The year in beer: What to expect from Pittsburgh’s beer scene in 2018

Pilsners, canning and … Mar-a-Lager?

Beer here.

Beer here.

Quinn Dombrowski / Flickr

So 2017 was fun — which is a statement that is totally true if applied strictly to the world of craft beer and almost nothing else.

But it’s out with the old at this time of year. So here at Four One Brew, we turn to 2018 and ask: What’s next? What trends can we expect in the world of western Pa. craft breweries? What major developments? What comings and goings?

In other words, it’s prediction time.

“Some aging member of the ’70s Steelers will open his own brewery,” predicts Chris Mueller, half of the Starkey and Mueller show on 93.7 The Fan. “The beer is decidedly mediocre, but sales outstrip every other craft brewer combined. Iron City and IC Light are never heard from again.”

Uh, no.

But to his credit, Mueller — an accomplished home brewer, local craft supporter and well-known Fat Head’s pitchman — did have some legit thoughts on what trends will emerge. So did others I asked. And so do I.

Bubble ready to burst?

For years, some in the industry have spoken of a craft beer bubble and cautioned that it is about to burst.

I don’t see it. I see the rapid expansion — from 2,475 breweries nationwide in 2012 to around 6,000 today — as a market correction, a return to days gone and an accurate reflection of Americans’ desire to eat and drink local. Also: Flavor. People who like beer like their beer to taste good … and not be made with rice.

“I think we’re going to see a slow settling, not a bubble bursting,” says Lew Bryson, an Eastern Pa.-based drinks columnist who is widely revered as the most knowledgeable beer and whisky opinion-giver in the country. “Steady growth, continued success, but some places will not be able to stay open without the bubbling, judgment-free enthusiasm of the past five years.”

In other words: More breweries will open, but with increased competition, they’ll have to be good to stay open.

Bart Watson

Bart Watson

Courtesy of Bart Watson

“I continue to believe we’ve never seen a bubble,” adds Bart Watson, chief economist with the Brewers Guild of America. “Rather, what we’ve seen is a growth in new local breweries in response to growing consumer demand for a greater variety of fuller-flavored beer from small and independent local producers.

“I do think it’s fair to ask whether or not 2018 is the year the S-curve ends. I tend to believe that what we’ll see at the end of this period of rapid brewery expansion is a tailing off of growth toward a plateau, rather than a bubble bursting where suddenly all these businesses go away. It’s hard to predict when curves like this level off, but we’re already seeing some places (Oregon comes to mind) where it does look like the growth has leveled off a bit. For Western PA, that’s probably still a ways off.”

In other words: Pittsburgh is cooler than Portland, amiright?

More openings, more expansion

I have a list of breweries that opened in 2017 that I have yet found time to profile (I’m coming for you soon, Rusty Gold). I don’t see that changing in 2018. Allegheny County now has more breweries than any other county in the commonwealth — 31, per the Pittsburgh Brewers Guild — and I expect more to join the scene soon (looking at you, Spring Hill Brewery).

Plus, established brewers will continue to expand.

In 2016, East End Brewing moved beyond its Larimer location to open a taproom in the Strip District. In 2017, Hitchhiker outgrew its original Mt. Lebanon site and opened a new brewery in Sharpsburg.

As for 2018, Penn Brewery will open off-site taprooms at Pittsburgh International Airport (expected opening: early March) and Downtown (April).

And then there’s Highland Park’s CoStar Brewing, which is planning a taproom in Etna. Co-founder Dominic Cincotta confirms for Four One Brew that land has been purchased, on which they intend to build from the ground up (borough officials expect an April groundbreaking). Until then, the owners are being somewhat quiet on their plans as they “don’t want to make promises we may not keep,” Cincotta says.

This, in particular, is great news. CoStar currently brews in a converted garage that opens on a quiet brick alley. The setting, while modest, is wonderful in that it creates the ideal conditions for pop-up block parties on warm-weather Friday nights when CoStar opens the garage doors to brew and neighbors set up lawn chairs to observe and talk shop with the brewers. I’ve been a fan since 2014 when I first tried CoStar’s Dopplebock — which, by the way, is now available at Bulldog Pub at 1818 Morningside Ave. Since then, whenever out-of-towners ask me about the best breweries in the city, I always mention CoStar. It’ll be nice to be able to point them to a taproom sometime next year.

