Penn Brewery's lagering caves very cool — 55 degrees to be exact
In Penn Brewery's beer garden, there is a wooden door with large rocks piled against the base to keep people from entering.
That will soon change.
Because on the other side of the door is the brewer's past and present, which they are almost ready to reveal: A series of lagering caves dug into the side of Troy Hill more than 150 years ago.
“They dug them out, blasted them — whatever technology they had in the 1860s for making deep caves,” says Corey Little, Penn Brewery's chief technology officer, while standing in a cavern at the mouth of the cave system. “This could be attractive. Get this opened up, get lighting in — this could be a very cool space.”
The caves, which are a constant 55 degrees, were used to cool lagers before refrigeration made them obsolete. So far, Penn Brewery officials have found four main caves, stretching as much as 150 feet back. They twist, they dip, they interconnect and they spiderweb farther and farther into the underground.
But for decades they were sealed off, opened only, history shows, during projects when contractors would dump construction materials in them: walls, framing, doors, window — in short, a lot of junk.
So Penn Brewery decided to clean them out.
They brought in dumpsters and hauled the junk away. They cleaned out the entry cavern — which is bricked with an arched ceiling — then moved deeper into the cave system.
The opening cavern is almost ready for display. Sandy Cindrich, Penn Brewery's co-owner and president, says the plan is to open up the cavern, at least for viewing, as soon as the beer garden opens.
As for the rest of the caves — “That's hard hat territory,” Little says.
“This stuff,” he says, pointing to the walls of the entry cavern, “is very sturdy. We could have it to the point where an engineer would declare it structurally sound. But once you get past (the entry cavern), then we do have some concerns about what we could do. It's natural stone, and natural stone cleaves, it falls. It would be great to give tours someday, but ...”
But not yet. Cindrich says Penn Brewery is looking into grants from preservation groups including the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation and the Senator John Heinz History Center, to see what the options are. There are old lagering drums back there, and they would love to be able to showcase them and other brewing artifacts in a museum-like setting inside the caves.
“There are so many new breweries popping up, but this is something nobody else has,” Cindrich says. “It really highlights the tradition of brewing in Pittsburgh, and we're just proud of the fact that we can still brew here where there is so much history. It's something that makes us unique, and something we'd like to showcase.”
There could be more caves, Little adds. They just haven't found them yet.
In other news at Penn Brewery:
• Anyone driving past the loading docks on Vinial Street will have noticed a fair amount of digging in recent months. Turns out, crews dug into the hill and built a massive retaining wall to the side of the brewery to give the operation space to expand. Right now, it's being used for parking. But the plan, Cindrich says, is to eventually erect a structure there, likely for storage. That way, the brewery would no longer have to rent space in a Spring Garden warehouse.
• Inside the brewery, work recently was completed on the installation of a new small batch brewing system. Head brewer Nick Rosich says the system will help with research and development. Under the existing brew system, the smallest batch he can make yields 300 cases of beer, which is not ideal, given the hit-and-miss nature of experimentation.
“With this system, before we move something over (to the main system), we can fine-tune the product,” Rosich says.
The first batch will be brewed next week: A Scottish wee heavy that will be named “Wee Jags.” A session IPA is also planned.
Of course, Penn Brewery's staple products will remain its lineup of lagers.
But the small batch system “gives us the flexibility we didn't have before to try new things,” Cindrich says.