December 12, 2008

Penn Brewery - Is This Really Happening? Yes

I am surprised that this hasn't received more attention. The Post-Gazette has been on it. Based on my limited viewing, the local TV news folks are ignoring it, both on camera and on their Web sites. A search of that other Pittsburgh newspaper turns up one story.

In case you missed it, though, here's the terrible news:

The fate of the historic home of the Penn Brewery, Pittsburgh's first and largest craft beer maker, appears sealed this week as the owners prepare to leave the 19th-century structure with its custom brewhouse and restaurant for new quarters somewhere in Pittsburgh.

The last batch of Penn beer was being brewed there this week, while beer production starts at a contract brewery in Wilkes-Barre. Most of the brewery staff has been told it will be laid off by year's end. The restaurant is to close at the end of February when its lease expires.

The move is being forced, according to the new CEO of Penn Brewing, Len Caric -- who took over when Tom Pastorius, who founded the company more than 20 years ago -- by the property landlord's decision to raise the rent by 360%. In the current economic climate, I don't know who in the forseeable future is going to cough up serious dough for that location on the Northside, particularly because it seems impossible that it could be retrofitted to anything other than a restaurant. In that light, this move makes no sense.

After the last batches are finished on site, beer will be brewed under contract at Lion Brewing in Wilkes-Barre. Meanwhile, Penn will hunt for a new location in Pittsburgh.

Maintaining both the quality and unique taste of Penn's beers will be difficult, say brewmasters Bill Covaleski of Victory Brewing in Downingtown and Chris Trogner of Troegs Brewing Co. in Harrisburg.

"Penn Brewery has a real identity in its beers, and it's just not in their best interests to contract it out," said Mr. Covaleski. "I've always admired Tom Pastorius and his beer, and I'm sad to see this happen."

I have seen hints on the intertubes of conspiracy theorists saying that this is all Mr. Caric's doing. But I find that hard to believe, based on the plans he announced for Penn Brewery earlier this year.

After Penn’s Kaiser Pils won a gold medal and its Octoberfest won a bronze at the Great American Beer Festival last week, Caric is poised to help led the brewery through some major changes.

“My goal is to make it (Penn’s brands) Pittsburgh’s beer,” Caric said. “We need to get western Pennsylvania as excited about it as we are."


Caric vowed to maintain Penn’s commitment to quality that led to its recent awards and many others.

But he also sees important changes that need to be made.

After convening with many of the brewery’s distributors, Caric’s first big decision is to redesign the packaging for Penn’s brands, updating its look and logo, as well as redesigning its 24-bottle cases into a two twelve-pack configuration to cater better to sales in grocery stores and convenience marts in other states. He has hired North Side-based Smith Brothers to undergo a full packaging redesign for Penn’s brands, including its main flagships, Penn Pilsner and Penn Dark, with the expectation of relaunching the brands in the next few months.

In snippets I could pick up here and there on the intertubes, there is speculation that this will be the end of an actual Penn Brewery in Pittsburgh, and that Penn beers will simply be contract brewed with the Penn Brewery only being a memory of some physical entity that once was but really no longer is.

The idea of no more Oktoberfest celebrations at that great facility, my kids' heads sopping wet under plastic green hats as they dance to German music and cover their ears as we hold up our 1/2 gallons chanting "oi, oi, oi" every half hour is truly sickening to contemplate.

Nothing lasts forever, of course, but some things should last for a mighty long time. And Penn Brewery is one of those things.


Troy said...

This is just sad, sad, sad.

Perhaps Len Caric is afraid of the coming competition, HofbrÀuhaus . . .

. . . which is opening up next month on the South Side?

I can't see why a deal can't be reached between the brewery and the landlord. It will cost Penn a fortune to move and they will have to change all their logos and cases that have the building pictured on it, and the landlord must be stupid to think someone else will just move right in with this bad economy. It is better to have less rent than no rent at all.

Either way, I'm gonna have to get down there again before they close in February, to get one of the last Pittsburgh brewed Penn beers and some Kartoffelpuffer (Potato Pancakes).

Fillippelli the (Wannabe) Cook said...

Yes, we will definitely make at least one trip down there for dinner and freshly brewed pilsner or kaiser pils.