Beer Business Chronicles

“This looks like fun. I’m going to open up a brewery, too!”

Who among us hasn’t had this thought cross their mind at least once while consuming a few tasty beverages? I mean, it seems logical, right? You like beer. Other people like beer. This place where you drink beer is always crowded. You could open up a place, make good beer available, and the masses will instinctively flock! How hard could it be?

Very. Very freaking hard.

As consumers, what we see when we step foot in our favorite bar or brewery or taproom is the shiny, squeaky-clean, finished product. But masked beneath the wood trimmed bars, Edison lighting, exceptional liquids and carefully-planned food menus are years of blood, sweat, sacrifice, and unbridled dedication to bring a vision to stone-cold reality. All that and a boatload of money. And once that aforementioned reality hits, there’s the ever-present grind to ensure standards are met or exceeded on multiple levels every single day.

The contents of Beer Business Chronicles are not intended to discourage you from chasing a dream to own your own reputable craft beer destination. Quite the opposite. Its purpose is to paint a picture of realistic expectations and reveal some of the challenges and success stories these hardworking men and women tackle on a daily basis. After discovering some real-life experiences, you’ll know whether starting a brewery or opening a bar is right for you.

And, if you don’t have these aspirations, you’ll learn what happens behind the scenes to deliver you an experience that keeps you coming back time and time again.

Bethel Park’s Spoonwood Brewing is rapidly approaching their third anniversary on January 31st. To celebrate, they’ll be hosting a week’s worth of fun events featuring live music, special food items, beer releases, and more (visit their website at spoonwoodbrewing.com and follow them on social media to stay current on what’s going down).

The Spoonwood brand continues to expand its reach throughout Pittsburgh with taps being found in close to 100 craft beer destinations throughout the city. In house, they’ve established a stellar beer and food program and have created a welcoming environment that has captivated citizens of the South Hills and beyond. Wood-fired pizzas and meats from Spoonwood’s smoker complement a revolving tap list of IPAs, Belgian Ales, Stouts, and many more, including a healthy barrel-aged beer program that sees new releases every couple of months.

With three years nearly in the history books, Spoonwood Co-Owner and Head Brewer Steve Ilnicki has managed to keep everything in perspective. After chatting with him about how far his brewery has come and where it can go next, it’s clear to see that Steve takes a pragmatic approach, understanding full well the beer industry keeps changing and evolving, forcing one to pivot at a moment’s notice in order to keep the pace.

Discover how Steve plays an integral part in the continuing growth and development of Spoonwood Brewing:

What is one thing you know now that you wish you had known when you opened Spoonwood Brewing?

How much energy I would have to expend to maintain a positive mindset about the beer “industry” and “community.” It can be rough out there and today’s social world makes it easy for people to say whatever they please, whether it be founded or unfounded. Seriously, there’s a lot of BS.

How did you choose the Spoonwood concept and was there a clear direction for the beer and food programs prior to opening your doors?

Both the food and beer menus continue to evolve, even as we approach our third anniversary. The plan was always to incorporate a full kitchen and wood-fired pizza oven, but to be honest, food was more of a secondary concern (for me) when we first opened. We have gained a better understanding of the importance of a fully developed food “program,” and the overriding goal is to keep food and beer on equal terms. What hasn’t changed is that our menu is wholly “from scratch,” incorporating as many fresh, local ingredients as possible.

Beer is beer. James (Evans – Assistant Brewer) and I have fun making it and our hope is that people have fun drinking it. We’ll continue to play with the recipes, we’ll keep on brewing the beers that have brought us the most satisfaction, and we’ll add to the lineup when inspirado strikes.

How did you land on Bethel Park as the location for Spoonwood?

Bethel Park wasn’t my choice, as the location was already a lock when I entered the picture. But it certainly was, and still is, a mostly untapped area, full of promise and rainbows.

Tell us about a day in the life of a brewer and brewpub owner.

The truth is, my workdays can be monotonous and mundane, but I very much enjoy what I do. I like routines, so brewing is a good fit. Every week, you can be certain that there will be tanks to clean, kegs to clean, draft lines to clean, grain bags to hoist, mash tuns to empty, and so on. But I get excited for every batch that we rack, even when it’s a beer that we have brewed dozens of times before.

What were some of the obstacles you had to overcome to get Spoonwood operational?

We moved from breaking ground to opening day extremely quickly – a little more than half a year. The buildout was not without challenges, and the borough did present certain hoops to jump through. But all things considered, and knowing the struggles that many ventures face, it was a relatively smooth process.

What is the greatest success you’ve experienced?

There isn’t a single moment that stands out. I’ve met a lot of great people because of beer these past few years. There was that whole Claudio Sanchez thing, which was thrilling. I’ve had some great encounters with our Bethel Park “neighbors,” who are all so supportive of our brewpub. And making beer for the Turtle Survival Alliance each of the last two years.

Any advice you’d like to impart to someone thinking about opening a brewery?

Get very excited about hazy beer.

Jason Cercone is the Founder of Breaking Brews and is the Executive Director of Pittsburgh Libations Week. Learn more by visiting www.breakingbrews.com.

 

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