Tiny but Mighty: The Garage-Brewed Beer That's a Big Hit
The small-batch approach at CoStar Brewery wins nanobrewery acclaim among craft-beer enthusiasts.
Dominic Cincotta stirs the brew kettle / photos by cory morton
Garage-based innovation often is a product of specific times and geographies. Silicon Valley’s technology titans tinkered on leafy side streets in the late 1970s. In 1990s Seattle, flannel-clad bands kept neighbors awake while rocking deep into the night. Pittsburgh’s roots run a little more blue-collar. Here, now, it’s beer.
Dominic Cincotta and Jeff Hanna officially licensed the CoStar Brewery label in 2012. The name comes from the alley where their Highland Park nanobrewery was created and still remains. It’s a part-time thing — they both have day jobs — but one that’s earned heaps of respect in Pittsburgh’s craft-beer community.
“They might be brewing in very small quantities, but their product is among the best in Pittsburgh,” says Peter Kurzweg, co-owner of The Independent Brewing Company in Squirrel Hill. “Small quantities” is an understatement: CoStar produces a scant two kegs per week. Nevertheless, Kurzweg says he likes CoStar’s beer so much that, “I have with them a ‘We will take as much as we can buy at any given moment’ standing order.’”
Cincotta and Jeff Hanna at work through a typical brew Saturday at CoStar Brewery
Hanna gets things rolling in his two-car garage every Saturday around 7 a.m. by firing up an old-school homebrew kettle. Cincotta typically joins him a few hours later to help with the rest of brew day; they’ll roll through three cycles to fill one of the brewery’s four one-barrel fermenters. Hanna’s wife, Caitlyn, also is a partner in the business, as is his brother Thomas.
Once the beer is brewing, it’s a pretty mellow day in the brewery. There are a couple of chairs (“In the beginning we’d just sit on the floor,” says Cincotta), notebooks, brew books and a 27-inch HD television with Roku. “We watch a lot of shows about beer,” Hanna says.
Obsession with craft beer brought together the two avid mountain bikers — that’s how they often spend their other days off. The friends happened to buy homebrew kits at the same time in 2006, and they soon became part of the city’s community of homebrewing enthusiasts. Cincotta’s love of beer is notable for its next-level enthusiasm; his doctoral thesis is about how regionality affects the communal identity of breweries. “So far, nobody’s found a way to get ‘slippy’ into a beer. You can’t ‘red up’ a flavor and get that into a beer,” he says.
As is typical for a lot of homebrewers, they believed their beer measured up to the commercial brews they were tasting. “We’d have bottles in our backpacks when we went out at night, and we’d give them to bartenders,” Cincotta says.
Adds Hanna: “We weren’t planning on starting a brewery, though. But our friends at the bars started asking if they could buy it. So we decided to figure out how to do it.”
It’s one thing to feel proud of the beer you’re brewing. It’s another thing to sell it to the public. They hesitated. But then, Cincotta says, “We’d had a bit of whiskey at Jeff’s wedding. Literally right before he was about to walk down the aisle, I whispered in his ear, ‘We could do this.’”
Pittsburgh’s professional brewing community was supportive. East End Brewing Company owner Scott Smith invited the nascent brewery to join the wet hop festival he throws every year at Kelly’s in East Liberty. Roundabout Brewery co-owner and brewmaster Steve Sloan (then the head brewer at Church Brew Works) provided advice and encouragement.
Even though the garage is zoned for duel residential and commercial use, the Highland Park Community Council wasn’t so sure about the project. “They were worried we were going to become the next Budweiser and have big towers and delivery trucks running all day,” says Cincotta.
CoStar made a few concessions — no retail sales are allowed in the garage — and relations with the community remain positive. In fact, the brew day often turns into a mini block party. People visit throughout the day, and on warm summer evenings, neighbors bring beer and snacks and CoStar taps unfinished kegs.
CoStar has a total of 31 recipes, with a heavy tilt toward classic styles of beer. “We’re in a garage. We’re pretty straightforward,” jokes Cincotta.
“I want to make basic, simple, good beer,” says Hanna.
Hopland Park, the brewery’s signature beer, fits that bill. The American Pale Ale is crisp, clean and floral, with just enough citrus bitterness to let you know it’s a pale ale but not so much that you wouldn’t want to drink more than one.
You still can’t get CoStar beer through retail sales, but a loyal following of bar owners clamors to stock the brew. In addition to the Independent Brewing Company, CoStar sells to 20 accounts. IBC and Meat & Potatoes nearly always have CoStar on tap, and it rotates through other locations including Cure, Kelly’s, Harris Grill, Butterjoint and Smallman Galley.
“They don’t miss steps, and they don’t ever go through the motions. They are so good at what they do,” says the IBC’s Kurzweg.