Brewed in the 'Burgh, the Evolution of Our City's Brewpubs
A long-awaited update to Pennsylvania's beer-selling law prompted change to the region's brewpub scene.
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photos by cory morton
In and around Pittsburgh, brewpubs and taprooms are supplementing and in some cases even replacing the corner bar. The destinations, which serve beer brewed only by the company with the name on the sign, draw both locals and loyalists, serve as de facto community centers and help startups to build their brands.
In the past, beer geeks sought out perfectly crafted Belgian lambics or German marzens at import bottle shops or craft-beer bars. They’re still thirsty for beer that resonates deeper than a generic macrobrew, but now they’re looking for those styles made locally.
“When I travel, I seek out the local beer. There are millions of people [who] are like that, and when they visit Pittsburgh, they want to come here,” says Matt Gouwens, owner and head brewer of Hop Farm Brewing Co. in Upper Lawrenceville.
Gouwens opened Hop Farm in September 2013 and started serving beer by the pint in August 2014. There are seven to nine beers on tap, with plans to soon double that number, and the food menu includes salads, vegan stuffed grape leaves and a selection of sausages from nearby Butcher on Butler and DJ’s Butcher Block. He’s sending spent grain to a local beef rancher to help raise cattle destined for his brewpub.
“I love beer, I love growing hops and I love cooking. This space is now a mix of all of those things,” he says.
It used to be that when you wanted to have a pint of beer from a Pennsylvania craft brewery, you had to either seek out a bar that served it, or if you wanted a deeper selection of the brewer’s choices, visit the brewery and take those beers home with you. A few changes in the law, coupled with increasing consumer demand for better local brews, helped to make a case for a new system. With more than 20 licensed breweries opening in the region since 2011, it’s clear the local beer scene is booming.
“The emergence of the local brewery economy must be considered a positive factor in affecting change, whether it influenced the [Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board] or simply [the beer-makers] pushed each other to compete and offer more to the consumer,” says Ted Zeller III, a lawyer with Norris McLaughlin & Marcus, P.A. and counsel to the advocacy group Brewers of Pennsylvania.
Zeller worked to clarify legal muddiness by writing proposed legislation, passed by the state in December 2011, that allowed breweries to sell beer “under such conditions and regulations as the board may enforce, to individuals for consumption on the licensed premises in any container or package of any volume … .” The intention was that brewers now could sell for consumption on or off premises. Because the PLCB didn’t list the conditions or regulations it would enforce under the new law, however, the law just added to the confusion.
“We kept pushing for changes to the PLCB’s interpretation because we wanted to help the smaller brewers who didn’t have the space to have a GP (brewpub) license,” says Zeller, who specializes in liquor law.
Finally, in November 2014 the PLCB issued a clarification — which officially was recognized in May 2015 — that’s colloquially known as the “Bag of Chips” rule. Breweries now can legally sell pints on-site if they offer 10 seats and “at a minimum … potato chips, pretzels and similar foods.”
Scott Smith, the innovative founder of East End Brewing Co., discovered another convenient legal loophole to loosen the taps: Brewers also may sell beer at “storage locations.” Because beer often is stored in easy-to-tap kegs, “You’ll have additional locations popping up where brewers can sell without any production requirements,” Zeller says.
Popular regional breweries already are taking advantage of this law to establish Pittsburgh satellites. Beer lovers once had to trek to Meadville for a taste of Voodoo Brewery, but since the packed-to-the-rafters opening of Voodoo Homestead in January, they now enjoy those same beers closer to home.
And since last year lively crowds have gathered at the Pittsburgh Public Market to drink pints poured from East End’s satellite location’s taps. They’re a major draw — not just for the brewery but also for the market as a whole. Back at the Larimer brewery, Smith says he was a step behind in setting up a brewpub. He’s organizing events such as pub quizzes and vegan bingo nights to catch up. “We want people to stay and have a beer or two,” he says.
Those beer sales encourage more experimentation.
“They can get our regular beers around town and then come to the Mother Ship and the Growler Shop for the one-offs,” Smith says.
For new brewers, tap rooms are a quick way to introduce drinkers to their brand.
In Braddock, 1-year-old The Brew Gentlemen attracts graduate students, college kids and the young and hip. They drink pints of beer while feasting from a parade of food trucks, watching the Super Bowl on a big screen and even attending yoga classes.
What does this mean for the corner bar? If you want to try a beer from more than one brewery, it remains a great place to do so because breweries can sell only their own beer.
Still, “We can have a lot more of our beers here. Plus, part of the romance is they get to meet the people behind the scenes,” says Hop Farm’s Gouwens.
Even with the exponential growth in breweries in Pittsburgh over the last few years, there’s still plenty of room backstage.
“When you’re talking about breweries that are replacing bars that weren’t serving interesting beer, it means we can support a lot of breweries. How many bars do we support? A lot,” says East End’s Scott Smith.
Read on for a sampling of the breweries in the region.