Craft Beer Spotlight Archives: Apis, Grist House, Brew Gentlemen, and Hitchhiker Turn One

Those familiar with wrestling folklore undoubtedly remember the impact The Four Horseman had on the industry. In the 80s, they sold out arenas all over the country for the now-defunct National Wrestling Alliance. They drew a fortune and are often credited as the collective group of badasses that revolutionized sports entertainment and stood out as a symbol of excellence that wrestlers and wrestling fans to this day look to as the gold standard.

Those not familiar with wrestling folklore can still appreciate the story that’s about to unfold, as Pittsburgh’s craft beer scene has its own group of four badass brewing establishments that have used the last year to solidify themselves as true players in the community and stake their claim in becoming symbols of excellence…adult beverage style.

Four Breweries Turning OneOf course, I’m referring to Apis Mead and Winery, The Brew Gentlemen Beer Company, Grist House Brewing, and Hitchhiker Brewing Company…three breweries and a meadery you’ve most likely experienced in the past year who are all celebrating their one year anniversaries in the upcoming months, the three craft breweries all in May. I am proud to feature all four of these establishments in this special and first-ever collaborative edition of Breaking Brews’ Craft Beer Spotlight.

With Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week 2015 closing out less than a week ago at the time of this feature, it’s hard to believe that when we partook in 2014’s edition of PCBW, all four of these places weren’t officially open for business. But April showers brought May grand openings (poetry is not my strong suit), all the breweries at scattered points throughout the month and Apis just a few short months later. When you stop to consider the sheer growth that’s hit our region in the past year,  you can’t help but appreciate the direction things are pointed for all of us as craft beer and mead enthusiasts.

Each of these entities is putting a great product in front of us on a consistent basis. Whether you’re in search of the sweetest drink in the house or the hoppiest Double IPA to rip the enamel off your teeth, you’re undoubtedly going to get everything you desire and then some when you visit these four establishments. Here’s a little recap of what’s been happening.

A Sweet, Delicious Alternative to Beer

There’s no denying the wide variety of craft beer options available in Pittsburgh. But for those looking for an alternative to the hoppy and the malty, our city is also one that features superb distilleries, wineries, cider houses, and, in the case of Apis Meadery, mead. For those unfamiliar, mead is a honey-based wine that is created by fermenting honey with water, fruits, spices, and grains. I first heard of mead in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, although it took research on the product to jog my memory. It was Beowulf’s drink of choice, and has become that of many Pittsburghers as well.

Dave Cerminara is an accomplished brewer who decided to take his skill set in a different direction. Formerly the assistant brewmaster at Penn Brewery, Dave realized the need for alternative adult beverages outside of beer and since so many great craft breweries were opening up, he tapped into his brewing repertoire to create Pittsburgh’s first meadery known as Apis Wine and Meadery in Carnegie, opened in early August of 2014.

apis mead and wineryWhat’s awesome about mead is its diversity. Craft beer drinkers have proven they’re always out for something bold, new, and different. But the quest for something new doesn’t just exist on the level of beer. If someone loves a craft beer, they’ll more than likely find something to love about a craft cider. Or a rum. Or, in this case, a mead. What’s equally as important is our community is heavily local-centric and will go out of their way to support a locally-born product.

The evolution of mead in Pittsburgh can be credited to the incredibly chill and relaxed atmosphere in Apis’ taproom in Carnegie, where new mead tappings are held frequently and draw big crowds. But just as important is the availability of mead in most of our local craft breweries and several craft beer bars. As I mentioned, mead serves as a tremendous alternative to beer, and even the hoppiest of hopheads can use something sweet to the palate from time to time.

While Dave makes mead, his knowledge of beer and refined palate are second to none. I’ll never forget a random night at The Brew Gentlemen when he was tasting freshly-tapped beer and literally picking out every ingredient after just a few sips. I’ve never seen anything like it. That love and passion for brewing quality beer and knowing what it takes to make them great naturally bled over to his work at Apis. And that’s a very good thing for us all.

