The (Art and) Craft of Brewing
“Beer does not make itself properly by itself. It takes an element of mystery and of things that no one can understand," as Fritz Maytag says.
In 1965, when Maytag learned that the Anchor Steam Brewery was about to shut down, he bought the brewery. Maytag revived the faltering brand, and has since been revered as the godfather of the American craft beer renaissance. Even as conventional brewers have shut down, and Americans drink less beer, craft brewing continues to grow.
You can see this trend in Western Pennsylvania, as Latrobe Brewing (Rolling Rock) was recently sold and Pittsburgh Brewing struggles through chapter 11 bankruptcy. Some local brewers are acheiving success meeting the increased demand for craft beers.
When Tom Pastorius returned to Pittsburgh after a 12-year stay in Germany, he couldn’t find good German-style beer in the area, and much like Fritz Maytag, he took drastic action.
In Pastorius’s case, he built a new brewery,Pennsylvania Brewing Company, at the site of the century-old formerly abandoned buildings of the Eberhardt and Ober Brewery at the foot of Troy Hill. Over the course of 20 years, Penn Pilsner and other beers have won fans even outside its mid-Atlantic distribution area. To meet increased demand, Pastorius sold a majority stake to Birchmere Capital LP in 2003. Birchmere has since invested half a million in new equipment, much of it in automation, with the goal of reaching 30,000 barrels a year in production.
Although the top three brewers — Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors — produce more than 80 percent of the beer in the United States (approximately 160 million barrels), Pastorius, who remains CEO of Pennsylvania Brewing, says he doesn’t see himself as competing with the big brewers.
“We don't use high gravity brewing, no corn or rice, no coloring, no sweeteners. We're making the best beer and people are willing to pay a premium for it,” he says. “Our segment has had remarkable growth. Craft-brewers have grown seven percent in 2004 and nine percent in 2005. Even those numbers are deceiving because in the cities and the east coast and west coast, growth is greater than that.”
Pastorius has always been involved in all the details--“I've brewed it, filtered it, kegged it. I've done it all"--but because of the new ownership arrangement, he has now delegated most of the production, but reserved a key aspect of craft-beer making. “I get to drink it. That's the most important thing.”
Put the Kettle On
As Pastorius leaves his hands-on tasks behind, Scott Smith is just getting started. Smith’s East End Brewing started making and distributing pale ales, stouts, wheat beers, and other specialty brews last year.
“Starting [a brewery] is easy,” says Smith from his location on Homewood’s Susquehanna Street, “very expensive and very time consuming, but easy. Selling enough beer to keep running...that's a totally different story.
“This was actually two to three months after quitting my day job — not a sequence I would necessarily recommend. Actually, this entire thing has been an incredible personal learning experience for me. I'm just a one-man show here, so if it's installation - plumbing, electrical, welding — or maybe a new style of beer I want to tackle, I get to learn how to do it, which can be both good and bad.”
Smith says he went through the wringer meeting regulatory challenges and had to catch up on business practices, especially in marketing and sales. He had worked for a consumer products company and had found that aspect of business unappealing until he started selling what he brewed. “When it's my own product,” says Smith, “one that I absolutely believe in, that's a different story . . .”
His enthusiasm has found a home in Pittsburgh. “Pittsburgh is definitely a beer-drinking town,” says Smith, “and an ever growing portion of it is getting more curious about finding beers that offer them more than what's coming out of the Big Three. Here’s a tip: the smaller the brewery, the more interesting and special the beers tend to be.”
He still finds himself giving tasters their first samples of some specialty beers. “Even more amazing is that this happens here at the brewery. They managed to find me here, tucked away in this quiet little Homewood neighborhood during my very limited growler hours...and they did it before they've ever had the beers. Now that's a healthy curiosity!”
A Drop in the Growler
More curiosity is needed because craft beers or even regional beers have still not hit the mainstream. Allegheny County drinks in approximately one million barrels a year, more than twice as much beer as is made at Pittsburgh Brewing. Local brewpubs such as the Church Brew Works and franchise operations such as the Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery and John Harvard’s Brew House account for perhaps a couple thousand barrels.
Another, even smaller source for beer, is the home, the place where Smith got his start. A handful of local home brewing supply houses, such as Del Lansing’s Triangle Home Brewing in the Strip District, provide malt, hops, and yeast for the smallest breweries. Smith wannabees can legally brew up to 100 gallons per year, 200 gallons for a family. Most, says Lansing, are content to make a five-gallon batch every month or two. But the rewards can be great. As opposed to home wine makers, home brewers can produce best in style ales and beers, or even brews for which there is no known style. “If you’re making wine,” says Lansing, “you may save some money, but you’re not making Châteauneuf du Pape.”
Lansing says Smith is one of the few who have made the move from home brewer to commercial establishment. Start-ups usually invest in ready-made brewpubs and microbreweries. Smith — who cobbled together East End Brewing from surplus kettles and fermenters and ingenious engineering efforts, including a custom-made grain hoist — still considers himself somewhat of a home brewer.
“Maybe that’s because I've never brewed for anyone else. Before I started making beer here, the most I ever made was five or ten gallons at a time. The basic principles of brewing still apply, regardless of the scale. But recipe formulation, fermentation and yeast management, those are totally different animals on the big rig.”
Regional breweries are almost as far from what he’s doing as he is from a home brewer's operation. Friends and brewing aficionados may help with toting grain bags and cleaning tanks, but Smith still does most of the work.
“I’ve got no automation here, and there are lots of chances for variability – which can be okay in small doses. Keg washing, shoveling out grain, milling, kegging, and for a while there — delivering — is all done by hand, and all done by me.” Through it all he confronts the challenge of physical and mental exhaustion, and balancing work and family commitments.
“Like many small business owners, you just can't turn off your brain at five o'clock on Friday and switch it back on Monday morning after that first cup of coffee. Many people unwind from their regular jobs over a couple of beers. Sometimes it's hard for me to ‘just have a beer’ without thinking about it like work. Only sometimes, though, thank goodness!”
Amid all the challenges, Smith says that he’s not even close to the production of a Penn Brewery, which is an order or two of magnitude bigger. He hopes to brew 700 barrels in 2006. Meaning it would take more than 500 Smiths to equal the production of Pittsburgh Brewing.
Compared to the Latrobe Brewery, Smith says, “My whole production could fit into just one of those glass-lined tanks. I’m not talking about the beer. I mean my whole brewery!
“But then again," he says, "I’m not selling…”
Mark Stroup is a writer and home brewer who lives in Friendship.
Photos:Penn Brewery stillsPenn Brewery beer hall
Beer kits at Triangle Home Brewing
Scott Smith's East End Brewing/Growler web siteDel Lansing of Triangle Home BrewingChurch Brew Works
All photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene