Brothers' bar in Squirrel Hill capitalizes on locally brewed trend
A man walks into a bar and orders a Budweiser.
If that bar is the new Independent Brewing Co. in Squirrel Hill, he won't get it.
Instead, the bartender might pour him a glass of East End Brewing's Smokestack Heritage Porter, or perhaps a Hellbender Robust from Sprague Farms Brew Works in Venango, Crawford County. At the Independent, any number of beers, all styles and types, are on tap — as long as that beer was brewed in Western Pennsylvania.
“No Budweiser — you're not going to be able to get that here,” bar manager Pete Kurzweg said on Saturday during Independent Brewing Co.'s official opening. “We're pressing this independent spirit, this departure from the national breweries, this departure from what every distributor has and what every other bar in town has. We're about promoting locally brewed beers. And that's it.”
Pittsburgh's newest bar, on Shady Avenue in a space formerly occupied by Fanattics bar, is looking to capitalize on the exploding popularity of craft beer. Across the country, market analysts say, beer drinkers are choosing flavorful, locally made beer over milder national brews designed to placate mainstream palates.
“Local has a lot of cache now,” said Eric Shepard, executive director of the trade publication Beer Marketer's Insights Inc. “You're seeing this more and more across the country, where people are featuring only local breweries. To me, it seems like a reasonable way to go about business, particularly if you're the first one in a city doing it.”
Kurzweg and his brother, Matt, both Downtown attorneys, brew beer at home with a regular group of friends. During one such home brewing session, the fantasy of opening a bar began to crystallize when they settled on the local-only business model, they said.
“Why are we the first (in Pittsburgh)? I don't quite know,” Matt Kurzweg said. “But it seems like a natural progression to the whole eat-local, buy-local phenomenon. There's also a sense of local pride in serving only beers that come from within a 100-mile radius.”
The name of their place recalls a time when Pittsburghers drank local, or didn't drink at all.
In the late 19th century, local breweries banded together to form two large syndicates: Pittsburgh Brewing Co. and Independent Brewing Co., said Will Hartlep, a beer historian who studied the syndicates. Pittsburgh Brewing Co.'s biggest brewer was Iron City, and Independent Brewing Co. was anchored by the Duquesne brewery.
They ceased to operate during Prohibition. But in their heydays, small brewers found that by joining forces, they could buy quality ingredients at bulk prices, and consolidate management.
“The concept was, ‘Hey, we're small, local breweries, and we need to band together to fight back,' which is exactly what we want our bar to do for small breweries around here,” Pete Kurzweg said. “We researched the history and realized ... that is exactly what we're trying to do.
“It didn't hurt that it had a great logo, and it didn't hurt that the trademark had been abandoned,” he said. “So we rolled with it.”
Today, a different Pittsburgh Brewing Co. exists as the maker of Iron City and I.C. Light beers.
At the opening of the Independent last weekend, six breweries were featured, including Hop Farms Brewing Co. and Arsenal Cider House, both in Lawrenceville;Elk Creek Brewing Co. in Millheim, Centre County; and Four Seasons Brewing Co. in Latrobe. The beers ranged from Sprague Farms' “High PA” — an amber pale ale brewed entirely with Pennsylvania-grown ingredients — to Elk Creek's “Willie's Wee Heavy Scotch Ale,” a strong, dark beer that checks in with an alcohol content of 9.8 percent.
One customer, perhaps looking for the old Fanattics, approached the bar uncertainly and asked for “something light.” The bartender suggested the pale ale. The man asked how much it cost, then canceled his order and left upon hearing that a pint cost $6. No two-dollar drafts here.
But beer analysts and historians believe lost customers will be the exception.
“Pittsburghers are loyal,” said Rich Wagner, a beer historian from Philadelphia. “Look at Coors Light — it took them a long time to a get a market share in Pittsburgh because everybody kept drinking I.C. Light. Iron City had a long run with that regional loyalty, longer than most other local beer brands in the country.”
Hartlep said there are “parallels to be drawn” between the original Independent Brewing Co. and the Kurzwegs with their home-brewing buddies.
“I mean, here they are, a group of, let's call them executives, who organized an establishment that serves multiple companies' beers — isn't that the same thing Duquesne did back then?” Hartlep said. “I think they'll do very well. Not all people care about what they drink, but there are enough people who do care that I think it will be a success.”
Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.