as he felt like he was writing the same story repeatedly.
“I got to the point where I am just tired of covering the news,” Taylor said. “Another person is murdered, there’s another mass shooting or another terrorist attack. Politics have all been done before and it’s just the data and the technology changes a little bit to the point where it’s getting old.”
At the time, Taylor lived in Brooklyn, where homemade craft beer culture was prominent, and he was impressed with how nearly everyone he knew was creating distinctive beverages in their own homes. Taylor described his homebrewing hobby as “obsessive” as he attempted to make slight improvements to his beverages over the course of multiple batches. So, when the time came to leave The Wall Street Journal, he knew the next career he would attempt to pursue — starting a brewery.
To gain industry experience, he went to brewing school and then for the next five years went to work in groups, where he found partners and began to raise money. He said one of the biggest struggles since launching was dealing with the consequences of COVID-19. As a result of rules which require a facility to have 50% of its usual staff to maintain social distancing, it is difficult for Taylor and his workers to efficiently craft beer since the production room is not equipped for COVID-19 conditions.
“We are still not fully open,” Taylor said. “I can tell you right now that there’s probably about 30 people sitting outside and there’s nobody sitting inside. But legally, we’re at 6% and we say physically 6%.”
Wild East Brewing Co. has a Brooklyn taproom run by five employees, where the brewing happens and also where customers can sit and enjoy their drinks. Customers can also find its beers in bars, restaurants and retail stores in the surrounding New York City area.
Taylor said the brewery uses heat, moisture and water to create enzymatic activity that converts starches to sugars, and then brewers place hops — flowers that make beer fresher and give it its aroma — in the liquid before letting it cool.
“It is kind of like making a really big batch of oatmeal and then just taking the water from it and doing fun things with it!” Taylor said.
Taylor’s brewery specializes in making lagers — beers conditioned at low temperatures — in an “old European way,” which he describes as not the most efficient way of producing beverages, but very delicious.
Lindsay Steen, a co-owner of Wild East Brewing Co, works with Taylor. Besides overlooking the taproom and the lab, Steen said she handles all of the business’ financial responsibilities — accounting taxes, running reports and keeping the team up to date on what brewery trends to follow. She also complimented Taylor on his technical knowledge of beer, describing him as an “artist” with the craft.
She said there are mainly three people running the business — Taylor, herself and another co-owner, Tyler March.
“Brett and I are definitely more of the emotional ones of the trio,” Steen said. “When we freak out, Tyler is the one that always balances things out and tells us to hold on.”
Despite these hardships, Taylor is still emotionally invested in his business and is passionate about keeping his establishment afloat. He said his favorite part of the job is the nostalgia from his humble beginnings.
“Honestly, the fact is that I kind of feel like I’m still a home brewer,” Taylor said. “I walk in there and have all these fermenters, barrels and bottles, and it just feels so exciting to be a part of the process.”
The article previously stated that both Greg Heller-Labelle and Brett Taylor had served as editor-in-chief at The Pitt News. Heller-LaBelle worked as editor-in-chief, but Taylor worked as a news editor. The article also previously referred to the instructor of The Pitt News class as “Peter Theo.” The instructor’s name is Peter Leo. The article also previously referred to Greg Heller-La-Belle as “LaBelle” when his correct last name is “Heller-LaBelle.” The article has been updated to reflect these changes. The Pitt News regrets these errors.