Last call at Penn Brewery drew him back
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You raise your baby, watch her grow into a beautiful, mature adult, and then at 17 you let her go -- and once she starts hanging out with a new crowd you hardly recognize her.
That's essentially Penn Brewery's story. Tom Pastorius founded it at the foot of Troy Hill on the North Side in 1986 when craft breweries weren't supposed to succeed. He built it into something special and then sold the majority interest in 2003.
The new owners didn't know good beer from Shinola, as any Pittsburgher with taste buds soon discovered. The beer and the business went sour. But on Wednesday, Penn Brewery Restaurant had its grand reopening after a nine-month hiatus, and Mr. Pastorius, 65, and his wife, Mary Beth, welcomed back old customers and new friends.
"Ben Franklin said, 'Beer is proof that God loves us,' " said Mark Fatla, executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference. "Penn Brewery is proof that God loves the North Side."
Mr. Pastorius had to make this comeback. It's not just that he's the ninth direct descendant of Franz Daniel Pastorius, who founded the first German settlement in America -- Germantown -- in 1683. Or that he'll tell you, without a shred of irony, that "civilization was founded to make beer." (Ten thousand years ago, people stopped being nomads and began growing barley. Did you think they gave up traveling just to make bread?)
For Mr. Pastorius, who lived 12 years in Germany, good German beer is part of his definition of a good life.
"I wanted to have fresh German beer and all of a sudden I didn't have it," he said.
He wasn't alone. You don't need to know how to make great beer to know what it tastes like. I can't count the number of times a Penn Pilsner at PNC Park had eased the intermittent but chronic pain that comes from watching the Pirates. But in January 2009, Penn Brewery's new owners began contracting with a Wilkes-Barre brewery to make the amber solace.
You could taste the difference with one sip. Longtime Penn Pilsner fans fled in droves. It was -- and this is saying something -- the worst trade in the history of PNC Park.
Thankfully, Mr. Pastorius was warming up in the bullpen. He'd endured a five-year contract to stay on as president and chief executive officer -- "I was very unhappy for those five years" but "I was able to retard the demise." That ended in September 2008 when he was shown the door.
Last spring, he said, the old owners "realized they'd screwed up" and people didn't like the new beer. They asked if he knew anyone interested in buying the company, and he started looking for investors.
Mary Beth Pastorius will tell you with a laugh that a lot of other people knew her husband was looking to take back the brewery before she did. She'd managed the restaurant for 17 years and her first thought ran along the lines of, "Are you out of your mind?" But, she explained, "If you love somebody, you want that person to be happy." Their adult sons, Tom and Franz Daniel, also encouraged him to forge ahead.
There was something like a million dollars in debt and unpaid bills to wade through. With two $300,000 loans from the Northside Leadership Conference and the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and with new investors -- Linda Nyman, Sandy Cindrich and Corey Little -- Mr. Pastorius reopened Penn Brewery. He still has just the 25 percent share, but he's in charge again, and Mrs. Pastorius is managing the restaurant.
The sale closed just before Thanksgiving and they started brewing early in December, but the microbrewery really can't work without the restaurant and vice versa. The eating part of the business had closed shop last August but now German -- and Hungarian and Polish -- fare is again complementing the brews.
There will be other lines new to this place, such as canned beer aimed toward all those boaters on the rivers below. Penn Brewery also has introduced a pale ale. And the man who has memorably said for years that "light beer is beer for people who don't like beer" is even ready to make that if customers demand it.
Penn Pilsner, Penn Dark, Oktoberfest and St. Nikolaus Bock will remain his true loves, of course.
In some ways, Mr. Pastorius thinks this is a surer thing than it has ever been.
"We're now Pittsburgh's oldest and largest brewery. Thank you, Iron City. Those are some big shoes to fill."
Wednesday afternoon patrons filled the beer hall and courtyard to fill mugs, eat potato pancakes and wurst, listen to a guy in lederhosen play his accordion, and check out a new $300,000 bottling machine that's said to reach speeds of 6,000 bottles an hour.
"If I hadn't done this," Mr. Pastorius said, "I never would have forgiven myself."
First Published May 6, 2010 12:00 am