Pick Up A Hitchhiker

The story of Hitchhiker Brewing’s Head Brewer Andy Kwiatkowski is one of perfect timing and a dream job realized. Not unlike many of us, Andy was working a job that wasn’t fulfilling outside of the fact it paid the bills. But one skill Andy had that many of us don’t is an uncanny knack to brew one helluva good beer. Andy was an accomplished home brewer who belonged to the Three Rivers Underground Brewers (TRUB) home brewing club and, through the experience of working with many other brewers and, most notably, his father who also home brews, Andy developed a skill set that could easily translate to the professional level.

And just when times seemed at their darkest, the professional level came knocking.

Hitchhiker Brewing OpeningFacing a layoff from his job, Andy was offered the Head Brewer position at Hitchhiker by owner Gary Olden. The rest is history. A passion derived from his father that started as a hobby was now something Andy could call his career and as of May 10th, 2014, the ball was rolling as Hitchhiker Brewing officially opened its doors.

Today, Andy has tweaked and tinkered and altered his recipes to give us as many solid craft beer options as possible. In talking with him, you’ll discover he’s his biggest critic. And even if you are fully enjoying one of his creations, he always strives to make it even better.

“I want to brew the best beer in the world,” Andy proclaimed. His goal may be lofty, but it’s one that will keep him working like mad to make it reality.

Andy has played an integral part in craft beer’s relevance in the Pittsburgh region. He currently serves as President of the Pittsburgh Craft Beer Alliance and President of the Board of Directors for Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week. He also played a big part in the Home Brewing competition that was held at Hitchhiker during Craft Beer Week, an event that showcased several homebrewers, their beers, and awarded three lucky individuals the ability to brew their beer on a commercial level.

Hitchhiker Brewing is located in Mt. Lebanon and brings to this area something new…a much-needed craft brewery. Having lived in the South Hills and Mt. Lebanon area for most of my tenure in Pittsburgh, I speak from experience when I say the absence of a brewery in the area was unfortunate. For the most part, we are surrounded by big-box, big-chain retail stores and restaurants, with only a few exceptions truly standing out amongst those categories. With craft beer’s demand and popularity continuing to trend upward, Hitchhiker Brewing is one those stand-out establishments.

A trip to Hitchhiker is non-negotiable for anyone looking for great pints and great memories. As I put this article together, I’m sitting on my patio on a perfect 72 degree day…and I could be doing the same thing on Hitchhiker’s spacious deck if I chose. The Hitchhiker taproom is a relaxing environment where convivial staff and approachable beers rule the realm. Whether you’re in the South Hills or any other “hills” of the ‘Burgh, make sure the next thing you do is Pick Up a Hitchhiker.

Craft Beer’s Impact on a Community

For The Brew Gentlemen Beer Company, it’s been an action-packed year. Two ridiculously huge parties and one documentary later, these guys stand firm as one of the best craft beer destinations in town. And, as has been well-documented, that destination stands tall in an area on the outskirts of Pittsburgh most people would’ve never considered visiting in years past.

Braddock is an area that was, for all intents and purposes, written off for dead. Urban decay, low population, abandoned buildings…there wasn’t much to pull the eye of the typical Pittsburgher to this once-proud and prosperous steel community. But thanks to the passion, drive, and relentless pursuit of turning a dream into reality, young entrepreneurs Asa Foster and Matt Katase have changed the scene for the better.

With the help of Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, Matt and Asa were able to transform an old, decrypted tool store on Braddock’s main drag into a fully-functioning production brewhouse and taproom that has captured the hearts of craft beer enthusiasts all over Pittsburgh and beyond. The whole idea was born while Matt and Asa were both fraternity brothers at Carnegie-Mellon and, through several years of planning, sacrificing, and learning from mistakes, their dream of operating their own brewery became official on May 21st, 2014.

