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Brewmasters quenching Pittsburghers' demand for local ales

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By Justine Coyne
Thursday, March 15, 2012
 

If all goes as planned, the city's suburbs will be a little more "yinzer" and have access to a little more beer -- two things almost any native Pittsburgher can tell you all about.

Curt Eisaman, 29, of Castle Shannon, and his brewing partner, Neil Lyons, also 29, of Bridgeville, want to turn their hobby of brewing beer into a business. They are writing a business plan to open Yinzer Brew Works by this time next year.

The pair now brew their beer in Lyons' Bridgeville home, but they're hoping to find a commercial space.

"We strongly feel the demand is there, so even if we take small personal loans, our business plan will reflect that we will recoup what we take in the loans within the first few years," Eisaman said.

Eisaman, a pharmacy operations manager at UPMC, and Lyons, inside sales manager for West Penn Wire, dream of one day being full-time brewmasters.

Eisaman's confidence has some statistical backing, if not anecdotal support. Even in a down economy, demand for locally brewed beers has grown, buoyed by regulators and the increasingly discriminating tastes of consumers, experts said.

Nationwide, craft brewers provide about 100,000 jobs, according to the Brewers Association in Colorado, which reports that 97 microbreweries opened in the United States in 2010, while nine closed. As of June, the association said 725 breweries were being planned.

While overall American beer sales have decreased by volume, craft brewer dollar sales were up 15 percent in the first half of 2011, the association reports. The latest statistics from 2010 estimate the retail value of craft beer to be $7.6 billion. Spencer Powlison, marketing coordinator for the Brewer's Association, said he expects that number to be higher when updated figures are released next week.

"Craft beer is growing by incredible numbers locally," said Douglas Derda of Dormont, craft beer advocate and co-host of the podcast "Should I Drink That?"

"There are so many breweries in the works right now in the Pittsburgh area that we're going to see a huge boom in the next two or three years."

The Pennsylvania Senate has taken note and passed a resolution directing its legislative budget and finance committee to conduct an economic impact study of the brewery industry to see whether the 1951 Liquor Code needs to be amended to promote it.

The capital needed to start a microbrewery varies. Eisaman and Lyons estimate their start-up costs at about $30,000.

Typical home-brew systems have a kettle, mash tun and fermenter.• Eisaman and Lyons purchase hops and other supplies online, but hops go fast.

"Hops are only harvested once every year in September, so we have to stock up in the early fall," Lyons said. "Especially in the past few years, we have noticed a lot of suppliers are running out of stock at a faster pace."

Microbrewers must get a federal license and a state license and undergo a background check, said Beth Vreeland, co-owner of Greensburg's All Saints Brewing Co. State inspectors visit, as well.

"What people don't realize is how hard you work," said Vreeland, whose brewery is inside the former Braun Baking Co. building on Route 119. "We work seven days a week."

Yinzer Brew Works cannot sell to the public until it is licensed, but the response from taste-testers has been overwhelmingly positive, Eisaman and Lyons say.

Vreeland, an adjunct professor in the education department at Seton Hill University, and her partner, head brewer Jeff Guidos, opened All Saints Brewing in December because they believe more imbibers are interested in craft beers. They buy materials locally when they can.

"There is a big 'buy-local' aspect to what our customers look for and we subscribe to that as well," said Scott Smith of Mt. Lebanon, owner of East End Brewing in Homewood. The honey for the brewery's Honey Heather Ale came from bees at the National Aviary on the North Side, he said.

The brewery's sales haves grown by 40 to 60 percent a year since opening in 2004, said Smith, who started as a one-man operation. Since then, he has added four full-time employees, and plans to move into a 17,000-square-foot facility in Larimer this fall.

Meanwhile, Eisaman said the biggest challenge he and his partner have faced has been perfecting their recipes, which he also says has been his favorite part.

"Every other week, we brew another batch, trying to refine our recipes and really get what we want to serve to the public set in stone, so that when the time comes that we are open, we will have a set of recipes to work from," Eisaman said.

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