The new Pittsburgh Brewers Guild will organize dozens of local breweries

First, it will create a local ‘Ale Trail’ map.

Grist House's Brian Eaton and 11th Hour's Matt McMahon

Grist House's Brian Eaton and 11th Hour's Matt McMahon

Chris Togneri / The Incline

Pittsburgh’s craft beer scene continues to expand — from a mere handful of breweries a decade ago to more than 30 in Allegheny County today.

With that growth comes a need to organize, local brewers said, which is why they created the Pittsburgh Brewers Guild, an official unified body that will give them a collective voice on issues including tourism promotion, education and political lobbying.

“Before, when we wanted to get word out on an issue, it would be, ‘OK, I guess we’ll just call Scott [Smith, owner of East End Brewing Co. in Larimer], and he’ll tell everybody.’” said Matt McMahon, owner of 11th Hour Brewing in Lawrenceville and Guild vice chairman. “This gives us a unified voice.”

“So we had the conversation of, do we make it official? Or do we remain a loose group of brewers?” said Guild Chairman Brian Eaton, of Grist House Brewery in Millvale.

By filing with the state in November as a 501 (c)(6) trade organization, they chose the former.

“This has been a necessary step for years,” Eaton said Wednesday at Grist House. “When we opened, we were the eighth or ninth brewery in the Pittsburgh region, and that was back in 2014. Now we’re talking over 30, which is the most of any county in the state. It was necessary even back then.”

The Guild’s first order of business will be to create and promote an “Ale Trail” map, an online and printed guide of Allegheny County breweries. The group recently submitted a grant proposal for $30,000 to the Pennsylvania Malt and Brewed Beverage Industry Promotion Board to help create the guide and website. They hope to release the guide in the spring and work with VisitPittsburgh on distribution and promotion.

The tour will help establish Pittsburgh as a craft beer destination, a city mentioned in the same conversation as Asheville, Austin, Denver and Portland, Eaton and McMahon said.

“Beer vacations are becoming a thing,” Eaton said. “In our tap room, we have people in from out of town constantly.”

“But we need to make sure our beer is being talked about,” McMahon added. “Asheville was not a thing until Asheville started saying, ‘Hey we’ve got a good thing going on here.’ With a collective voice, we can do that, too.”

The Guild also hopes to attract major beer conventions, including the Craft Brewers Conference and BrewExpo America — which draws 10,000 industry insiders a year and will be held in Nashville in 2018 — and the National Homebrew Competition.

The Guild’s first likely lobbying effort will focus on the county’s drink tax, which stands at 7 percent but, brewers fear, could rise. Guild leaders hope to convince politicians that the tax hinders growth in an industry that now employs thousands of people in the state and promotes local tourism.

“If it goes up, we’d have to pay more or pass it on to our customers,” Eaton said. “Having our voices heard in matters like that is important.”

In 2016, there were an estimated 6,677 people working directly at breweries and brewpubs in Pennsylvania, plus 39,841 people in related but indirect industries, “including retail, wholesale, and other ripples in the economy,” said Bart Watson, the Brewers Association’s Chief Economist.

The Guild also hopes to create a concierge training program in which local brewers will visit bars and restaurants to teach them about different beer styles, the importance of the pour and using a clean glass, and which type of glassware matches with different beers.

Eaton and McMahon said 28 of the county’s 31 (and counting) breweries have signed on so far, and that they expect the stragglers to join after the New Year. Guild dues are $200 per year per brewery, with each brewery getting one vote-holding member.

The Guild’s board will meet monthly, but there also will be larger quarterly meetings where all employees from dues-paying breweries are welcome, from owners to tap room employees.

Local Guild board members will change after serving two-year long stints. Eaton said the current board volunteered because, while it means more work, they recognize the importance, and “at least we have beer to get us through the meetings.” In addition to Eaton and McMahon, the Guild’s first board will include:

  • Treasurer Tom Schneider, also of Grist House
  • Secretary Andy Kwiatkowski of Hitchhiker Brewing in Mt. Lebanon and Sharpsburg
  • Three members-at-large:
    • Al Grasso of Allegheny City Brewing in Deutchtown
    • Matt Katase of Brew Gentlemen in Braddock
    • Andrew Witchey of Dancing Gnome in Sharpsburg

The creation of the Guild is a natural progression for an industry in which competitors are typically friendly. It’s also a nod to the historically collaborative spirit of Pittsburgh’s independent breweries.

Before Prohibition, small local breweries joined forces to form two consolidated groups, the Pittsburgh Brewing Co. and the Independent Brewing Co. In doing so, mom-and-pop neighborhood breweries were able to negotiate lower prices for ingredients from large wholesalers, as well as consolidate management. The syndicates allowed small breweries to thrive in Pittsburgh while other markets became dominated by large corporate breweries.

Of course, the modern iteration is focused more on promotion than bulk price negotiating. But the strength-in-numbers ethos remains.

“There’s enough motivated people here who understand the importance of this,” Eaton said. “Eastern Pa. has always gotten the lion’s share of attention — with what’s going on in Pittsburgh now, this is a great opportunity to push beer tourism and to really get people to recognize Pittsburgh as a beer destination. It’s been a long time coming.”