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Sunday, January 24, 2010

4 hours in Pittsburgh, and many miles to run

Work on Pennsylvania Breweries 4 continues, and I wrapped up western PA last, the week before last. Sorry, this took a while to find the time to write. Briefly, here's what happened.

I left the house early Wednesday morning, the 13th, running down the Turnpike with the dawn at my back. 300-some miles later, I pulled into the snowy parking lot at Penn Brewery. That's right, Penn, the place I wrote this obituary for in November. What a spring I had in my step as I walked down Vinial Street to the offices, and what a pleasure it was to have former -- and current -- marketing manager Eric Heinauer open the door. Tom Pastorius came down the stairs and the first thing I said to him was "Congratulations." I met the three investors -- Linda Nyman, Sandy Cindrich, and Corey Little -- some very talented and experienced people who are bringing a lot to the table, and was introduced to brewmaster Andy Rich...again. Er, I, um, think I met you at the bock tapping in 2008, but, um, I was pretty banged up by then. "Hey, it's okay, so was I. It was a good one."

Tom showed me around the brewery. The kegging line was sold, the bottling line was sold, and the furnace is broken: so no kegs, no bottles, and no restaurant. But...the new kegging line is shipping from Germany, new bottlling line will be in soon, and they plan to have their beer back on the market shortly (bottles by the end of January, kegs sooner -- maybe now?). The restaurant? Early April. It's been rough -- "The first few weeks," Tom said, "all I did was write checks and apologize to suppliers." -- and yes, they did break down and brew a pale ale to have beer ready in time for a sneak preview on December 30th, but Penn is back. And it's damned good to have them. I bid them farewell and took off.

I tooled down to South Side to the Hofbräuhaus and my meeting with brewer Eckhard Kurbjuhn. That went well, lubricated by a half liter of the new hellerbock -- so smooth, malty and solid, good eating. We talked about the place, he was quite forthcoming, and they're doing well. The place was almost empty -- and when a place that size is empty, it is EMP-TEE -- but it was an early weekday afternoon in January, eh? We took a look at the kitchen (Huge!), the dining room (nice), and the brewery...which is right out there in the open anyway. A good time, an affable guy, and I moved on.

I cut across the Hot Metal Bridge, cut across town, and was soon churning up the long hill out of town on I-279, windows open and music blaring (it was up to 34 degrees!). Got into Slippery Rock and walked into North Country. Love that place, with all the amazing woodwork and the determinedly populist feel to it (er, and the really good beer may have something to do with it), and it was starting to roll at 4:30 in the afternoon. I saw Bob McCafferty at the bar, so I walked up, we bullshit each other a bit, and then Sean McIntyre grabbed my shoulder and spun me around, and we all went upstairs (which is open now, I hadn't known!) to have some beers. He had one on, the Honey Bear Brown that was simply unique, I'd never tasted anything like it: a beer made with honey and brown malt that just kind of expanded in my mouth. I got a growler of that to take home.

I would have loved to stay a lot longer, but I had one more stop that day: Voodoo Brewery, in Meadville. Matt Allyn wasn't there -- more about that to come -- but brewer Justin Dudek was in the house (I'd met him back in November) and we drank a bit and talked a bit. Voodoo's got beer in the tanks, but things are kind of juggling right now, with Matt Allyn's attention split between Voodoo, Blue Canoe, and that new project I hinted about...oh, hell, you probably all know anyway: Matt's brewing at Straub now. So what's going to happen with these other two projects is not something that's pinned down certain. Justin is certainly capable of doing the brewing, but Matt was doing a lot of traveling promoting Voodoo. We'll see. The beer's excellent, I'll tell you that.

On Justin's suggestion, I ate dinner at Chovy's in Meadville, right across the street from my motel (cheap, clean, America's Best Value Inn, good basic room). It was good! I had a spinach and feta thing on pasta, and it was delish with the glass of Italian white I got. Had a good time talking to the folks at the bar, and then went back to my room, read a bit, did some e-mailing, and went to bed. It was really cold, and I snugged down.

