Fat Head's, Lutheran work ropes, odds, to bring 'really good' brew here

Developing Republic

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This is a story about how far guys will go for a beer.

Not just any beer, in this case, but a very good brand of craft beer from California named Bear Republic.

The little brewpub opened in Healdsburg, Sonoma County, in 1996, a carefully planned progression from the home brewing Richard G. Norgrove started in college. Helping him run it now as then are his wife, Tami, and his parents, Richard R. and Sandy Norgrove.

They made a name for their small operation, especially for big, hoppy brews such as Racer 5 India pale ale (winner of numerous awards including a gold medal at the 1999 Great American Beer Festival) and Hop Rod Rye, a strong American IPA made with one-fifth rye malt.

Glenn Benigni, who owns Fat Head's Saloon on the South Side, still remembers a bottle of that unusual brew that a customer brought in to share one day about three years ago.

He says, "I just found that beer to be really good."

And so did his beer-loving manager, Geoff Stober. Customers brought in other Bear varieties from their travels and the two men liked them, too.

By this time, the beer was available in several states outside of its native California, even in Ohio and New York, but not in Pennsylvania. No state-licensed "importing distributor" was bringing it in, and until one does, neither businesses nor individuals here can legally buy it.

Mr. Stober wanted the brand in Fat Head's, and so he started calling the Norgroves and telling them so, every few months.

" 'I'd really like to get your stuff on tap and share it with the customers here,' " he recalls saying, then smiles." 'But I really want to get it here because I want to drink it!' "

At the same time, he and his boss communicated their interest in the brand to this area's beer distributors, the wholesalers, one of which they hoped would bring it here.

John Walick, of A.M. Lutheran Distributors Inc. in West Mifflin, contacted Bear Republic and sent his company's profile. But he knows that at least five other distributors in this area did, too, hoping to get the rights.

Distributors also were vying to bring the beer into Eastern Pennsylvania, and one was seeking to secure the rights to distribute it to the entire state.

The problem was, as it often is with small (less than 15,000 barrels annually) brewers, Bear Republic wasn't making enough beer to sell at home and to the places already buying it.

Maybe after we expand, the Norgroves would say. They also wanted to maintain strict quality control.

Mr. Benigni and Mr. Stober didn't give up. They continued to work the phone and the computer, at one point even encouraging Fat Head's customers -- via a chalkboard above the bar -- to e-mail the brewery.

They figured it could only help to show that consumers here already were thirsty.

And theirs wasn't the only beer bar interested, as people from the Mad Mexes, the Sharp Edges, Smokin' Joe's and others also had been in touch with Bear Republic.

In 2006, Mr. Benigni and Mr. Stober courted the Norgroves in person as part of a pilgrimage they made, with Mr. Walick, to Denver for the Great American Beer Festival.

That was the September that Bear Republic won Small Brewing Company and Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year as well as four medals.

That brought the brewery even more attention, including from distributors wanting to sign exclusive deals.

That's the game. Mr. Walick says that unlike the early days of the craft beer explosion, it's more about finding quality than quantity. He tries to sign fewer but higher quality brands. But so do other distributors.

"They get swamped with all these calls," says Mr. Walick, who nonetheless kept at it: "Same thing. Call, call, call and be a pest."

(The friend of his -- Stockertown Beverage president John Beljan -- who late last year won the contract to distribute the beer in Eastern Pennsylvania? "He called once a week for two years," and went to the 2007 Great American Beer Festival to talk with the owners in person.)

But then Mr. Walick did something more. Late last year, with the Norgroves in the process of finishing a big new brewery in Cloverdale, Calif., and leaning towards going with Lutheran and him in Western Pennsylvania, Mr. Walick offered to fly to Healdsburg -- about 2,610 miles from Pittsburgh -- to meet with the family. That's how he prefers to do business, he said, and the same goes for the Norgroves, too.

As Richard G. Norgrove puts it, "We always try to surround ourselves with companies that are the same style of business."

Mr. Walick landed in Oakland, Calif. on Dec. 10, drove the hour and a half up to the brewpub, toured it and the new brewery, and shook the Norgroves' hands.

They had a deal.

The next day, Mr. Walick flew back to Pittsburgh, where the contract -- for Lutheran to distribute a projected 3,000 to 5,000 case equivalents of the beer in Allegheny and nine other of the 26 counties it serves -- was final in January.

Bear Republic was first available in Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley in late December, thanks to Stockertown Beverage. But that distributor's "coup," as beer writer Jack Curtin called it, also helped A.M. Lutheran in that more beer being trucked East effectively lowers trucking costs from California, which are substantial -- roughly $5,000.

The two noncompeting distributors sharing costs, says Mr. Beljan, "is better for everybody" and an idea he thinks other wholesalers will pursue.

The first full truckload of Bear Republic arrived in West Mifflin on Thursday, Feb. 7, before continuing east.

By Friday morning, kegs of Racer 5 and Hop Rod Rye and 22-ounce bottles of both of those and three other varieties were being delivered to Fat Head's, where Mr. Stober immediately put Hop Rod Rye on tap.

He knew to wait, however, for Mr. Benigni to return from the bank before tasting their favorite, Hop Rod Rye, which, true to the brewery's description, is a delightfully dark, strong (7.5 percent alcohol by volume) brew that's almost sticky with hoppiness but also has a fine malty sweetness.

They invited Mr. Walick over that evening for happy hour, and toasted each other with pints.

You now can buy Bear Republic beer there and at several bars and distributors, thanks in great part to these three. Mr. Benigni says that Mr. Stober in particular "was relentless in his pursuit of it."

After all that, Mr. Benigni says they plan to always have at least one Bear brew on as one of now 42 ever-rotating taps.

Meanwhile, they're continuing to go after other great brews, including California's acclaimed Russian River, the brewer of which Mr. Benigni and Mr. Stober have been talking with for two years plus, and San Diego's relatively new Alesmith, which they have had a hard time even reaching by phone.

Mr. Walick, who's also working on a few things he can't talk about, grins and says, "I'll be out there in April."

Epilogue

Brewer Richard G. Norgrove says Bear Republic has been quiet about it, so as not to open the "floodgate" of more requests for beer, but the Cloverdale brewery is running and will raise capacity from 9,500 barrels to 27,000 barrels this year.

He at some point may visit Pennsylvania, which he described as one of the country's top 10 or even five beer-educated regions -- a reason he and his father wanted their original West Coast-style IPAs to be sold here. "I'm hoping it'll hit a niche with folks out there and stay."


Send beer news and tips to Bob Batz Jr. at bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930.


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