Brew Gentlemen TaproomSince then, they have become pillars of the Braddock community revival and have gained widespread popularity throughout Pittsburgh. Their taproom experience is second to none, with great beers, welcoming ambiance, and always a solid food truck (or several on Roundup nights) serving up killer eats. They hosted their first Garden Party last Labor Day, which drew a crowd of over a thousand craft beer fanatics. This past Halloween, they partnered with The Independent Brewing Company to throw an epic bash inside the historic Carrie Furnace that was dubbed “Hitchcock!” The extravaganza drew over 1,300 people.

The plight of Matt and Asa is one of true inspiration for anyone that’s looking to start any business of their own, not just a brewery. Thankfully, their story was captured on film as independent film creators Chip Hiden and Alexis Irvin used the off-chance of meeting The Brew Gentlemen at a Cicerone exam to discover the uniqueness of their story and ask to document it. The result of that encounter is Blood, Sweat, & Beer, a craft beer documentary that highlights the growth of the craft beer industry as a whole and the struggles and triumphs of two start-up breweries, one of which, of course, being The Brew Gentlemen.

A year in the books, two kick ass parties, constant improvements and upgrades to an already killer taproom, food truck roundups that bring people in from far and wide, and a documentary that’s being shown at film festivals across the country. One has to ask…how can these guys possibly top Year One?

None of us has the answer to that yet, but my money is on them figuring it out. And THAT…will be pretty great to experience.

Grinding Out Great Beers

You needn’t look any further than the lineup of tap handles at your favorite Pittsburgh craft beer bars to understand the impact Grist House Brewing has had since cutting the ribbon in 2014. Chances are, one or more of their solid offerings is on rotation for your consumption.

In just under a year’s time, Grist House has created a killer atmosphere at their taproom in Millvale and increased their distribution to 30 bars across the Pittsburgh region. That’s incredible growth for a brewery who just burst onto the scene Memorial Day Weekend one year ago. But, when the beer you’re producing is consistently solid, the number of bars calling your name gets bigger and bigger.

One of the biggest elements Grist House brings to the table, outside of ridiculously good beer, is family. C0-founders and Brewmasters Brian Eaton and Kyle Mientkiewicz have been friends since they were children and, after Brian married Kyle’s sister, they officially became brothers-in-law. Brian’s wife and Kyle’s sister Krystle is the Events Coordinator and Kyle’s girlfriend Colleen is the Taproom Manager. In addition, assistant brewer Sean Biby and Social Media Director Daniel Trapp all grew up in with Kyle and Brian in Erie. This lifelong bond has led to an extremely cohesive unit at Grist House.

Grist House Brewing's brewing areaI first discovered Grist House shortly after they opened and it immediately became one of my go-to destinations. The quality of the beer goes without saying, but the taproom setting is pretty cool, too. One of my favorite summertime activities is sitting on the porch with a cold one, and Grist House has a deck that makes this easy to accomplish. The taproom itself looks down onto the brewhouse, giving you a unique opportunity to drink your beer mere feet away from where its life began. Combine all these features with a steady rotation of killer food trucks in the parking lot and finding reasons not to go to Grist House become impossible.

On top of it all, the entire Grist House staff is friendly and creates the type of environment you want to be a part of. From live music to comedy shows to private events, Grist House Brewing has experienced a first year that’s hard to duplicate. But if I know these guys, I’m pretty sure it won’t stop them from trying. And probably succeeding.

With the official one-year anniversary of Grist House happening over Memorial Day, they’ve got a pretty big four-day bash planned for us all, complete with a pig roast and plenty of fun activities. Look for more information on the festivities coming soon!

So many people have ideas and visions for businesses, but never pull the trigger and attempt to make it reality. Can you imagine what our craft beer scene would be missing had these four entities not ran with their vision to change the landscape here in Pittsburgh? The first year successes of these three breweries and one meadery have given us a lot of great things over the past year. And without a doubt, they’ve only just begun.

 

 

 

Jason Cercone

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Jason Cercone

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