By Brian Conway.
Penn’scavesWords Brian Conway Photos Buzzy TorekIt’s no secret that Penn Brewery is steeped in brewing history. Founded in 1986, Penn is one of the oldest modern craft breweries still in operation today. Their Troy Hill headquarters date back to a century earlier and were once the site of three historic Pittsburgh breweries: Ober Bros. Brewing Co, Eberhardt and Ober Brewing Company, and G. Siedle Brewery.
These breweries merged and took on different forms in the latter half of the 1800s until they were conglomerated under the Pittsburgh Brewing umbrella in 1899. The building sat largely vacant from the late 1950s until the 1980s, when Penn founder Tom Pastorius rescued the dilapidated E+O Brewery structure from demolition, opening in 1989 the first tied house in Pennsylvania since prohibition.
Despite this well-documented brewing pedigree, there are still secrets that dwell behind Penn’s iconic red-brick walls.
“We always knew about the caves,” says part-owner, Corey Little. “What was behind the brick was a complete mystery.”
The caves in question date back to Eberhardt and Ober, which was founded in 1848. Since this was before the invention of refrigeration, E+O blasted caves into the hillside to keep their beer from spoiling during the summer months. (Historically, German brewers would brew a hearty Märzen in the spring, and then forego brewing until cooler temperatures arrived in the fall, at which point the Märzen would be tapped for Oktoberfest.)
These lagering caves were in use for at least a few decades—Penn assumes the Ober Brothers had installed refrigeration by the 1880s because fire insurance records from the time don’t mention them.
From the turn of the century until today the caves were largely forgotten, used on occasion to store construction debris and somewhere for bored local teens to explore at night.
In 2012, when Penn was having repair work done on the outdoor biergarten, they asked their mason to cut out some of the concrete blocking one of the entrances.
What happened next was completely unexpected: Little, along with Penn co-owner Linda Nyman’s husband, Stuart, grabbed their flashlights and headed back into the caves. They found a network of four main tunnels, with side tunnels that connect them all together and extending over 100 feet into the hillside.
Deep inside one of the caves Little and Nyman came across eight enormous barrels, easily 10 feet in diameter apiece. They’re so big, in fact, that Penn is certain that they had to be assembled in the caves themselves – they’re just too big to have been brought in from outside.For 150 years old the barrels are in remarkably good shape, but they show their age: two of the eight have collapsed, and the others are covered in calcium and badly waterlogged – the result of spending over a century forgotten in near 100 percent humidity.
Unsure of how to proceed, they turned to engineering graduate students at University of Pittsburgh for assistance. Their research determined that the barrels were made from white oak and bonded with iron hoops. They believe the barrels have another 15 years before they disintegrate.
If Penn tries to remove the barrels it would be akin to raising a shipwreck from underseas, says Little—they just couldn’t the adapt to the new environment. Furthermore, restoration would be extremely costly: “solutions were of an expense level that you would consider if you were trying to preserve an ancient Greek ship.”
Today, the barrels remain where they’ve stayed for the past century and a half. Penn is considering opening at least a portion of the caves to the public, but for now they remain off-limits to the public until progress can be made on clearing out debris from the caves and stabilizing the walls and ceilings.
In the meantime, the barrels can be viewed through a window inside a small grotto in the biergarten.
The caves themselves occupy three levels, and as Penn’s operation expands there’s talk of pushing back a small portion of the brewery itself into the adjacent caves. Just don’t expect Penn’s head brewer, Nick Rosich, to rescue any yeast from these long-forgotten barrels.
“There have probably been 20 different people to ask me about that,” he says. “Even if there’s yeast in there similar to brewer’s yeast, I wouldn’t trust it.”