Mid-Atlantic Brewing News June/July 2006

 City of Steel and Beer: Celebrating Pittsburgh’s Heritage

 By Rich Wagner

In June the American Breweriana Association (ABA) is holding its 25th Annual Convention in Pittsburgh when members from around the country will descend on the “Steel City” to tour its bars and breweries and to swap and sell breweriana of all kinds. Their host is the Pittsburgh Brewing Company, currently the thirteenth largest and third oldest brewery in the nation.

Pittsburgh has a rich brewing tradition dating back to the 1700s when two brewers made beer for British troops stationed at “Fort Pitt.” In 1795 Peter Shiras and Robert Smith purchased the site and started the city’s first commercial brewery which became known as the Point Brewery.

American Breweries II (Van Wieren, 1995) lists 65 brewery licenses in Pittsburgh and an early U.S. Industrial Census shows twenty more. And this does not include all the breweries in towns surrounding the city! So while the region may be best known for its coal, iron, steel, glass and paint, industries of all kinds developed here, none the least of which was the brewing industry.

In fact, by the end of the nineteenth century, two large brewing syndicates formed. In 1899 the Pittsburgh Brewing Company consolidated 21 breweries and became the third largest brewing company in the nation. In 1905, 15 breweries combined to form the Independent Brewing Company of Pittsburgh.

The legacy of these and other firms is preserved primarily in breweriana and lore, but some of the old brewery buildings remain standing. I conducted my last Pittsburgh Brewery Tour in 1994, and took a bus load of breweriana enthusiasts to visit twelve of them. In addition to a process tour of the Pittsburgh Brewing Company, we visited the Duquesne brewery at 21st & Mary Sts and the Wilhelm brewery at 26th & Josephine Sts on the South Side; the Phoenix brewery at 24th & Smallman Sts; the Hilltop brewery on Brownsville Road in Mount Oliver; the Baeuerlein and Hoehl breweries in Millvale and the Fort Pitt brewery at 16th & Mary Sts in Sharpsburg.

On the North Side in a section once known as “Deutschtown” at the base of Troy Hill was the Eberhardt & Ober brewery. It was part of the Pittsburgh Brewing Company and closed in 1952 leaving the Iron City branch as the sole survivor. It was used as a produce warehouse before being abandoned. Then in the 1980s it became the object of Tom Pastorius’ dream of turning it back into a brewery. Tom rolled out his contract Pennsylvania Pilsner in 1986 and worked feverishly towards his goal. He purchased the property and working in conjunction with the North Side Civic Development Council and Gateway Financial Group he spearheaded a $4 million renovation project that included the formation of a “business incubator” and his now famous brewery and pub which opened as Pennsylvania’s first “brewpub” in 1989. It is truly the most outstanding example of brewery preservation and reuse in Pennsylvania!

The Penn Brewery and Restaurant has been the lunch stop on all four of my bus tours of Pittsburgh’s historic brewery sites. It had great traditional German style beer and food in a beer hall atmosphere, but back then it was the only other brewery in town and it was great to get a process tour of a “microbrewery” in contrast to what we saw at the much larger Pittsburgh Brewing Company. The Penn Brewery and Restaurant is celebrating its 20th year and is currently involved in a $500,000 expansion program including new tanks and a bottling line that will bring annual production to 30,000 barrels over the next four years.

Others followed Tom’s lead and craft breweries began to appear in Pittsburgh. Lew Bryson’s 1998 edition of Pennsylvania Breweries also listed: the Foundry Ale Works, Strip Brewing Co., Valhalla, and the Church Brew Works. Unfortunately all but the Church have since passed into oblivion.

The Church Brew Works opened in 1996 directly across the street from Pittsburgh Brewing Company at 3525 Liberty Ave in the Lawrenceville section. It represents another premier example in reuse of a magnificent building, in this case, the old St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church which was slated to be demolished. You have to see it to believe it! I’m accustomed to seeing industrial spaces converted into brewpubs, but never a sanctuary! They now have packaged products that are widely available through distributors.

Most recently Scott Smith has set up a small production brewery called East End Brewing Co.in the gritty post-industrial neighborhood of Homewood at 6923 Susquehanna Street. He says, "I've camouflaged the brewery as an abandoned building." A Pittsburgh native and a mechanical engineer, Scott lived in Chicago and the Bay area before returning to Pittsburgh a year and a half ago. He purchased the brewing system from the Foundry Ale Works and set up his one-man brewing operation in an old printing plant. East End was reported to have 60 local draft accounts and will be coming out with some “session beers” for the summer season.

Three “chains” are also represented in the area. Rock Bottom at 171 E. Bridge St on the waterfront in nearby Homestead, PA, John Harvard’s Brew House is in the Shops at Penn Center at 3466 William Penn Highway in Wilkins Township near Monroeville, and Hereford and Hops which is located at 1740 Rte 228 in Cranberry Township.

The ABA Convention is scheduled for June 13-17, 2006, at the Radisson Hotel Green Tree. On Saturday, June 17, there will be a “buy-sell-swap” breweriana show open to the public from 8:30 AM to 2 PM.

To learn more about Pittsburgh’s brewing heritage visit Rich’s website at where you can order his Guidebook to the Pittsburgh Brewery Tour.