The pickup point: Penn Brewery in Troy Hill.
A group of 15 people, mostly made up of small groups of two to four with one solo, waited as a former school bus, now painted white, pulled up outside. Loud music played inside. The “Porter Craft Beer Tours” logo decorated the exterior.
The doors opened and the guide, a man wearing black-and-gold mid-cut Air Jordan 1s — which, when people ask, he refers to as his “Yinzer Js,” short for Yinzer Jordans — stepped outside.
“Here at Porter Tours, we have one main rule,” Aadam Soorma said to the group, “Don’t throw up.”
Now that we knew what was expected of us, we signed in, grabbed our growlers and filed onto the bus. It was billed as a casual but informative tour of three local craft breweries lasting about four hours, led by Pittsburgh’s only locally owned brewery tour business. (Editor’s note: Porter Tours comped Four One Brew for the $59 tour ticket, but had no editorial control or input on this column.)
First stop, Soorma announced: 11th Hour Brewery in Lawrenceville.
The doors closed and the bus fired up.
A family tradition
Porter Brewery Tours is the brainchild of brothers Johnny Willett, 42, of Swissvale and Andrew Clayton, 33, of Highland Park. They had different fathers, but the same mother and her maiden name was Porter, which just happens to be the perfect name for a brewery tour company.
Clayton has always possessed an entrepreneurial streak. As a kid, after a family vacation in which they went to a fancy Italian restaurant, he dreamed of a business model that focused exclusively on providing plates and olive oil for bread-dipping purposes. So a few years ago, when he noticed that more and more craft breweries were opening in Pittsburgh, he approached his brother with a plan.
“He said, ‘I’ve got this idea for a business with low overheard that could be a lot of fun and something we just do on weekends,’” Willet recalled. “He went through the business side and the lawyerly stuff, which is not my strong point — I’m more of a talker — and he said he would handle all that while I could be the guy who talks us up and does the tours.”
In 2016, they started modestly enough, driving two to four people to breweries in their personal cars, primarily along the Route 28 corridor.
“We just wanted to see if people enjoyed it,” Willett said. “We were also trying to figure out the details: How many breweries should a tour include? How much distance should be between each brewery? Is four hours too long? Two hours seem too short … ”
In time, they realized that their guinea pig customers were really into the concept. They went to a local auto auction and bought their first school bus for about $3,000 to $4,000. They painted it white (“because that was the cheapest option,” he said), and added the Porter logo. Then they parked it outside Couch Brewery (with the owners’ permission) on Washington Boulevard — which turned out to be accidental stroke of marketing genius.
“Washington Boulevard gets a lot of traffic,” Willett said. “Most people who took the tour in the first couple months were driving on Washington, saw the bus, thought, ‘What is that?’ and looked us up online. It was like a big billboard, which was great. Also, my brother’s neighbors were getting tired of seeing this big bus parked on their street.”
Hyper-local and laissez faire
There are other beer tour businesses in Pittsburgh. Indeed, search for “Pittsburgh brewery tours” on Google, and Porter is not the first result.
But while the competition does a great job — Willett and Soorma had only compliments — two things set Porter apart, they said.
“The No. 1 thing is the fact that we’re locally owned,” Soorma said. “We really play up the drink local, be hyper-local, support local vibe.
“The other thing, from a hospitality perspective, is we try to be very laissez faire and let people have an experience they’re going to remember without feeling restrained. I want you guys to be free, roam around, enjoy the venue at your own pace, and then after an hour or so, we get back on the bus and go to the next one.”
Tours cost $59 and include a tour with the head brewer, plus three beer samples at each stop, meaning you get just about a pint of beer at each location.
But the guides aren’t babysitters, and guests are free to drink more than the samplers and even fill growlers (though drinking on the bus, for obvious reasons, is not allowed). That’s why Soorma reminds people that “this is not party bus. So, don’t throw up and don’t get obliterated are the only actual rules.”
For the most part, guests have adhered to these rules. Soorma can recall only two troublesome patrons, one person who made racist and misogynistic comments, and another who appeared to have been drinking before the tour even started.
The group on my tour mainly consisted of tourists from Virginia and Ohio. Nobody got drunk, everyone was well-behaved and we all became friends, if only for a four-hour window on a chilly Saturday in March. At 11th Hour, I had an engaging conversation with a central-Pennsylvania resident about jalapeno beer (about which I wrote in November here). We’re both big fans, so … the talk was lively.
‘A taste of Pittsburgh because we are Pittsburgh’
For now, Porter Brewery Tours remains a part-time endeavor for all involved.
Willet is an occupational therapist, Clayton works in marketing and Soorma runs his own multimedia company. The company’s other guide and scheduler also have other full-time jobs.
Do they want to expand? In some ways, yes. But they’re hardly in a hurry.
“Right now it’s super chill. We’re at a really happy spot with it being our side-gigs,” Soorma said. “One thing we would like to do is add more breweries. We go to (nine) breweries now, but there are 32 or so in the county. So I’d love to see us add more spots.”
On my tour, after 11th Hour, we hit up Couch and East End. Other tours regularly include stops at Dancing Gnome and Hitchhiker in Sharpsburg, Strange Roots Experimental Ales (formerly Draai Laag) in Millvale, Full Pint and Hop Farm in Lawrenceville, and occasionally Spoonwood in Bethel Park, Insurrection in Heidelberg and Leaning Cask in Springdale.
All in all, it was a great time. It was relaxed, enlightening, and it provided a unique opportunity to talk beer with our city’s brewers and other craft fans.
“People do have a choice, but we’re very proud of the fact that we live here and started our business here,” Willett said. “We give folks a taste of Pittsburgh because we are Pittsburgh.”