The thing about running your own business, Mike Seamans knows all too well, is that every would-be entrepreneur who enters your life inevitably seeks your advice.
Even casual acquaintances. And definitely people who haven’t given much thought to their ‘big’ ideas.
So in 2012, when Seamans was running Mind Cure Records in Polish Hill, he was hardly surprised when his regular customer, Greg Kamerdze, entered his shop and told him about his dream of opening a craft brewery.
“I mean, we knew each other, but we were never super close — like, he probably had to give me his number to set up a meeting,” Seamans said. “But he asked if I’d be interested in sharing some ideas and I said, ‘Sure.’ I brought a pizza over to his house in Bloomfield.”
In doing so, Seamans quickly learned that Kamerdze — the former front man of Pittsburgh punk band Slices — was dead serious.
“He had this whole business plan laid out,” Seamans said. “It was far more advanced than anyone else’s [business pitch]. He was already very serious with the concept.”
The concept: Something different.
While most craft breweries focus on hoppy IPAs and boozy stouts, Kamerzde’s plan leaned on light and fruity Belgian-style beers. Plus, while most craft beer is significantly stronger than your standard macro-brewed lager, he had spent years perfecting home brews that were distinctly low in alcohol, like a session beer.
“I’m not really a hop head,” Kamerdze said. “I enjoy a good IPA, but it’s not really in my wheelhouse. It’s important to me to brew these different styles and strengths. The Belgian styles give me the freedom to experiment, plus I love the flavor profiles of the Belgian yeasts.”
Seamans was impressed. Within two months, they were business partners.
Finding Spring Hill
Ask any brewer, and they’ll tell you: Finding a home is the hard part.
The same was true for Seamans and Kamerdze. They checked out a ton of spots, including one in Allentown that seemed promising. It had all the amenities they needed, it was move-in ready, and the location promised plenty of foot traffic.
But was it too urban for Kamerdze’s pastorally inspired beers?
“We went to look and, I don’t know if this makes sense, but we really didn’t see it,” Seamans said. “It had everything. But it just doesn’t feel like the right fit.”
Not for what Greg envisioned.
So they kept looking. Then a friend that Seamans knew from the Pittsburgh underground music scene told him about an intriguing North Side property. The century-old Workingmen’s Beneficial Union hall — a brick building with tons of space, inside and out, that sits atop an easy-to-miss side street in Spring Hill — was last used as a bowling alley and event space. It closed in 1999 after a New Year’s Eve Y2K party.
It seemed an unlikely spot for a craft brewery.
But Kamerdze went. And what he did not see in Allentown, he saw on this quiet hilltop overlooking the city.
“I want you to check this place out,” Kamerdze said in a phone call to Seamans. “It’s a big old building with a lot of history. This could be it.”
Seamans, a lifelong Pittsburgher who has lived in the primarily in the East End, wasn’t even sure where Spring Hill was.
“It’s where? Spring Hill?”
‘There just wasn’t a floor’
The property was in rough shape: Standing water several feet deep in spots. Peeling wallpaper and paint. Severely warped bowling lanes.
“There was no floor where the tap room is now,” Seamans recalled. “I mean — there just wasn’t a floor.”
But then the business partners stood on the front porch and looked out at that view. They saw Lawrenceville off to the East. Straight ahead, the Cathedral of Learning poked up above the Hill District. To the left was Bigelow Boulevard with cars marching like ants to and from the city. The city was right there, but they couldn’t hear it. It was silent, peaceful.
This is it, they said. This is the spot.
And Spring Hill Brewing was born.
The property owners got to work fixing up the building: New roof, new electrical, new plumbing, new bathrooms … basically, new everything. Kamerdze got to work securing his brewing equipment and polishing his recipes. Seamans, who will run the business side of the brewery, sold his record shop (but not the business), then moved out of Polish Hill and into the neighborhood he once couldn’t find on a map. He operates Mind Cure Records out of his Spring Hill home.
It’s been two and a half years and the work is almost complete. The tap room is in place, anchored by the bar, a repurposed section of an old bowling lane. The brewing equipment will arrive soon.
Pending final inspections, they hope to hold a soft opening soon after Thanksgiving. Spring Hill Brewing doesn’t have a website yet, but expects to launch one soon. Until then, follow them on Facebook, or give them a visit at 1958 Varley St.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do inside,” Kamerdze said. “But I’m getting more excited by the day. Every time I come up here, I look around and I think, this is totally worth it.”
‘Tired of spitting up blood’
It’s quite a change for Kamerdze.
Today, he lives a mostly quiet life. He likes to nerd out over the unexpected smokiness of the honey he used in his latest sour beer, and he dreams of the crops that will grow outside his brewery and how he might incorporate them into his creations. He smiles at the serenity of his new world and says that every time he comes up here to work, he just wants to sit on the porch and marvel at his surroundings.
This from a guy who just a few years ago was touring the West Coast with Slices and writing lyrics to hardcore hits such as “Mike’s Insane Problem” and “Laughing While Eating.”
And if you don’t know, Slices was legit. A 2011 review observed of the band’s most recent release:
“The real golden ticket in this package is the flipside, ‘Chump Change.’ I could go so far as calling it the feel good hit of the summer — if your summer was filled with layoffs, yelling at your landlord and genital warts, but every sort of life needs a soundtrack does it not? I believe it was Voltaire who said that.”
And in a 2012 Pittsburgh City Paper cover story, author Andy Mulkerin wrote:
Slices also garners comparisons to Fucked Up — they don’t sound exactly alike, but both play straightforward, guitar-driven punk, have a screaming frontman and high production quality.
“We get lumped in with Fucked Up and Pissed Jeans, bands like that,” says Kamerdze.
From “lumped in” with Pissed Jeans to making fruity beers with intentionally low alcohol levels.
“I got tired of spitting up blood after shows for a couple days and decided I wanted to play with Belgian yeasts instead,” Kamerzde said. “I still listen to it, but hey, when you’re not hardcore anymore. … I would always get so bummed when I’d see bands that were just going through the motions. I guess the drive to get up and scream at people lost its luster.”
What a world we live in.