Beer: Hitching his dream to a new brewpub


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Living the dream.

Lots of people throw that around as a sarcastic quip.

But not Andy Kwiatkowski.

He's actually living the dream.

His dream.

And he's over-the-moon happy about it.

The 28-year-old is just starting what many people would consider a dream job. He is the new head brewer at the new Hitchhiker Brewing Co., a small brewpub that's soft-opening this Saturday in, of all places, Mt. Lebanon.

Today just happens to be his last day at a job as a customer-service rep for Verizon Wireless, which in February announced it was closing its Cranberry and Warrendale call centers. He and about 1,000 other people were offered relocation or severance.

He didn't want to move, but didn't know what he was going to do.

He did know what he dreamed to do.

In his case, it worked out.

Ever since he was boy growing up in Franklin Park, Andy Kwiatkowski was around beer. His dad was a serious homebrewer. Andy, who was into art, recalls, "He would have me draw labels for his bottles."

It wasn't until after he graduated from North Allegheny High School and tried mind-blowing homebrew that a friend had made to mark his college graduation that he really got interested in the actual beer.

He brewed his own for the first time on Jan. 29, 2010.

"I know the exact date because I'm a loser," he says, with a sarcastic self-deprecation that is more than just his social-media schtick.

As much as he became "obsessed -- hook, line and sinker" with brewing beer (starting on his parent's stove and progressing to his dad's by-then tricked-out system), he didn't like drinking his own beer. "Because," he says, "I see all the flaws." So he gave kegs of it away to family and friends.

He gave it away at every beer event that would have him.

He became active in the Three Rivers Alliance of Serious Homebrewers, and won some serious awards -- more than 20 medals -- in local and regional competitions.

And he became a passionate advocate for Pittsburgh craft beer, known to scores of other area aficionados by his Twitter handle, @jagoffbrewer.

Job-wise, a chain restaurant had killed his aspirations to be a chef. Working for a mortgage broker was fine for a couple of years. The Verizon gig, which he started in 2007, paid the bills.

But for a career? He dreamed of being a professional brewer.

Alas, so do countless other dreamers. But even as craft beer booms, there are very few jobs for full-time craft brewers.

So he went semi-pro, working for several months in 2011-2012 as a cellarman at East End Brewing Co..

In 2012, he worked with several brewers at Penn Brewery on a "collaboration beer" for the first Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week. They made his TRASH-gold-winning India pale ale, "Cheeky Yinzer." The next year he worked on another collaboration at Full Pint. But he still was the homebrewer representative.

Turns out, homebrewers stick together, too.

As soon as he learned he was getting laid off, Mr. Kwiatkowski updated his resume. He sent it to some breweries, including Penn and Fat Head's. He shared his predicament on social media.

Coincidentally, Gary Olden, the Mt. Lebanon businessman and homebrewer who was pushing to open Hitchhiker Brewing Co., had just decided he needed a brewer. He called his friend and fellow homebrewer Daniel Pipetone and asked him, Do you know of anyone?

Yes, said Mr. Pipetone, who brews under the Straw Bale Brewing moniker. He'd read of Mr. Kwiatkowski's situation on Facebook and recommended that Mr. Olden get in touch with him. Within days, Mr. Olden hired Mr. Kwiatkowski -- as Hitchhiker's head brewer.

On March 17, Mr. Kwiatkowski posted his news on Facebook and thanked everyone who'd helped him. "This means more to me than you could possibly know," he wrote. "... I can only imagine how annoying I have been about it."

Since then, things have been a blur. He had to start working in Hitchhiker's three-barrel brewhouse around his day job, which meant late hours and long commutes from his apartment in Cranberry.

The crunch got worse April 25 to May 4, when, as a Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week board member, he had to attend 16 beer events over 11 days.

One was extra special: When the first Hitchhiker keg in "the wild" was tapped at an April 28 local-brewer showcase at Rivertowne on the North Side.

He was joined there by so many supporters and beer fans thirsting to try the new brew that in minutes the sixtel (sixth of a keg) of his Tumbleweed Oatmeal Brown Ale was empty.

He was filled with emotion.

As he posted to Facebook to family and friends, "You're the reason I am living my dream ..."

He's got a ways to go on this journey from amateur to professional. He knows he'll have to stop the "My beer stinks" stuff, which he admits was partially marketing, but he's sincere when he says, "I'm a perfectionist at my core."

He's excited about Hitchhiker's soft opening on Saturday, which he sees as the culmination of all of his -- and Mr. Olden's -- hard work. All weekend, he might be pinching himself.

After all, he'd figured that even if managed to get a brewing job, it wouldn't be as head brewer at a startup with the freedom to do what he wants. He wants to do a lot.

Sitting at Hitchhiker's bar on a recent evening, in the calm between having brewed most of 11 batches and that beer actually going on sale, there's not a hint of sarcasm in his voice as he says, "I want to make the best beer in the world and I won't settle for anything less than that."

Sounds like he's dreaming.

It'll be interesting to see how this turns out.

Hitchhiker Brewing Co. is at 190 Castle Shannon Blvd. and is open from 3 to 11 p.m. Weds.-Thurs. and noon to 11 p.m. Fri.-Sun. (closed Mon.-Tues.). To start, the pub will be serving pints as well as growlers and half growlers of a half-dozen brews with names that fit the "Pick Up a Hitchhiker" theme: Tumbleweed Oatmeal Brown Ale, Roadie IPA, Centerline Black IPA, Soles Farmhouse Saison, Rucksack Porter and Cobblestone Kolsch.

Each has a logo designed by Mr. Olden, whose day job is running an e-commerce group for an industrial manufacturer.

His wife, Serena, helped put together a menu of small plates -- meat and cheese, gourmet hotdogs -- and there also will be some local hard cider and wines and housemade soft drinks.

The newly updated website is hitchhikerbrewing.com and the phone is 412-343-1950.


Bob Batz Jr.: bbatz@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.

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