The man in the pick-up truck hollers to no one in particular among the 80+ people queued down Main Street in Sharpsburg one recent Saturday morning.
“Hey! What’s the line for?”
“Beer!” replies a sheepish, solitary voice.
“Beer?!” the driver guffaws. “What, are they giving it away?”
It’s hard to quickly explain the hype and hysteria surrounding craft beer to a passerby. Dancing Gnome Brewery doesn’t open for another 36 minutes, and as time approaches, the line creeps further down the block. Today is one of the brewery’s twice-a-week can releases: $20 for four 16-ounce cans of their new Double IPA, “Speedwell,” with a limit of three packs per person.
In less than two hours, they’ll sell out all 840 four-packs, not to mention a dozen limited-edition glasses that will trade online for $75-$100 later that evening.
Afterward, many of the so-called “hazeboys” will walk the six blocks to Hitchhiker Brewing to pick up a four-pack at their weekly can release, then head to Grist House Craft Brewery in nearby Millvale to hit up their 2 p.m. triple can release.
Each of these breweries, in particular Dancing Gnome, specialize in New England-style or hazy IPAs, a fruitier, less-bitter cousin of typical India pale ales. The haze craze is national, and if you believe the hype or the length of the lines, some of the very best is being made in Pittsburgh.
‘It’s always the emoji, the fire symbol.’ 🔥
First in line at Dancing Gnome is Jesse Wright. Bearded and burly, he got in at 7 a.m. from Armstrong County — a solid hour drive.
Today’s beer, Speedwell, is the latest in Dancing Gnome’s year-long, once-a-month flower design series of double IPAs, each the same alcohol percentage but brewed with different hops. Speedwell has never been released before, but that doesn’t concern him.
“They’re all very similar,” said Wright, who tries to make it to three or four can releases a month. “As soon as you crack a Dancing Gnome, you know it’s a Dancing Gnome. I don’t know if it’s the yeast they use, or the water, but every one of them has that same Dancing Gnome profile, and the hop additions put it over the top.”
Hazy IPAs are known as such because of their turbid, orange juice-like appearance. Fans praise their “soft” feel on the palette and ability to convey the juicy flavor and fragrance of the hops without the bitterness. (Dancing Gnome’s description for Speedwell notes “a melange of sticky resinous delights … big orange and grapefruit with that distinct dank [Nelson hops] finish.”)
True devotees of the hazy IPA insist on freshness, lest that hoppy, juicy flavor profile begin to fade.
“We don’t send any hazy kegs to a wholesaler unless already they’re already earmarked for a bar,” says Scott Smith, owner/brewer of Larimer’s East End Brewing. “We need it to be fresh and make it into somebody’s hand when it’s at its peak.”
Smith jokes that he’s spent the past dozen years trying to make his beer clear without the use of filters — traditionally, a perfectly clear pilsner or lager is the mark of a master brewer — yet today he happily brews hazy pale ales, IPAs, and double IPAs, including a recent collaboration with Enola, PA’s Pizza Boy Brewing called “Pennsylvania Handshake” that Smith said people “went bonkers” for.
“The interesting thing is these beers bring in a different audience for us. Every brewery wants fresh faces. That’s been a big plus.”
Nationally, an almost cult-like following surrounds breweries like Dancing Gnome who specialize in the stuff. Back at Dancing Gnome, Wright says it’s always the same guys at the front of the line. “We hang out, crack open beers — oh, where’s that Bud Light at?!” he exclaims, joking with friends behind him in line.
The irony, of course, is that among hop heads, Bud Light is to Dancing Gnome as Fireball is to Pappy van Winkle. The empty cans nearby — from top-tier breweries like Los Angeles’ Monkish, and Philadelphia’s Tired Hands — are proof that these are palates in search of nothing but the finest IPAs.
John Mincin, of Peters Township, arrived at 10:30 a.m., 90 minutes before opening, earning a spot about fiftieth in line. He wears a shirt from Northern California’s Russian River Brewery, home to Pliny the Elder, which some consider the best IPA in the country.
Mincin tries to make it out to every Dancing Gnome can release. In May, there were seven.