Go toward the lite

Are we as consumers becoming hop-weary?

I, for one, am not. But many people I spoke to predicted that others are, and that breweries will act accordingly by moving toward more traditional beer styles.

Pete Kurzweg — co-owner of The Independent Brewing Co. in Squirrel Hill and master pontificator on all things beer — offers this take:

Pete Kurzweg

Pete Kurzweg

Courtesy of Pete Kurzweg

“We’ll see a shift towards Pilsners. It’s a natural response to the collective palette fatigue we’ve suffered for the last 30 years. More and more people who love craft beer seem to need a break from hops and all the cultural baggage (lines, releases, swirling of glasses and snobbery) that comes with it.”

This would be great news for places like Penn Brewery, which has focused on lighter, more traditional German-style lagers since 1986, even while adding IPAs and stouts and porters to its beer menu in recent tears.

“IPA is not a trend; it’s here to stay,” says Penn’s CEO Sandy Cindrich. “But my hope is that people are going towards more pilsners and lagers and away from the crazy flavors that some people are trying. The crazy beers — it’s great to say you’ve tried it, but now you need something you drink (on a more regular basis). With all new breweries popping up, there will be a much bigger focus on making sure you’re producing a quality beer,” not just ‘crazy’ beers.

More predictions

From Bryson:

“The majors and the breweries they bought are going to be clouding the issue, causing infighting and bad feelings. They’re on a weird drive to flavor everything: Their marketers still seem to believe that ‘craft beer’ equals ‘beer with added fruit/spice/nuts/other shit.’ I suspect this may cause irreparable damage to the idea of beer; call me old, call me a curmudgeon, say I’m yelling at a cloud or “GET OFF MY LAWN!,” but this is a potential killer.”

From Mueller:

“More breweries will invest in the food side of things to continue mounting a challenge to traditional bars, as the brewpub continues its surge. Oh, and, everyone who’s anyone will make a New England-style IPA.”

From Kurzweg (and pay attention because this is interesting):

“We’ll see a shift towards farmhouse ales. The wine-a-fication of beer is inevitable. Spontaneously fermented beers, beers that focus on a local adjunct ingredient or that utilize barrels formerly filled with another local product have a sense of identity that tell a compelling narrative to customers. And, as with wine, people fetishize those products. I think 2018 is the year that beer splits into two inevitable paths: beer as beer (Pilsners and other lagers, Session beers, accessible ales) and beer as wine (farmhouse styles and other beers with a sense of terroir). In fairness, I think the Europeans have largely realized this divergence. But American craft breweries still trend towards putting everything under one roof, and I think that will change.”

From me:

More canning. Many breweries, including East End and Hitchhiker, have invested in canning operations, and the reasons why are obvious: Cans do not compromise the beer’s quality (and most craft drinkers pour their beers into the appropriate glassware anyway, so it’s not a matter of drinking from a can or bottle); it’s cheaper (after initial equipment investment); and it’s more environmentally friendly (which craft drinkers tend to dig).

Finally, and just for the hell of it, Four One Brew asks Mike Wereschagin, a noted investigative journalist and seasoned political reporter, for his thoughts on 2018. His answer was as brilliant as it was funny, no matter what side of the aisle you lean:

“Former members of the President’s campaign team will attempt to defray mounting legal costs by starting a franchise of microbreweries in rural, Rust Belt towns. At the Mar-a-Lager Saloon, patrons will be able to choose from the robust silkiness of Paul’s Manaporter, the mercurial cloudiness of Flynn’s PerjuRye IPA, an aggressively effete snifter of Jared’s Russian Imperial Stout, the perplexing superficiality of George’s Papadopolager, or, for those who don’t feel up to taking a risk, a tall glass of Mueller Lite.

“It’ll begin as economic boon to struggling post-industrial towns as city-dwelling members of The Resistance set aside their half-finished cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon to better understand the tastes of their blue-collar brethren. Sadly, this will be the beginning of the end for this short-lived enterprise. The problematic influx of urban elites will drive away the locals, and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders will validate their decision by dismissing Mar-a-Lager’s offerings as ‘fake brews.’”

I mean, why not? If 2017 taught us anything, it’s that truly anything can happen.