4 Pennsylvania Brewers Spill Their Tips for Aspiring Brewers
Pennsylvania’s craft beer industry is bubbling with activity! In 2011, 88 craft breweries called the Keystone State home. Today, more than 400 have set down roots in urban, rural, and suburban communities across the commonwealth. We’re proud of our top rank as the 2nd craft beer producing state in the country, with more than 3.6 million barrels of craft beer produced last year alone. So, what does it take to join the ranks of PA’s craft brewers? We caught up with four brewery founders and asked them for their advice for aspiring brewers.
John Trogner, Co-founder and Brewmaster, Tröegs Independent Brewing
Stay true to your roots while keeping up with trends and evolving.
Maintaining quality and consistency is crucial. So is shelf space. The more competition there is, the more difficult it is to retain shelf space in stores. You need to stay ahead of the curve and remain relevant in the industry without losing focus of what you do. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in almost 25 years of business, it’s that we must perpetually evolve. It’s been our ability to pivot, to try new things, and to take risks, that has kept us moving forward.
Get yourself out there and keep learning.
Getting a job at a brewpub was critical for me. I took any job they threw at me, and that mostly meant cleaning at first, but as I paid attention and learned the ropes, I got to brew more. The owner wasn’t around much, so we had a good bit of freedom, which was a great start to my brewing career. Meanwhile, my brother Chris was working beer into his college projects, formulating business plans, and getting feedback. He also helped manage an Italian restaurant, so he was learning on the job, as well.
It’s all in the company you keep.
When it came to actually starting the brewery, we got a lot of help from friends and family. Our parents and a few cousins worked the bottling line. It truly was a family affair. We also got a lot of help from kindred spirits who shared our love of beer. In fact, a few of them are still with Tröegs today.
Utilize your local resources.
Central PA’s agricultural breadbasket allows us to partner with local farmers to use the freshest possible ingredients in some of our most unique beers. We buy more than 100,000 pounds of barley, 20,000 pounds of honey, and more than 25,000 pounds of fresh fruit from local farmers. We also plant and grow pumpkins in our own pumpkin patch at a local farm and orchard just a few miles from our brewery.
Tom Kehoe, Founder, President, and Brewmaster, Yards Brewing Company
Dream it and stick to it.
The first microbrewery I ever visited amazed me, it was run by five people and everyone did everything. It was small and manageable and really made me think, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a job that you really enjoyed and that you could see yourself doing for the rest of your life?” Always stick to that plan. If your plan changes, try to get back to your original ideas. They are the reason you started this journey, don’t forget that!
Never stop believing in yourself.
The hardest thing that we faced initially was that no one believed in us. My family told me I would never survive. The banks could not comprehend the idea. Many bars and restaurants were stand-offish, not understanding how beer was made or that we were a local business. But luckily, some took a chance on us as well as other brewers — we were in this together.
Show what you can do.
We focused on innovating and setting ourselves apart from the competition. For Yards, it started with education. Educating the public about what good beer is, how it should be handled, served, and its diversity as a product. Many breweries have innovated with expanding the ingredients and the intensity of those ingredients. You have to do all of these things, and they need to work together. I am proud to be a part of the new generation of PA brewers providing the beer-drinking public with quality brews. Brew Unto Others!
Dennis Hock, Owner, Strange Roots Brewery
Find drive in your passions.
I started brewing beer as a teenager purely because I was interested in the science. Working with the indigenous organisms, native plants, and local agriculture of Western Pennsylvania has always inspired me. I feel there are very few artisanal crafts that allow the use of science and creativity while highlighting the uniqueness of a specific region.
Grow organically without compromising quality.
We cobbled together homemade equipment, purchased used where we could, and did our own research on requirements and regulatory filing — all saving us a lot of capital. I would also strongly suggest a firm social media presence, focusing on educating your local market about what you’re all about and building from there. Diversify what you make and don’t be afraid to get interesting, just make sure you have something for everyone. Start with what you need without over extending yourself!
