Pittsburgh breweries popular for craft beer

By Katie McLaughlin

In the United States, there are two types of beer: the brands with Super Bowl commercials, and… In the United States, there are two types of beer: the brands with Super Bowl commercials, and everything else.

That might be true on a national level, but for students who grew up in Pennsylvania, it might be hard to imagine a world without local beer. Pittsburghers are surrounded by dozens of in-state craft brews, or brews made by small-end beer producers.

The offerings of the Tröegs and Victory brewing companies as well local breweries including East End Brewing Company, Penn Brewery and Church Brew Works, are just a sample of the beer producers Pittsburgh has to offer.

These Pittsburgh breweries produce a wide variety of beers — from hoppy India Pale Ales to refreshing witbiers — that allows consumers to support local businesses no matter what their taste in malt beverage.

Pittsburgh certainly brews a lot of local beer, but where can students find it?

City brewpubs including Church Brew Works, Penn Brewery, Rock Bottom and Hofbräuhaus, which package their beers with food, provide an excellent opportunity to leave Oakland for a birthday, date or dinner with parents. Each serves in-house beers in a wide variety of flavors.

Pittsburgh bars, including South Side establishments Over The Bar Bicycle Café and Carson Street Deli as well as Greenfield’s Hough’s Bar & Restaurant, also serve local craft beers. Fat Head’s Saloon in the South Side even serves other local microbrews in addition to its own.

Some craft brewers, including East End and newer microbreweries such as Beaver Brewing Company and Full Pint Brewing Company also host growler hours, when consumers can visit the brewery to stock up on their favorite beers. The growlers, half-gallon glass jugs, are reused like the kegs brewers send to bars and are filled from the tap for customers while they wait.

East End is owned and operated by Scott Smith, with help from his assistant Brendan Benson. East End has been providing the Pittsburgh community with a regular supply of craft beer since January 2005. Smith, a CMU graduate and former mechanical engineer for a Fortune 500 company, said he started the brewery because he is “trying to bring things into the city that it’s lacking.”

Smith wasn’t the first craft brewer on the Pittsburgh scene, but when he began brewing here, he did something different — he didn’t open a brewpub, a different take on craft beer in a city whose established craft beers are served with food.

Smith says that the craft brewers of Pittsburgh are a tight-knit community who often work together.

He explained that both Rock Bottom and East End are partnering to brew two winning beers from Pittsburgh homebrewing club the Three Rivers Alliance of Serious Homebrewers’ 21st annual homebrewing competition. Rock Bottom will sell East End’s beer at the restaurant and East End will sell Rock Bottom’s brew at its growler hours.

“If you take all of the American [craft] breweries — around 1,600, 1,700 — if you take all of our volume production in the U.S., we make up less than 5 percent [of total U.S. beer production] … That little 5 percent, we definitely have close relationships and help each other along the way,” Smith said. “Church Brew Works, we’ll borrow ingredients from each other.”

Timothy Russell, founder of Craft Pittsburgh magazine, agrees. He stated in an e-mail, “I know of a few instances of the local breweries supporting each other that would be surprising to most. Some have taken another’s beer to a festival and even poured it for attendees, maybe because the other brewer couldn’t make it. I know where some have supplied grain or hops to another on short notice because the other brewer didn’t get their shipment in time.”

If students don’t wish to leave Oakland to get their local microbrew fix, Mellinger’s Beer Distributor on Semple Street stocks a large selection of craft beers, including brews from over a dozen Pennsylvania microbreweries, including five Pittsburgh-area breweries.

Ben Cataldi, a manager at Mellinger’s, said although an older crowd generally purchases the brews, students tend to splurge on pricier beers after they come back from breaks with extra cash. He added that the seasonal and local beers get extra attention. Additionally, variety packs from breweries like Rivertowne, Church Brew Works, Full Pint and Penn Brewery sell well because “they are a good way to try everything,” Cataldi said.

Pitt’s Doggin’ It on Atwood Street also carries a selection of local brews. Students can also find Pittsburgh craft beers, particularly those from East End Brewing, on tap at Mad Mex on Atwood Street, where drafts are sold for half-off Monday through Friday during happy hour, from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Jeff Lucas, Mad Mex bar manager, said that students drink a lot of craft beer, particularly during happy hour.

Craft beer is a burgeoning industry in Pittsburgh and in the country.

“Beer as a whole has been flat or down a bit, but craft beer is up in the double digits,” Smith said. “Our volume is up 30 to 40 percent. It’s a sign of the overall picture.”

In fact, business has been going so well for Smith that he is currently in negotiations to purchase a new building for his brewery, as the Susquehanna Street location is running at capacity.

Russell predicts that the Pittsburgh craft brew market will continue to expand.

“You’re going to see a lot of imitators in the next few years,” he said. “I know of at least three more breweries set to open this year, and probably more to follow. There are going to be some failures from this surge, but I really think some great ones will emerge from it.”

Smith hopes that his beers draw in students, but says that his “zero-solid-waste operation” recycling efforts and the “club feel” of his brewery also draw in crowds. However, he also attributes his success to his local distribution.

“There’s a guy, an Englishman, who’s perceived as the father of craft beer. He said beer should not be drank any further from its source than a horse can walk in a day,” Smith said. “Buy fresh, buy local has been a great movement for us. It’s almost like we have an unfair advantage being local.”