Forget the South Side.
Sharpsburg is where it’s at.
At least, it is if you’re Hitchhiker Brewing Co., which in early 2016 flirted with expanding from its Mt. Lebanon roots into the South Side, only to settle — happily — on the former site of the Fort Pitt Brewing Co. in this little river town a few miles up the Allegheny.
“The South Side location, in my opinion, would have been a fantastic opportunity, no doubt,” said Gary Olden, owner of Hitchhiker Brewing, during the soft opening of the new Sharpsburg tap room and brewery Wednesday night. “But as with everything else in life, patience is a virtue. You have to wait, be determined … eventually things work out.”
They certainly did for Olden and his head brewer, Andy Kwiatkowski.
Last time I saw Olden was at a press conference in the Mt. Lebanon brewery — correction: the former brewery. All Hitchhiker beer production moved over to the new, significantly larger Sharpsburg facility June 2.
Back then, Hitchhiker had a great spot for a tap room, on Castle Shannon Boulevard, but a cramped brewing area in the basement. I mean, it was small. The ceilings were so low that Kwiatkowski amassed an impressive collection of bruises on his skull over the three years he brewed there.
A couple years ago, I watched Kwiatkowski, Pete Kurzweg (owner of The Independent Brewing Co. in Squirrel Hill) and Jeffrey Shook (a Pitt professor who just happens to dig homebrewing) brew at the Mt. Lebo location. And it was … crowded.
But it was more than just an awkward place to make beer. For Olden and Kwiatkowski, who was recognized in The Incline’s Who’s Next: Drink class, it was restricting their ability to grow.
So they looked to expand. They thought they found their new home, at Bedford Circle in the South Side, but plans fell through when costs to install a new water line were deemed too expensive.
Soon after, completely by chance, Olden drove by a large brick building on South Canal Street in Sharpsburg.
“I said, ‘Dude, that building is sick!’” Olden recalled. “We should try to buy that.”
It wasn’t for sale, but Olden knocked on the door anyways.
Ron Libengood answered. Owner of Fort Pitt Classic Cars, he was using the old building as a showcase for high-end restored cars.
“When Gary came knocking and said he’d like to buy the building, I asked what he was going to do with it,” Libengood said. “He told me, ‘I want to turn it into a brewery. And I said, ‘SOLD!’”
As Olden recalls it, he asked for a price, Libengood gave a ridiculous number, and Olden walked away.
But they kept in touch, started negotiating, and eventually settled on $415,000. The official grand opening is this Saturday, from noon to 11 p.m.
“I like that they want to use it for its original purpose, as a brewery,” Libengood said. “People around here are very happy to see this building come back to life.”
Libengood was among 150 or so people — including many local brewers, who form a tightknit and supportive community — to attend Wednesday’s soft opening. Among the guests was Mayor Matthew Rudzki, a fifth-generation Sharpsburger who said the investment proves his little river town is turning a corner.
“First there was Dancing Gnome,” Rudzki said in reference to Sharpsburg’s first craft brewery, half-a-mile away on Main Street. “Now Hitchhiker. This elevates us to another echelon with other river communities that are trying to grow and shake the stigma of being a ‘bad’ river town. We’re having a rebirth.”
Rudzki also pointed to plans to develop Sharpsburg’s riverfront and state grants to revitalize the town’s library and business district as signs that Sharpsburg’s arrow is pointing up.
“When you consider the whole thing here, this is about a $1 million investment,” he said of Hitchhiker’s move. “If someone is willing to invest that kind of money, we know we’ve reached a new level.”
And it’s not just Sharpsburg. As Kwiatkowski noted, the Allegheny corridor from the North Shore to Sharpsburg is now teeming with craft breweries:
- Allegheny City Brewing and War Streets Brewery in the Central North Side
- Penn Brewery in Troy Hill
- Grist House and Draai Laag in Millvale
- Roundabout, Hop Farm, Church Brewery and 11th Hour in Lawrenceville
The more the merrier, Kwiatkowski said. In the South Hills, Hitchhiker saw a noticeable spike in business every time a new brewery opened nearby, he said. He expects the same here.
“I had a conversation with Andrew [Witchey, owner of] Dancing Gnome, when this was just an idea, and we didn’t know if we’d get the green light, and he’s been supportive 100 percent,” Kwiatkowski said. “He understands we’re going to have more drawing power to establish Sharpsburg and this whole 28 corridor and what we have across the river as a destination for craft beer now.”
Olden and Kwiatkowski were quick to point out that their new Sharpsburg digs in no way signifies a rejection of their Mt. Lebanon roots. The original tap room is going nowhere, they said.
But the new Hitchhiker symbolizes a rebirth of sorts, the expansion of an established brand seeking a wider audience.
The South Side could have provided that home, but it didn’t work out, and that’s probably a good thing.
In Sharpsburg, Hitchhiker can cater to a clientele that skews both blue collar and millennial (not that those classifications are mutually exclusive). They won’t have to worry about drunken South Side patrons’ reaction when, after a night of guzzling IC Light, they stumble into Hitchhiker and discover that a 10 ounce glass of stout costs two or three times what they might have just paid for a vastly inferior beer.
“We would have needed bouncers,” Olden said.
Hitchhiker will focus on brewing IPAs, sours and saisons at the new facility, at the corner of 15th and South Canal streets in Sharpsburg. Try the Trial by Fire farmhouse saison. It won’t disappoint.