Next morning, I got up fairly early, headed up the road, and took Minerva's suggestion for a bagel breakfast in Edinboro. As you can see, it was pretty damned cold. In fact, while there was snow all along here, driving down the hill into Edinboro added almost a foot to what was on the ground. They apparently have their own little microclimate, and extra snow is not uncommon. It was awesome.

On up the road to BrewErie, where I was meeting owner Chris Siriani and brewer Gary Burleigh at 9. I parked, crunched my way over the snowpack to the door, and got there just as Gary was opening the door. He looked at me, very seriously, and said, "You didn't leave your dad in the car again, did you?" NO, I assured him quickly -- Gary recalled that my father usually went along on these trips as backup driver (and fulltime tourist) -- and I told him about my father's health (which is actually holding up pretty well lately; he's eating well, and sounds just like the old Sir on the phone, even looks good), but said that it's almost like he's still with me: he's calling or texting me every two hours! (And I'm glad you do, Sir, keep it up.)

We had coffee, and talked about how the BrewErie had come together in this big space that was the original home to Erie Brewing (as Hoppers), then a fine dining restaurant with beer called Porters, and then the brewpub. I tasted beers (safe to say Gary's not a hophead, but he does keep an IPA on that satisfies "the most finicky drinkers," he said with a wry grin. He also had a Girl Stout Cookie, a chocolate peppermint stout that was surprisingly accurate. I like it when brewers fool around like that.

A short run down to Erie Brewing was next, and Jim Hicks gave me the lowdown on the new owners and the new direction. The new direction? Bold. Erie's doing casks regularly, they've got a whole -bender line now -- Railbender, Ryebender, Smokebender, and Oakbender -- twisted off their flagship Railbender Scottish ale, they're messing with Ol' Red, too...and Jim is pushing hard for some sour beers. They're doing well: like I just saw in the Wyoming Valley, craft beer acceptance has come to Erie. There are a lot of places putting crafts on, and Erie Brewing's picking up a lot of that. They're looking at the in-house tasting room thing (a lot of brewers I've talked to for this said "That thing Tröegs did"), with a small menu and pint sales. Erie's got money, they've got direction, and they've got Jim.

I got out, had to get down to Straub for my next to last stop of what was already a long day. I left Erie about 1:00, and it was warm, up to 42! Sunny, fresh, music, air, and man, I got east of town, and it got cold again! It was a chilly but pretty run across the southwest corner of New York and then south to St. Marys through the Allegheny National Forest. I love this part of the state (except for the traffic lights in the small towns), and the Jetta just purred.

I got to Straub right on time: 3:30. And there was Matt Allyn waiting at the office door, starting to wonder where I was. We went right in to the Eternal Tap (as I said on Facebook: Many things change. Some are Eternal.) and got some beers. Pretty soon we were joined by Dan Straub and Bill Brock. Bill (also a family member; his mother is a Straub) is the new CEO. There have been some big changes at Straub, and Bill's one of them. He's the first CEO not to come up from the floor. And Matt, who is "interim brewmaster" -- yes, Tom Straub has left the company -- is the first brewmaster not to come up from the floor. "It's culture shock," Bill admitted.

They stressed, however, that there was no intention to change the beer. Matt's working on the process, but the recipe, the formulation stays the same. "50% of what's done here," said Matt, "is standard German lager technique. About 30% is modern techniques. And about 20% is "we do it because it works." We're re-evaluating everything. Most of it we'll keep, some of it we'll change." It sounded like most of what they were looking to improve was the shelf-life, and what was, in the opinion of most of the people in western PA I talked to about this, a persistent problem with diacetyl. I can't speak to that: I have learned that I have a very high sensory threshold for diacetyl, and just don't -- can't, actually -- smell it until it's overwhelming. That's one thing they're working on, anyway.

