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More locally brewed beers on tap for Western Pennsylvania

By Justine Coyne
Point Park News Service

Beth Vreeland sits inside the Pepperwood Grille near Westmoreland Mall in Hempfield Township, marveling at the beers on tap.

As the co-owner of Greensburg’s All Saints Brewing Co., she cannot look away from her new microbrewery’s custom-made wooden tap handle, standing out among the old standard drafts.

“A year ago, I could have never imagined I would be sitting in a restaurant and would be able to look over and see my beer on tap,” Vreeland said. “I always wanted to do something for the community, and I never really have been able to.”

Like a growing number people, Vreeland and her partners are in the beginning stages of breaking into the quickly expanding local craft beer industry. Even in a down economy, demand for locally brewed beers has grown with help from regulators and with the increasingly discriminating tastes of consumers, experts said.

Nationwide, craft brewers provide about 100,000 jobs, according to the Brewers Association in Colorado. It reported that 97 microbreweries opened in the United States in 2010, while 389 new breweries are in the planning stages. Eight of them closed.

While overall U.S. beer sales have decreased by volume, craft brewer dollar sales were up 15 percent in the first half of 2011, according to the Brewers Association.

Locally, several different groups are working to start or expand craft breweries.

“Craft beer is growing by incredible numbers locally,” said Douglas Derda, local craft beer advocate and co-host of the podcast “Should I Drink That?” “There are so many breweries in the works right now in the Pittsburgh area that we’re going to see a huge boom in the next two or three years.”

Pennsylvania’s state Senate has taken note of the recent growth in the industry, and passed a resolution directing the legislative budget and finance committee to conduct an economic impact study of the brewery industry. The brewery industry in Pennsylvania has “contributed to the economic development of this commonwealth … (and) philanthropic and civic endeavors within communities,” the resolution states.

This study would examine the state Liquor Code, originally adopted in 1951, to determine whether changes need to be made in order to promote the continued growth of the brewing industry.

Vreeland, an adjunct professor in the education department at Seton Hill University, and her partner, head brewer Jeff Guidos, opened All Saints Brewing Co. in December because they believe more drinkers are interested in craft beers.

“Statistically speaking, it’s a growing industry and I think it will only continue to grow,” Vreeland said.

The brewery, housed inside the former Braun Baking Co. building along Route 119, has received immense support from the local community in the few weeks it has been open, she said.

“I’m a local girl and Jeff is also from the area,” Vreeland said. “We chose Greensburg because we felt it would be the best place where we would be supported and we could also support the community.”

All Saints’ owners also have made it a point to support other local small businesses.

A local woodworker and former high school classmate of Vreeland’s custom made the tap handles for the brewery. The company uses local printers for its labels and stationary. Many ingredients that go into All Saint’s beer cannot be bought locally but Vreeland said the owners look for unique ways to help nearby agriculture.

“I have a local farmer that comes and takes my spent grain and feeds it to his cows, which is pretty cool,” Vreeland said.

In nearby Mt. Pleasant, Shawn Gentry said he also has felt enormous support from the local community since setting up his microbrewery, called Helltown Brewing, in May. A Mt. Pleasant resident, he named the brewery in homage to the town’s historical roots during the Whiskey Rebellion in the late 1700s.

Operating out of a metal building that was once a car garage, the largest problem for Helltown has been keeping up with the demand, he said.

“Demand has been so great that I have had to expand already and we still can’t keep up with it,” Gentry said.

Helltown has produced five varieties of beer so far, which can be found at approximately 60 locations, Gentry said. Another three beers will be released soon, and more are in the planning stages. He said he hopes to incorporate locally grown fruits for a few beers.

“In Pittsburgh, I think the piece of the pie for craft beer will keep growing,” Tony Knipling, specialty brands manager at Vecenie Distributing Co. in Millvalle, said. “The whole pie might not grow, but the piece representing craft beer will continue to grow.”

Among local craft brewers, he said, East End Brewing in Homewood has set the standard. Vecenie Distributing Co. is the brewery’s exclusive wholesaler.

East End’s owner Scott Smith started small, and with the support of the city, has been able to grow a successful microbrewery business focused on supporting the local economy, Knipling said.

The brewery’s sales haves grown by 40 percent to 60 percent a year since opening in 2004, Smith said. Since then, he has added four fulltime employees to his staff and is in the process of expanding the brewery, planning a move into a 17,000-square-foot facility in neighboring Larimer this fall.

Smith said he has found unique ways to incorporate local elements in his beer. The honey for last year’s Honey Heather Ale came from bees at the National Aviary on the North Side, he said.

“There is a big buy-local aspect to what our customers look for and we subscribe to that as well,” Smith said.

Yet another brewery is in the works for the South Hills.

Curt Eisaman, of Castle Shannon, and his brewing partner, Neil Lyons are planning to open Yinzer Brew Works by this time next year. The two, like others in the area, are trying to turn their hobby into a business.

They are currently putting together a business plan and the next step will be to obtain funding. For now, they are brewing out of Lyons’ Bridgeville home, but hope to find a commercial space.

“We strongly feel the demand is there so even if we take small personal loans, our business plan will reflect that we will recoup what we take in the loans within the first few years,” Eisaman said.

Eisaman said the biggest challenge he and his partner have faced so far has been perfecting their recipes, which he also admits has been his favorite part.

“Every other week we brew another batch trying to refine our recipes and really get what we want to serve to the public set in stone so that when the time comes that we are open, we will have a set of recipes to work from,” Eisaman said.

Gentry said the process of setting up a brewery is different for everyone. For him, the biggest challenge was learning all of the laws and regulations.

“If you’re just brewing the beer then yeah, it’s fun,” Gentry said, “but I do all the other work too so it can be hectic. The taxes, the building upkeep, all those types of things come into play.”

To open a microbrewery, the owners must get a federal license and a state license, submit to interviews by the Liquor Control Board and a background check, Vreeland said. State inspectors conduct site visits of the proposed brewery too.

“What people don’t realize is how hard you work,” Vreeland said. “We work seven days a week.”

This article was published on Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s site on March 15, 2012.


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