Someday, and this is a promise, I’ll write a beer column here at The Incline that is not about a new brewery taking significantly longer to open than the owners expected.
This isn’t it.
We last brought you the story of Jake Bier and his long-awaited plans of opening War Streets Brewery in the space currently occupied by Benjamin’s Burgers in Allegheny West … a solid year-and-a-half later than intended.
This week, we bring you news of the grand opening — next weekend — of 11th Hour Brewing Co. in Lawrenceville … which comes after years of setbacks and delays.
“Would I do it all over again?” co-owner and head brewer Matt McMahon said as he and his team put the final touches on the brewery and tap room. “Yes. Definitely. But if I’d known what I know now … I guess I’d have tempered my expectations a bit. I mean, there are all the things you want to do, and then there are all the things you have to do that you don’t even know about. It’s been, uh, a process.”
A process that is almost over.
Or just beginning, depending on how you look at it.
A brief recap of 11th Hour’s journey
Matt, an independent business intelligence consultant, decided he wanted to open a brewery in early 2013.
He told his wife, Keana, and she responded by laughing.
Then she said no.
Then she laughed again.
But Matt came prepared. He showed her his business plan. He explained bottom lines and brewing processes. He outlined potential loan sources.
He kept at it until Keana decided she did not want to be a “dream killer” and pledged her support.
They incorporated in June 2013.
They served their first beer at their first beer festival that year and started looking for a site near their home in Wexford.
In 2014, filming for the movie “Concussion” began Downtown (and I swear there’s a reason I mention this).
They found a site in Wexford, submitted their plans and got them approved — only to have the landlord change his mind and back out.
So they started looking again.
That’s when Keana suggested opening Downtown. You see, Keana is the ex-wife of former Steeler lineman Justin Strzelczyk, who suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, and whose life, deterioration and death were chronicled in “Concussion.” Keana, who is also depicted in the film, was an adviser on “Concussion.” Spending so much time Downtown opened her eyes to brewery locations outside Wexford.
“I was training for the Pittsburgh Marathon and running all these [Downtown] streets,” she recalls. “I would take pictures of buildings when I was running and send them to Matt — ‘Ooh, wouldn’t this one be perfect?’”
They found an ideal location on Penn Avenue in February of 2015. They signed an agreement and again submitted plans. But that deal also fell apart when the owner sold the building.
Later that year, they found a building on Charlotte Street in Lawrenceville: A 145-year-old brick structure that, during its lifetime, has been used as a gas lamp storage facility, office space, a school and a warehouse. They signed a lease in February of 2016 and got to work on renovations.
They wanted to open last fall.
“There’s always something,” Matt said. “Security system, new forklift, water lines, sewers …”
They expected to invest $650,000 to $675,000, he said, “but we’re in the $800,000 to $850,000 range. A lot more than I should have invested.”
A lot more time invested, too.
But now the fun begins.
The bar is finished, the wood tables with 11th Hour’s symbol burned into the grain are in place, and the 20-barrel brewing system is installed and operational. Matt and Keana are planning a soft opening Thursday and Friday, with the grand opening set for Saturday.
A family-run business
On my visit last week to the taproom, I sat at the bar sampling Matt’s IPA — brewed with Centennial hops and dry-hopped with Citra, Mosaic and El Dorado hops — and asked Keana if, after all this, she now wishes she had been a dream killer back in 2013. After all, the past four years have brought more arguments, stress and worry than either envisioned.
She thinks about my question briefly. Then she answers: “No.”
Despite everything, she said, the process has actually brought her family together.
“This is something our kids and grandkids could run someday, if we make it work, and how cool is that?” she said. “And it does feel like we’re more in synch and in love than ever. Matt says it all the time — I don’t get gushy and romantic, so I don’t. But he says, ‘I couldn’t have done this without you.’”
Indeed, he says it every day.
“Anytime you start a business [with a significant other], your relationship is either solidified or the cracks are revealed and it breaks,” Matt said. “I’m glad it went in the direction it did.”
As he speaks, Matt and Keana’s boys — Jack, 9, and Cole, 8 — are watching cartoons on screens hanging above the bar and climbing ladders to adjust the volume. Keana’s daughter, Sabrina Strzelczyk, 20, is learning how to cap a crowler. And her son, Justin Strzelczyk, Jr., 22, Matt’s assistant brewer, is cleaning up around the large tanks behind the bar.
Even the family dog, Madox, is here, resting on a stack of kegs one moment, hiding a bone in couch cushions the next.
“In order to succeed,” Keana said, “this had to become my dream, too.”
After years of delay, it did. And come Saturday, Lawrenceville will have its newest family-run business.
11th Hour will be open Thursday through Sunday and will start with a beer rotation of IPA, pale ale, oatmeal stout and brown ale. Soon to come is Matt’s signature jalapeno beer, and I plan on drinking all of it. Seriously: All of it.