Another thing is a line of craft lagers. "Not a lot, not too much," said Brock. "We don't want to re-invent ourselves, or re-introduce ourselves. we don't want to do ales. We don't do ales. We're Straub. We've got all this modern equipment now, and we're looking at it, and thinking, "What would Peter Straub do?"" And Matt said, "I think he'd spend about half an hour looking at everything, and marveling at it, and then he'd say, "Let's brew, let's get to work."" I like to think he's right. When will we see this stuff? This year, maybe by September. Should be fun.

Then we went back to the Eternal Tap, and had a couple beers. It was great hanging out with these guys, and listening to Dan and Bill tell brewery and family stories. But...I had to go, because I had to get home. I did, however, stop on the way at Olde New York in State College, which I'd heard about many times: it's owned by the folks who ran the late, beloved Schnitzel's in Bellefonte. Well...the atmosphere isn't Schnitzel's, nothing is, but the beer and the food was pretty damned good. I was there to meet my buddy Sam Komlenic, because I had something for him: a bottle of George T. Stagg I got for him because his State Store had none (I got it at my State Store, so don't go thinking I went out-of-state and got illegal or something). It was a pleasant dinner -- always is with Sam -- and then...I drove three hours back home. All done with western PA. A week later, I'd be done with the northeast. The book's continuing...


Bryan Kolesar said...

great, running...for a second, I thought I wrote it!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like there are some big changes coming from Straub. I thought Straub was maxed out in St. Mary;s though and was running at full capacity. How are they going to run additional beers? Are they looking at building a new brewery?

Lew Bryson said...

Ha, me, "running many miles"! 'Nuff said.

Yes, they're running close to cap, and they're pretty much landlocked there, too. They could give up the store space and that turnaround, but the store's a nice little moneyspinner for them, from what I hear.

But as brewers often do when I ask questions like that, they said "There's a few things we can do." One possibility that comes to mind is outdoor tanks -- because it's tank-space that's the bottleneck. They're definitely not looking at another brewery.

Sam Komlenic said...

The other opening in St. Marys is the capacity they've given up to contract canning at Genesee in Rovhester, that alone has given them some room in St. Marys, and could open up what Lew has described here. Much more potential than had been realized before.

Bill is not only the new CEO, he is the first-ever CEO; others before him have simply been president. I have faith that this will all be positive.

jp said...

I hope these "changes" at Straub sre not with the intention to grow the business introducing a line of craft lagers or increasing capacity sounds like a bad idea to me. Also Lew, trust the locals Hoffbrau is booming. Try going there on a Saturday afternoon or Firday evening and it is wall to wall.

Lew Bryson said...

They emphasized that it's not about growth; if anything, it's about maintaining. They don't want to just cruise along and one day wake up and realize that all their customers are over 65.
I should have emphasized the business the Hofbrau is doing: it was the worst daily time for business...which is why I wanted to do the interview then! Yes, there have been weekends over the summer, I was told, when they were actually turning people away from a place that seats 1100+.

jp said...

That's good to hear. Actually one might say cruising along has worked well for them for over a 100 years. Per a previous article of yours , here is a case where family control/ ownership has really benefitted consumers. One can only hope that the next generation does not get any crazy ideas about what this brewery is or isn’t . Although that new dark lager is pretty darn good. On e of the good things going at the Hoffbrau is that outside seating along the river which is a huge plus in the summer. Although pgh has miles and miles of waterfront, very little is accessible to the general public for recreation

Lew Bryson said...

Agreed: the waterfront seating for Hofbrau is fantastic, a real draw. Very German.

Unknown said...

No East End Brewing Lew? Hopefully there was nothing new to report but just wanted to make sure you give Scott his due.

Mike said...


I saw back in December that North Huntingdon zoning board denied Full Pint Brewing application to run a brewery. Did Sean McIntyre mention anything about the status of Full Pint?

Lew Bryson said...

No fear, Eric: caught Scott on an earlier trip:

Lew Bryson said...

Forgot to ask, Mike; hope to learn more about that this week.

EastEndBrewing said...

Eric's got my back!