Well, that took a while.
Jake Bier has known for years that he wanted to open a brewery, and when he signed a lease in 2014 on the old Arch Street Firehouse in the Mexican War Streets, he thought he’d found a home for it. In fact, he told me that November that he would open War Streets Brewery by the spring of 2015.
But as any craft brewer in Pittsburgh will tell you: It always takes longer than expected.
“Just one roadblock after another,” said Bier, a War Streets resident. “But this is a blessing in disguise. Now we can be here, in a business that’s already established and successful and with a landlord that wants this to work.”
The established and successful business Bier speaks of is Benjamin’s, a burger, beer and brunch joint on Western Avenue.
Bier worked there as a bartender for about a year and a half. So when he heard the owner was looking to sell, he pitched his boss on the idea of selling to him.
The owner was on board, Bier got a loan, and they closed the deal last week. Occupancy permit now in hand, Bier finally has home for his beer.
“We’ll keep it as Benjamin’s for now because so many people are familiar with it, and it’s a got a great reputation,” Bier said over an IPA at the Allegheny West spot last week. “But eventually we will rebrand as Bier’s Pub, home to the War Streets Taproom.”
Little else will change. The burger menu — popular among North Siders and highly-rated by others online — will stay the same, as will the brunch menu and staff, according to Bier and pub co-owner Abbey Surrena.
“Same burgers, same brunch, same people,” he said. “Just better beer.”
Over time Bier will add a “Bier Garden” out back and a new bar on the upper first level, but the renovations will not require closures, Bier said. Work is likely to begin after the NFL season ends, he added, as Benjamin’s is typically “crushed” on Steeler Sundays.
Now looking forward, Bier is reluctant to look back.
Asked about the firehouse location, he shrugged. Landlord dispute, he explained. The building is 140 years old, and the work Bier and his business partner, Zach Ingoldsby, proposed turned out to be too ambitious for the owner’s taste.
Still, Bier wants to maintain the War Streets connection, so his beers will keep their War Streets-flavored names: Arch Street Amber Ale, Buena Vista Brown Ale, Monterey IPA, Palo Alto Pale Ale, Resaca Red Ale and Sherman Avenue Stout. (Last time I interviewed him, I had the stout, and it was special with perfect malt levels and a silky mouthfeel.)
“Now we have opportunities to name beers after these streets (in Allegheny West),” Bier said. “Lincoln Avenue Lager, Galveston Gold, Western Wheat … There’s a bunch of new names I can come up with now.”
It’s been a long time coming, and Bier admits he did not expect the process to take this long.
Nobody ever does.
Just ask the owners of Allegheny City Brewing, who expected a March 2016 opening but settled on September.
Or the folks at Eleventh Hour Brewing Co. in Lawrenceville, who planned to open last fall, but still haven’t. (Note: They’re getting awfully close, so expect details in this space soon.)
Did Bier, who studied contemporary music, consider giving up?
“Sure. Yeah,” he said. “But what else am I going to do? This is what I want to do.”
He would have done things differently. He wouldn’t have quit a salaried job at Rosedale Technical College until he was absolutely ready to open. And maybe he would have mapped out a more realistic timeline and been better prepared for the rigors of self-employment.
“I used to think: Why would anybody want to work a desk job for somebody else?” Bier said. “Now I see, well, you work eight hours a day, and then you’re done. You go home, and you do whatever you want with your family, and you’re not thinking about work.
“But when you do this, every day you’re creating your situation. You don’t have to answer to anyone else, so that’s the positive side of it. But it never stops. You never clock out. You’re always thinking about the next thing.”
It’s been a “hell of a process — really, really stressful,” he said.
But now comes the fun part:
Making and selling his own beer.
“The scariness versus the reward — I still haven’t gotten the reward,” he says. “But I think this will pay off.”
He sips his beer, then added:
Chris Togneri won first place for humor writing from the National Guild of Beer Writers after he ‘fixed’ Mayor Bill Peduto’s terrible beer taste in 2015. The mayor is reportedly drinking Miller Lite again, so … the struggle continues.