Mid-Atlantic Brewing News August/September 2009

 Pittsburgh, Iron City Brand Go Their Separate Ways

 By Rich Wagner

 While attending the American Breweriana Association convention in Madison, Wis. this summer, I asked Bud Hundenski about Iron City Brewing Co. He’s from a suburb of Pittsburgh and has been a long-standing supporter of his local breweries. “It’s over!” he said. “They’re brewing the last batch next week!” The look on Bud’s face told me this was no joke, and while I wasn’t shocked, I had somehow hoped I’d never hear those words. After all, the brewery had miraculously survived for over two decades with a colorful cast of owners, each of whom seemed to bring the company perilously close to collapse. The last of a twenty-one branch once-mighty “combine” formed in 1899 as the Pittsburgh Brewing Company was about to become idle.

 The Iron City brand actually harkens back to the days before the “Smoky City” became famous for making steel! The company not only survived prohibition, but “the Beer Wars” of post-World War II America. Pittsburgh Brewing became Iron City Brewing in the fall of 2007 with a $4.1M infusion from a Connecticut-based investment firm to clear debts and modernize the plant. As part of the deal the water authority forgave part of the $2.7M it was owed.  Allegheny County now wants to be paid back on loans it granted for job creation and retention. The city says the company did not make the capital improvements it promised. The company says it will keep the office open in Pittsburgh with a small staff.

 In March, Iron City shut down the canning line, laying off over 25% of the workforce, and moved can production to High Falls Brewing Co. (since renamed Genesee) in Rochester, NY. In June, company president Tim Hickman told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of plans to move all production to Latrobe where City Brewing Co. was in the process of putting in a new canning line. The Latrobe brewery had been virtually shuttered since late last year when they lost the contract to brew Samuel Adams as a result of Boston Beer’s purchase of the Schaefer-Stroh-Pabst plant in Fogelsville, PA.

 Some say Iron City’s 2008 production of 172,000 bbl would not warrant restarting Latrobe’s million-barrel capacity brewery. But Don “Joe Sixpack” Russell recently reported that Southampton Brewing was moving their contract beer production from the Lion in Wilkes-Barre to Latrobe.

 An April 14 article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review added another potential ironic twist to the tale stating that Anheuser-Busch was shopping around the Rolling Rock brand it acquired in 2006. Both City Brewery and Genesee were reportedly in the running to acquire it. Imagine Rolling Rock returning home, like a prodigal son, to a populace and workforce once-scorned. Or, alternatively, imagine Rochester becoming the biggest producer of Pennsylvania regional brands: Iron City, Rolling Rock and Straub! (Yes, Straub Brewing Co. in St. Marys introduced a canned product this summer made under contract at Genesee.)

 A Local Beer No Longer

 Iron City management can try to put a positive spin on the move to Latrobe, but to lifelong died-in-the-wool supporters like Bud Hundenski, it just isn’t Pittsburgh! Ask a bar owner in Latrobe how much Rolling Rock he’s sold since A-B moved production to Newark three years ago. It’s anyone’s guess how this is all going to shake out, and there are those who see the closing of the brewery as one puzzle piece in an elaborate real estate scheme. 

 And as if that weren’t enough, the basement of the bottling house was flooded during a storm the same week they brewed their last batch, damaging sewer, electrical and steam lines, so in all likelihood the finished beer will have to be trucked to Latrobe for packaging.

 The Pittsburgh beer market resisted the invasion of national brands longer than just about any other region I can think of. Those familiar red “bull’s-eye” Iron City neons graced just about every tavern when I took my first tour of Pittsburgh Brewing in 1980 and if you ordered anything other than “Iron” (pronounced Ahhrrrn) you were immediately pegged as an out-of-towner. The IC Light brand kept light beers from the “Big Three” at bay for years! Most recently, the company was the first in the nation to introduce the aluminum bottle.

 I’ve seen a lot of Pennsylvania’s old nineteenth-century breweries littering the landscape, left standing like vulture-picked carcasses with gaping holes in their sides after equipment has been removed and sold for pennies on the dollar, and it’s sad to see this one join the list of casualties.

 End Note: (This made news after MABN went to press).On July 24, 2009 the Associated Press reported the last kegs rolled off the production line at Iron City in Pittsburgh and that City Brewery in Latrobe began producing Iron City beer earlier in the week.

For Further Reading

Dochter, Rich & Wagner, Rich. "The Brewing History of Pittsburgh, a Microcosm of the U.S. Brewing Industry." Zymurgy. Winter, 1985.

Wagner, Rich. “Brewing in the Iron City.” American Breweriana Journal. Includes cover photos. May/June 2006.

Wagner, Rich. “Pittsburgh Brewing Company – After Repeal.” American Breweriana Journal. May/June 2006.

Wagner, Rich. “City of Steel and Beer: Celebrating Pittsburgh's Heritage.” Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. June/July 2006.

Wagner, Rich. “A-B Purchase of Rolling Rock Puts Brewery Future in Doubt.” Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. Aug./Sept. 2006.