Duke Beer chief 'rolling the dice'

Mark Dudash traded in his midlife crisis -- his meticulously maintained fire engine red Corvette -- for a new one.

The 51-year-old Upper St. Clair attorney, who worked at Pittsburgh Brewing during its glory days in the 1980s, is trying to revive Duquesne Beer, produced by Pittsburgh Brewing's South Side rival until it closed in 1972.

Two years after the workers' compensation specialist started kicking around the idea, the first bottles of the resuscitated Prince of Pilseners are scheduled to roll out of City Brewing's Latrobe plant. They'll be available late next month or in early August.

"I had to get rid of [the Corvette] because, you know what? I'm rolling the dice here," said Mr. Dudash, a tall, nostalgic man whose sincere appreciation for Pittsburgh history is reflected in the colonial prints that line his office walls.

While the decline of Pittsburgh's hometown beers is a bitter tale, Mr. Dudash takes hope from the local industry's better days.

"I was in the industry at a good time," he said, fondly recalling his years in the Lawrenceville brewery's labor relations department.

Back then, Pittsburgh Brewing was a thriving regional beer, a provider of well-paying jobs and a good corporate citizen. Pittsburghers supported their hometown beer to the tune of more than 1 million barrels a year. Beer advertising featured people like Big Al Luccioni, Pittsburgh Brewing's draft beer specialist. Contrast Mr. Luccioni, a short man built like a bull, with the industry's marketing mainstays these days.

"Because everybody's in a bikini or a thong, that's what you're buying," Mr. Dudash lamented.

Duquesne Brewing was just as prosperous. Sales of Duke Beer dwindled in the late 1960s, falling to about $13 million by 1971. Duke and the brewery's other brands were sold a year later to C. Schmidt & Sons, which moved production out of town. Sales fell drastically after the late Allegheny County commissioner Thomas Foerster called for a boycott of the out-of-town beer.

"At the very end, they changed the packaging to look like Schmidt's and they got rid of the Prince of Pilseners," Mr. Dudash says. "It was bad beer."

But, he adds, it didn't have to be that way.

Mr. Dudash wants to revive the Prince of Pilseners as it was in its prime: a crisp beer the color of golden straw and a mellow taste. The kind of beer that will refresh you after mowing your lawn on a hot summer day, he says.

"It was the icon beer. Why not bring it back from the ashes?" he said.

Mr. Dudash reregistered the lapsed Duke trademark. To recreate the Duke taste, he got ideas for the recipe from Duke's former brew master and colleagues at Iron City, including former brew master Mike Carota, now City Brewing's brew master in Latrobe.

"I know it's close to Duke, only better. It's going to be a super premium beer," Mr. Dudash promised, adding that it would be priced right.

He declines to say how much he has invested in the venture or how large the first batch will be. There was no test brew of the new Duke. Yet Mr. Dudash has lined up four wholesalers in Western Pennsylvania and four in West Virginia. They include Frank B. Fuhrer Wholesale, the South Side distributor that dominates the Western Pennsylvania market. The Fuhrers "are great wholesalers," Mr. Dudash said, adding that getting their support helped in convincing other distributors to sign on.

The Prince of Pilseners' return comes as beer sales overall are flat. Efforts to revive Pittsburgh Brewing's Iron City have failed under a succession of corrupt or inept owners. The brand's current owners' decision to close the Lawrenceville brewery and move production to Latrobe last year did not help.

Then there's demographics and the fact that young drinkers aren't as nostalgic about Pittsburgh's historic brands as Mr. Dudash is.

"Anyone under 50, they don't know what Duke is," he said.

To reach the younger market, his wife, Maria, is putting Duke on Facebook: www.facebook.com/DuquesneBeer. The page includes a photo journal of the Prince of Pilseners' travels since he was laid off in 1972. (His last sighting in Pittsburgh was on the sidelines at Three Rivers Stadium for Franco Harris' Immaculate Reception.)

Mr. Dudash says the response he's received has been encouraging. Among his biggest supporters, he says, are former Pittsburgh Brewing colleagues who tell him they are tired of drinking Miller Lite.

"It will be nice to see Duke around," said Joe Crouse, who retired from Pittsburgh Brewing in 2000 after 35 years. "It seems to me at this point, people are looking for something else to drink."

Mr. Crouse spent 26 of those as a business agent for the union, sitting across the bargaining table from Mr. Dudash.

"He was a straight shooter. I hope that Mark makes a success of it," said Mr. Crouse, 71. "I still enjoy my beer, but not nearly like I used to. The younger ones are the ones you have to get."

Mr. Dudash, optimistic by nature, believes that Duke can become the region's No. 1 hometown beer and that someday he'll be brewing at his own plant.

"That sounds lofty and crazy ... but it can be done," he said.

Len Boselovic: lboselovic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1941.


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