Could Pittsburgh Become A Craft Beer Destination?

Sep 10, 2015

Twenty bushels of apples get dumped onto a conveyor belt at Soergel’s Orchards in Wexford. After a quick wash, they’re ground into a pulp and squeezed under 55 tons of pressure to make 110 gallons of cider.

Larry Voll, one of the owners of Soergel’s Orchards, said the cider is going to Arsenal Cider House in Lawrenceville. The juice that he sells to Arsenal to make into hard cider will one day end up back at the Wexford farm, at the Arsenal tap room, which just opened this summer.

It’s Arsenal’s second location, and it is indicative of the explosive growth of the craft beer, wine, and spirits industry in the Pittsburgh region.

Voll said about a third of the cider he presses is sold to wineries, cider-makers, micro-breweries and home brewers.

That’s not surprising, because the growth of craft breweries, wineries, and distilleries locally is on par with or even a little ahead of national growth, which in itself has been a bit astounding, according to Andrew Gill, co-host of WBEZ’s beer-centric podcast, Strange Brews.

“It seems like it’s gone into hyper speed in the past two years,” he said.

The number of breweries, wineries and distilleries in Allegheny County has doubled in the last five years.

According to the Brewers Association, craft beer made up 11 percent of the volume of beer sold in the U.S. last year. When it came to dollar figures, craft snagged 19.3 percent.

“If you look at the Brewer’s Association's figures, the percentage increase year over year of growth for the craft beer segment of the economy, it’s been double-digits every year for the past five or six years,” Gill said.

According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2013, consumers bought more craft beer than they did Budweiser for the first time. That’s 13 million barrels of Bud and 13.1 million barrels of every American-made craft beer on the market combined.

Budweiser took note. The company spent $9 million to air an ad trashing craft beer during last season’s Super Bowl, pronouncing itself “proudly a macro beer.”

“There are lots of weak looking craft beer drinkers twirling their mustaches and sniffing their beers and talking with their friends and being very precious,” Gill said, describing the commercial.

He said the message the ad sends is that craft beer drinkers are dweebs and not very manly, and he pointed out that the ad conspicuously features women serving beer, but never drinking it, reinforcing stereotypes around who beer is for.

The very fact that Annheiser-Busch, Budweiser’s parent company, would air such an ad demonstrates how different the two ends of the industry really are.

At East End Brewing Company in Larimer, owner Scott Smith is actually helping another brewery get back on its feet after a fire.

They’re doing what’s called a collaboration brew, which is when two or more breweries come together to create a beer. Proceeds are going toward the restoration of Blue Canoe Brewery in Titusville, near Erie.

“I’m not concerned about Blue Canoe taking a slice of my pie or vice versa,” Smith explained. “We’re getting a bigger pie out of the deal as more people turn to craft beer.”

Blue Canoe brewer Justin Dudek said among craft brewers, there’s a feeling of community, not competition.

“I don’t think you could think of another industry that’s as generous as this one,” he said.

Michelle Larkin, who runs Arsenal Cider House with her husband Bill, said looking out for one's fellow small business owner is the secret to success.

“Nobody’s out to hurt each other, nobody’s out to get each other and see anybody fail, because personally knowing how much we’ve put into it, from the blood, sweat and tears of everything, you only want to see somebody’s business succeed,” she said.

Larkin said her customers are always struck by how quick she is to recommend they go check out other alcohol establishments in the area. In fact, Bill actually designed the Allegheny River Libation Trail, a passport-like booklet leading drinkers to all 13 craft alcohol makers within a mile or so of the river.

“It runs Allegheny River and it includes Maggie’s Rum, it is Penn Brewery, Wigle Whiskey, all the breweries, Roundabout, Grist House, Draai Laag -- you name it.”

East End's Scott Smith said it’s been hard keeping up with all the craft breweries, wineries, and distilleries opening up in the Pittsburgh area.

Six craft alcohol makers opened their doors in 2013; seven in 2014 and one so far this year, which begs the question: is there really room for everybody?

“There’s discussion in the beer community, or people asking in the beer community, is this a bubble? Is this gonna burst?” Smith said. “I don’t see that happening.”

Smith said there’s a huge market of millennials for whom drinking craft beer isn’t really unusual. They never knew a world where Sam Adams didn’t exist, and they’re coming of age at a time when buying local and knowing where your food comes are held up as virtues.

Take Brittany Bell and Vincent Finelli, for example, who drove in from Washington, Pennsylvania to try East End’s latest selections.

Bell, 24, and Finelli, 25, said they only drink craft beer, never mass-produced macro-brews like Budweiser or Miller.

Finelli said they’re the craft beer evangelists in their social circle, and that there tends to be little resistance to trying different styles, like IPAs or hefeweizens, among people their age.

“Whereas our parents, they like the same thing over and over again,” Finelli said. “We like different things.”

Bell said visiting micro-breweries and trying new craft beers is like a mystery.

“You never know what you’re going to get,” she said. “You go and taste something, it’s always surprising."

Rob Soltis, owner and publisher of Craft Pittsburgh magazine, said it is young people like Finelli and Bell who are going to help craft alcohol survive and flourish in Pittsburgh over the long term.

“I really hope — and really believe — that Pittsburgh’s going to be known for craft beer, it’s going to be a craft beer destination,” he said. “Just as people take a trip to Asheville or go to Vermont or the West Coast, I think people are going to start looking at Pittsburgh in that way.”

There are at least two more breweries currently in the works for the Pittsburgh region. When they open, that will put the total number of craft alcohol businesses at 38, just shy of pre-prohibition levels.

“Before prohibition, there (were) right around 40 breweries in Western PA, Allegheny County,” Soltis said. “Every little neighborhood kinda had their own little brewery, and that’s where you drank, that’s where you got your beer."

Soltis said that’s the direction he sees Pittsburgh moving in, because most of these new brewers, distillers and wine-makers aren’t necessarily trying to make it big. They just want to be the neighborhood spot, the place locals go for a good drink.