Mid-Atlantic Brewing News April/May 2009
New Lease: Penn Brewery Stays Put
By Rich Wagner
When I heard the news a while back that Penn Brewing’s landlord was raising the rent by 300% and that the brewery was ready to leave the old Eberhardt & Ober brewery on Pittsburgh’s north side, I was devastated. I could hear Neil Sedaka singing: “Think of all that we’ve been through, …Breaking Up is Hard to Do.” Call me a hopeless romantic if you will, but my love affair with Pennsylvania’s old brewery buildings has been a long and enduring one.
I remembered back to the fall of 1980, the first time I saw her, a long-neglected diamond in the rough with faded paint, broken windows, weeds and pigeons nesting in the cavernous upper floors of yet another hulking remnant of Pennsylvania’s nineteenth century brewing heyday. She had been the second of the last of twenty-one branches of the mammoth Pittsburgh Brewing Company to close in the fifties, after over a century of brewing, finally used as a warehouse for produce and then abandoned; chucked into the ash bin of history, as they say.
Imagine my surprise when less than a decade later, she came back to life in all her regal splendor as the Pennsylvania Brewing Company through a labor of love by Tom Pastorious, who imported a brewing system from Germany and actually built the tables for the beer hall himself! It was a dream come true! She was one of seven such “success stories” in brewery preservation throughout the Commonwealth. Not all of them were turned into breweries, and not all of them lasted, but the old Eberhardt & Ober brewery complex was a shining jewel, and my heart couldn’t bear to think she would no longer house one of Pennsylvania’s pioneer craft breweries. Sedaka’s refrain played over and over in my head: “…Don't say that this is the end, Instead of breaking up I wish that we were making up again…”
So when I saw the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review headline “Penn Brewery Gets Last-Minute Reprieve,” my spirit soared at the prospect that her days as a brewery were not over, and that she would continue exude the sweet smell of boiling wort from her steam stack! And according to local reports, Pittsburgh residents, including the mayor, couldn’t agree more!
I spoke with CEO Len Caric who said their 23-year legacy as Penn Brewing will continue there under a new five-year lease which contains an option for an additional five years. Details of the agreement were not made public, but Caric was happy that the company did not have to move. Even though they will not be brewing for three to six months, the brewpub is open and beer is being manufactured by the Lion. “The Lion does a very good job, we’ve been very pleased.” He told me, “They’re using all the ingredients, including the hops from Germany that we used in the past. The yeast, the malt is the same that we used here. I’m generally up there (Wilkes-Barre) once a month to do analytics and tasting throughout the brew cycle.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that their contract with the Lion is for three years, but Caric was quick to point out that it stipulated the Lion will supplement what Penn brews itself.
I had seen the brewery’s equipment listed for sale online and asked if the last-minute agreement changed that. Len said, “We’re still selling some of our brewing equipment and we’re adjusting the whole brewery to suit our needs.” The bottling line has already been sold to a Japanese company according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We are in the process of shopping for other equipment.” He added that there would be some changes in the brewpub; specifically more beer options.” They plan to introduce new seasonals there, and develop some into packaged products. “We’re a little over 10,000 barrels a year now and our goal is to continue to grow,” Len said, adding, ”We’re looking for 15-20% growth each year, with the near term goal of gaining better market share.” Penn Brewing’s beer is currently available in nine states, and is a big hit in Bradenton, Florida, where the Pittsburgh Pirates conduct spring training!
Their Kaiser Pils received a gold and Oktoberfest won bronze medals at the 2008 GABF. Looking ahead, Len told me they’ve got new packaging and labels, and that starting in April Kaiser Pils will be available in 12 oz. bottles. They have plans for some new seasonals, but the main priority right now is to get the brewery back up and running. That will be a tall order for brewing supervisor, Jack Isherwood, but with thirty years in the beer business, including Pittsburgh Brewing and Heileman, it would appear Penn Brewing is in capable hands.