Thanks to Hitchhiker Brewing, beer is back at Fort Pitt
February 13, 2017 12:00 AM
Hitchhiker Brewing beer
The exterior of Hitchhiker Brewing's new space in Sharpsburg.
With story Bob Batz Magazine Mt. Lebanon's Hitchhiker Brewing Co. is expanding into a new space in Sharpsburg. Owners are Andy Kwiatkowski, left, and Gary Olden. photo taken on Thursday, Feb 2, 2017. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette )
The Fort Pitt Brewery in Sharpsburg viewed from the power plant side around 1956, a year before it closed. Credit: Ernie Oest, courtesy of Robert Musson.
he architectural plans for the exterior of the new Hitchhiker Brewing Co. production brewery and tap / barrel room in part of the former Fort Pitt brewery in Sharpsburg. It is to open this spring or summer. Credit can be given to Lab 8 Designs (http://lab8designs.com/
By Bob Batz Jr. / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Beer will be brewed again in the former Fort Pitt brewery that once occupied several blocks of Sharpsburg and a big chunk of local brewing history.
Started in this Allegheny River borough in 1906, Fort Pitt Brewing Co. grew into the biggest brewer in the state and one of the top 25 in the country by 1949.
Now one of its remaining art deco buildings, the smokestack-topped power plant on South Canal Street near 15th Street, will make beer for Mt. Lebanon’s Hitchhiker Brewing Co. By spring or early summer, owner Gary Olden hopes to be brewing in the power plant and selling beer in an adjacent engine room and machine shop.
The Fort Pitt Brewery in Sharpsburg around 1907 after it was built. Photo courtesy of Robert Musson
Later this month, Mr. Olden expects to close on the purchase of the buildings from Fort Pitt Classic Cars, which is moving to another location in Sharpsburg.
“Everyone who’s seen it thinks it’s a tremendous space,” said Mr. Olden, who discovered the corner while driving past about six months ago.
He was struck by its “cool architecture,” he said, and asked his real estate agent to find out if he could buy it.
Two low-interest (3 percent) loans totaling $240,000 from Allegheny County Economic Development will help. Mr. Olden declined to say what his purchase price was, but according to the terms of the proposed loans, Hitchhiker plans to spend $913,000 on the property and equipment — and create at least 13 jobs over the next three years. ACED director Bob Hurley said the deal should be finalized and close this month.
The original Hitchhiker Brewing Co., which opened in May 2014 on Castle Shannon Boulevard in Mt. Lebanon, will remain open. But production there has been limited to a three-barrel brewing system squeezed into a basement of a 1,200-square-foot space.
The new brewery will have a 15-barrel system in nearly 10 times that space. Mr. Olden is most excited about tearing out a dropped ceiling in the power plant and opening up the three-story space. Coal trucks once entered through a big door to feed huge boilers that were vented into the 100-foot smoke stack.
While giving a tour, he pointed out features such as round and oval windows now filled with glass block. “People need to see this.”
Hitchhiker’s new 20-horsepower boiler will be installed in the rear of the power plant, above a room where grain will be stored and milled. Mr. Olden doesn’t plan to change the former engine room’s industrial bones much. They include thick steel beams, a half-ton overhead crane and two long skylights. He’ll add a long bar inside the Canal Street entrance and tables for about 100 visitors. There will also be lots of wood casks and large vats called foudres for the brewery’s barrel-aged and sour beers.
“That’s going to be a big focus for us,” he said, noting that they will serve some food as Hitchhiker does now but not operate a full-service restaurant.
Upstairs will be a small office and yeast lab. A set of garage doors in back eventually will open to a packaging line in the former machine shop and then into an outdoor beer garden.
The original Fort Pitt brewhouse has been razed, but the brewery’s art deco office building remains, about a block away on Marys Avenue. Glass block on the facade spells out its old advertising slogan, “Fort Pitt … That’s It.”
Parts of that building and the one across the street are owned by Tusk Development, which bought most of the former brewery in 2008 and rents it as office and warehouse space. Asked about having a brewery tap room as a neighbor, Tusk principal Jim Genstein said, “I’m excited, my tenants are excited, our future tenants are excited.”
Last year, Mr. Olden announced that Hitchhiker was moving beer production to a 10,000-square-foot warehouse on the South Side, but that deal, which involved the city Urban Redevelopment Authority, fell through. He now says he’s happy it did, because he likes this location so much.
(Click image for larger version)
Hitchhiker is not the first new brewery in Sharpsburg. Dancing Gnome Beer opened in a storefront at 925 Main St. this past fall. Owner Andrew Witchey says he welcomes another brewery and thinks it can help make the whole town more vibrant.
“There’s just a ton of potential here,” he said.
Neither of the new breweries will be anywhere near the scale of Fort Pitt, which in its heyday drew water from a pair of nearby artesian wells and had a sister plant in Jeannette. At its peak in 1949, Fort Pitt sold 1.77 million barrels of beer, according to the 2015 book by Richard Ober and Robert Musson, “200 Years of Brewing in Allegheny County.”
Mr. Musson, who also compiled a pictorial history of the brand, shares a visual example of what a big presence Fort Pitt was here: The giant clock on the former Duquesne brewery on the South Side used to overlook Downtown from Mount Washington as the “Drink Fort Pitt beer” billboard clock.
Alas, the brewing giant vanished less than a decade after its post-World War II peak. Buffeted by a strike, changing consumer tastes and competition from local and national breweries, Fort Pitt stopped brewing in Sharpsburg in 1957 to concentrate on jukeboxes, missile parts and other products.
Beers under the Fort Pitt label were thereafter brewed by others in Maryland and Western Pennsylvania. Currently the Fort Pitt trademark is owned by Mark Dudash, who sells a modern version of Duquesne Beer made at City Brewing in Latrobe. He briefly marketed a reformulated Fort Pitt ale in 2014.
Say “Fort Pitt” to lifelong Sharspburgers and they’re likely to answer, “That’s it!” said Councilman Matthew Rudzki, who lives four doors away from the forthcoming Hitchhiker.
He thinks most residents who hear about the return of brewing to this “iconic Sharpsburg structure” will be as happy about it as he is.
It’s a boost to a borough that also looks to benefit from the impending development of 47 acres of riverfront property. A former scrapyard is being turned into residences, retail and a park as Riverfront 47. And more low-interest loan money — from the former Allegheny River Towns Enterprise Zone — is available via the Millvale Community Development Corp. Meanwhile, Sharpsburg and neighboring Millvale and Etna are the latest communities to be accepted just last month into the county’s Allegheny Together Program, which will help them revitalize their business districts.
“The pieces are coming together,” said Mr. Rudzki, who is running for mayor.
Hitchhiker head brewer Andy Kwiatkowski says he can’t wait to brew in the new place, especially the mixed-fermentation and sour and wood-aged beers that are his passion.
“The fact that the history of the building is there? I’m over the moon. I don’t think it could be any cooler,” he said.
Bob Batz Jr.: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.
This story originally and incorrectly placed Fort Pitt Brewing Co.’s other brewery in Irwin. It was in Jeannette. The brewery, which was Victor Brewing Co. before Fort Pitt acquired it in 1941, is still standing at 1100 Penn Ave. there.
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