Driving to The House, I usually come from the south via Logan’s Ferry Road. A little sign on the little bridge crossing Pucketa Creek lets you know you’re entering Westmoreland County. The county line is just over a stone’s throw from the bottle shop (okay, maybe a Frisbee throw), & I always find it kinda funny how close-yet-how-far we are from Pittsburgh. We’re lumped in with the Pittsburgh beer scene, yet we’re a whole county away. That status has its pros & its cons, in my mind. On the one hand, it makes us outsiders: we’re off the beaten path, & one common complaint is that it can be a schlep to find us (though, really, folks, it’s not that bad – just a short, pretty drive up 28). On the other, we’re a little freer to be ourselves out here, & being just out here means that we have a bigger hill to be king of. Lots of places claim to have the best selection in Pittsburgh, but that’s ‘cause we’re not in Pittsburgh. We’ve got the biggest in western PA!
It’s funny, too – if you look at a map of Westmoreland County, there’s this bulge in the northwest around New Ken. It’s almost like they deliberately drew the county line to engulf this little post-industrial burg. Either Westmoreland really wanted it, or Allegheny really didn’t (I’ll let you speculate on which you think is more likely). That’s not to say we’re decrying our home by any means – we avoid the Onorato tax, & it’s cheaper in these parts overall. And being just out of the way makes The House a destination, a little day trip to beer heaven.
I’m happy to say, too, that Westmoreland County’s been no slouch in the brewing department. Historically, Rolling Rock held it down pretty well before their acquisition & subsequent move to New Jersey – City Beverage has been chugging along since with a huge contract operation. And a Sunday drive to antique malls will yield all kinds of tchochkes from Westmoreland breweries from years past. But right now there’s plenty to talk about with the new breed of beermakers right in our backyard. From the ashes of Red Star, one of my favorite brewpubs, sprang All Saints, who churn out some of the area’s best lagers. Helltown’s been a frontrunner in the southwest PA brewing revival of the last few years, whipping up great stouts, Belgian-style ales, & some of the best IPAs in western PA. Four Seasons has an impressive portfolio that includes a GABF-medaling oatmeal stout, some tasty hoppy offerings, & one of my favorite Kolsches. I have yet to make it to Bloom Brew, but they seem to specialize in some really out-there recipes that look intriguing. Rivertowne decided to put their production facility in our neck of the woods, & consistently makes good stuff (I especially think their lagers are underrated & really tasty). And though they’re right on the border, for the sake of argument I’m going to claim Full Pint for Westmoreland County. Also a slight “bend” – at present, the only place to get Insurrection’s brews are in Delmont, so I’ll squeeze them into the “Westmoreland” column as well, at least until their establishment opens in Heidelberg.
Our “little sister” county is boasting some pretty good suds, & we’re happy to be forming relationships with local brewers. This wasn’t always the case – about a year ago our GM, John, approached me & said that’s something he was really looking to do in the future: get to know the local guys & feature more area brewers on tap & on our shelves. We’re just up the river from the east end, Millvale, & Lawrenceville, & are proud to carry offerings from Draai Laag (we were one of their first accounts), East End, & Hop Farm, all of whom we’ve partnered with for pairing dinners this year. We also love sporting brews from Grist House, Church, Penn, Rock Bottom, & Brew Gentlemen as often as we can, & hope to expand our selection of local brews even further.
The prospect of “drinking local” offers more & more all the time. Entering our location into brewerymap.com yields 67 results within 100 miles (which isn’t entirely accurate, but not far off, either). If 100 miles is your yardstick for “local”, one could easily drink a local beer day for a year without any repeats. As I type this, we’ve got six local beers on tap, one cider (don’t think we forgot Arsenal), & another eight from just a stretch further. There are more options now than, well, at least in my lifetime.
So why drink local? The point has been that local doesn’t automatically equate to quality, & it’s an important point. The locals won’t get better by going out of business, though, so it’s important to pair patronage with honest, constructive feedback. Most brewers I’ve talked with are their own stiffest critics, & are constantly striving to up the ante & put out the best product that they can, so are receptive to how they can improve. There are the reasons everyone gives for supporting local: the money goes into the local economy & helps the community thrive. For me, it helps my appreciation of the beer knowing where it came from, who made it, how it was made. Part of the enjoyment is reaching a destination, walking in the front door, & ordering knowing that what you’re about to drink was made right where you’re standing. It helps form the connections that are at the heart of this business, what makes it personal & worth keeping independent & human. And it can be a point of pride knowing that your community can sport this beer & establishment as one of its own.
The model of the local brewery is shifting. Seeing the expansion of the craft field & the “bubble” getting bigger & bigger, more breweries are opting to running their ships tighter than before. Not as many brewers set their sites on national distribution – it’s evermore challenging to try to reach the scale of Dogfish Head, Stone, Rogue, etc. etc., so more new brewers are deciding to keep it small. They supply their local taphouses, those they can drive to easily, or are content to sell just out of their front of house. Years ago each neighborhood had a butcher, bakery, & now these small brewers want to hang their shingle on that older idea of Main Street. Keep it small, serve the locals & those who seek you out. This is how the numbers of wineries has sustained itself at over 7,000 for so long, & beer is following suit. This is part of how the number of breweries in the US has expanded to just over 4,000, by finding niches & not clawing at each other.
As much as we may try to be all things beer to all people all the time, I’m really happy to see The House take the step to incorporate more of the locals into our repertoire. Walking into an upstart brewery & telling the person across the counter “I’m with House of 1000 Beers” usually garners a look of recognition, maybe some positive words. That handshake, that look in the eye, is one of the most rewarding parts of my life in beer, & what I believe will keep the industry going.