There’s no place like home.
I love Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania, not only because it’s my home, but the people who continue to humble me because of their willingness to embrace our farm-to-table operation. Our method of making beer allows this symbiotic relationship with our terroir, which in many ways includes the people who truly appreciate the uniqueness of our geographical location.
Matt Katase, CEO and Co-founder, Brew Gentleman
There’s strength in diversity.
People often enter the beer industry as a second career. Our team is young and applying the energy of our early careers to building a business around making and selling beer. Each person on our management team brings a diverse background to their position, and a brewery is the perfect platform to wear our many interdisciplinary hats. Trust your people, let them specialize, give them opportunities for personal growth, and build something they can be proud to say they’ve had a major role in creating. The beer industry is entrepreneurial, brand-focused, creative, and experience-driven. Brew Gentlemen was, and continues to be, one massive DIY project. Throughout the process, we’ve had to teach ourselves new skills on the spot and bank on getting it right the first time.
Work harder and smarter.
Beer is fascinating. It’s been a central part of human society since the dawn of civilization, and the brewing industry as a whole continues to propagate cultural value to this day. Continuing to convert and keep new customers is a challenge that applies to the entire industry as it rapidly expands. The easy wins are over – we all have to work harder and smarter, remain creative, and bring our A-game in both beer quality and customer experience.
The most important part of how we operate is attention to detail. Especially at the beginning, when first impressions really matter, having things like clean, consistent branding, a clearly structured beer portfolio, and a warm and welcoming taproom are key. In every project, event, or relationship you take on, be intentional with your decisions and consistent in your execution. Our current expansion involves renovating the warehouse behind our current location in Braddock to build a full-scale production brewhouse, where we will be producing and canning our beer at a greatly increased capacity. With the expansion, we hope to provide more beer, for more people, in a more convenient way.
Inspired to to start your own brewery? Visit our the PA Business One-Stop Shop website for small business resources and advice and continue to stay up-to-date with all of Pennsylvania’s latest news and program announcements by following us on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.
As the older (but not necessarily wiser) of the two brothers responsible for craft beer brainchilds such as Nugget Nectar, Mad Elf, Perpetual IPA and Troegenator Double Bock, John Trogner has been overseeing the brewing side of Tröegs since the PA-based brewery first opened its doors in 1997. In 2012, Tröegs received the Mid-Sized Brewery and Brewer of the Year Awards at the Great American Beer Festival. Twenty years in, the brewery (now situated in Hershey, PA) broke the 100,000-barrel threshold and was ranked by the Brewer’s Association as the #30 largest craft brewery in the United States based on sales volume.
Tom Kehoe is the Founder, President and Brewmaster of Yards Brewing Company. He has been a part of the brewing industry since 1992 and is an active member of the Master Brewers Association of the Americas, for whom he has served as Technical Director and President. Trevor Prichett (left) is the COO and a partner at Yards Brewing Company. Trevor first met Tom in 2005 working with Yards on a class project for his MBA from the Wharton School of Business. The two stayed in touch, and in 2009, Trevor joined Yards full-time.
Dennis Hock established his brewery Draai Laag Brewing in 2011 with $800 in brewing equipment cobbled together from spare parts. He wisely kept his day job. As Draai Laag grew, he wanted to explore different styles and decided to change the name of the brewery in 2018, to Strange Roots Experimental Ales. After 20 years of working with the Western Pennsylvania terroir, Dennis and the Strange Roots team continue to push the envelope of beer but with the respect of tradition.
A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, Matt steers the ship at Brew Gentlemen. With a mathematical science degree focused on Operations Research and Entrepreneurship and a deep love of the beer industry, he has combined gut with hard numbers to outline the company’s strategy. Having built significant connections in the beverage industry, e currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Brewers of PA and Pittsburgh Brewers Guild.