Penn Brewery begins 'new era'

A triumphant re-opening comes with a surprise -- pale ale


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It was enough to make Tom Pastorius roll over in his grave, if he were in one.

A pale ale -- an American pale ale! -- being brewed and served at the old-school German-style lager brewery he founded in 1986 and sold but for a minority stake in 2003.

And yet there was Mr. Pastorius, like a ghost of Christmas past in his red sweatshirt, back at the North Side's Penn Brewery yesterday. It was the first time the restaurant has been open since August and since he led a group of investors to buy back the business last month. The restaurant remains closed, but they've resumed brewing there, rather than contracting out to the Lion Brewery in Wilkes-Barre, and the restaurant is to reopen to the public soon.

And while Penn invited its fans over yesterday evening for a "preview tasting of our first batch of Penn Pilsner of the new era" -- the pilsner being the flagship in the brand's fleet of lagers, the kind of beers the Germans perfected -- it also served up a surprise: a taste of the brand new ale, to be called Allegheny Pale Ale.

Many in the throng that was lined up from the bar to the doors were just delighted to be having any beer at Penn, the travails of which elicited an outpouring of reaction from Pittsburghers around the country.

Mr. Pastorius, back at the helm as Penn's president, was delighted, too.

"I'm overwhelmed," he said. "I think, other than Oktoberfest, this is the biggest line we've had at the bar since the day we opened in 1989."

Beer geeks can remember a time when Mr. Pastorius, a purist, wouldn't even consider brewing a pale ale (though Penn has brewed a German-style altbier, most recently in March 2008). Beer to him was German and therefore lager.

But he knows, as he said last night, that "people are appreciating hoppier beers and ales more and more."

That Penn made one of its first brews a hoppy pale ale is two things. It's practical, because ales don't need as much time to age as do lagers and so the brewery can sell beer sooner. It's also a signal that the brewery will be more experimental -- something Mr. Pastorius hinted at when he announced that he'd finally repurchased the business from Birchmere Capital with three investors: Linda Nyman, Sandy Cindrich and Corey Little.

Penn has started operating under a five-year lease while the Northside Leadership Conference finalizes an agreement with owner N&O Partners to buy the property, the former Eberhardt & Ober that's now listed with the National Register of Historic Places. The leadership conference's subsidiary, the Northside Community Development Fund, provided $300,000 in loans for the brewery to buy equipment, with the help of the city Urban Redevelopment Authority and Huntington Bank.

That will cover new keg cleaning and filling equipment on order from Germany that Penn needs to begin selling draft beer. Mr. Pastorius said that won't happen until the end of January or early February, and the restaurant looks to open in late February or March. Bottled beer will have to wait until Penn buys a bottling line to replace the one the company sold off.

Meanwhile, there is beer. Re-hired brewer Andrew Rich cleaned the kettle and fired up the first batch of Penn Pilsner on Dec. 8. They served it last night unfiltered and unfinished, calling it a "keller" or cellar beer.

Between handshakes and hugs, Mr. Rich, who's been working long and lonely hours, said, "It's great to see the place warm and filled with people enjoying the beers."

Many of the region's beer lovers were there for this historic night, and many were thrilled.

"It's all good for the beer culture," said Tony Knipling of Vecenie Distributing Co. in Millvale.

Chris Dilla, who stopped carrying Penn brews at her Bocktown Beer and Grill in North Fayette, said she "ecstatic" about putting Pittsburgh's iconic craft brew back on the menu. "The quality will be there."

With Pittsburgh Brewing having stopped production, and its Iron City being brewed in Latrobe, Penn has been saying that it is the only "production brewery" in the city. But don't tell that to the Church Brew Works in Lawrenceville, which brews and bottles a lot of beer, or to Scott Smith, who produces roughly 1,000 barrels a year at his East End Brewing Co. in Homewood.

Mr. Pastorius said Penn hopes to surpass the 12,000 barrels it had been brewing annually. "I'd like to double that."

And while he likes the expansion opportunity afforded by adding ales for the people who like them, he's staying true to his character. "Personally," he said, "I prefer the lagers."


Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930.


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