“This is the best can release in Pittsburgh,” he said. He’ll buy the maximum allotment — more if he can finagle it through trades — and will share most with friends and trade some for heavy-hitter IPAs in the same style.
“I get Aslin, Tree House, Veil, Trillium,” he continued, ticking off some of the most highly-regarded breweries on the East Coast. “It definitely compares.”
Kyle Buechner and Daniel Reed got in line at 10 a.m. from Oil City. The fact that this was a beer they never tasted before didn’t phase them either.
“I drive two hours, and I know I’m just know I’m going to get solid beer right off the bat,” said Reed.
Like any self-respecting yinzer should, everyone here roots for the home team. Reed said he can trade Dancing Gnome cans at a one-to-one ratio for virtually any Northeast brewery, but only if the person he’s trading with knows the brewery’s reputation: “We’re still trying to get their name out.”
And what do their trading partners write back about Dancing Gnome’s beers?
“It’s always the emoji, the fire symbol.”
‘I waited in line for this, it has to be better.’
Dancing Gnome’s owner/brewer, Andrew Witchey, still remembers his first can release: March 20, 2017, just six months after opening.
“I’m pretty sure that that night I said, ‘I gotta order some more tanks,’” he recalled.
Unlike most breweries, almost all of what Dancing Gnome produces is sold in-house. Except for a few specialty craft beer bars in Pittsburgh — Piper’s Pub, for example, or Squirrel Hill’s Independent Brewing Company — you’ll have to visit Sharpsburg for a pint.
Ray Winstead, of Baldwin, entered Dancing Gnome’s line 15 minutes before opening. He’s a big fan of the brewery’s beers, to the point that he’ll enlist “mules” to pick up cans at releases he can’t make himself, but he wonders aloud how much of the hype is generated by the culture itself.
“A lot of the FOMO, the ‘Fear of Missing Out,’ annoys me,” Winstead said. “Mentally, there’s definitely a cognitive dissonance that happens, where they wait in line an hour-and-a-half and they say, ‘Oh, I waited in line for this, it has to be better.”
Witchey acknowledges there’s an element of exclusivity that appeals to fans of his beers. Some of his brews will come around once or twice a year, if that, and if you’re not in line, you risk never having it. But slick packaging and clever branding doesn’t mean a thing if the beer doesn’t live up to the hype.
“We work really hard on our hop blends to make sure we’re putting out something really good,” Witchey said. “We’re not going to put out something that we’re not super amped on.”
Pittsburgh-founded, New York-based online magazine Hop Culture is a celebration of modern craft beer culture. Last year, the magazine hosted the first Juicy Brews Beer Festival at Dancing Gnome, featuring a dozen local and regional breweries who specialize in — you guessed it — hazy IPAs.
“It’s easy to say ‘Why are you standing in line for a beer?’” Hop Culture founder Kenny Gould said. “You’re not standing in line for beer. You’re standing in line to participate in a community, to meet other people into the same things that you are.”
While he expects the New England-style IPA style to remain popular, he said it’s not enough for a brewery to put out a bunch of hazy beers with different hop blends and expect people to line up. Ultimately, he believes that brewers with the fundamental skills to brew different types of beer, true to style, will be able to match the evolving tastes of consumers and outlast the competition.
The crowd at Dancing Gnome is overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, male. KC Carney, of Friendship, said she traded wine for craft beer about 10 years ago and hasn’t looked back. She makes her way to plenty of local craft breweries, but Dancing Gnome is her favorite.
“I come to nearly every Dancing Gnome can release there is,” she said. “In fact, some people think I work here because I’m here so much.”
Carney said she’s made plenty of friends waiting in line for can releases, and despite being one of the few women in attendance, nobody treats her any differently.
“The community is really just an accepting community, and for women — to me — it’s very accepting,” she said.
‘I can’t wait to go home and crack one open.’
A few hours later at nearby Grist House, fans are celebrating the brewery’s fourth anniversary with three can releases: two IPAs — one of which is called Hazedelic Juice Grenade — and a fruited sour brewed with raspberry and passionfruit.
A few minutes before opening, the line is already about 100-deep. First up is Chris Godwin, of Carnegie. Godwin and a group of friends take turns staking out different breweries for days like today, when multiple can releases happen at multiple locations. (In addition to the breweries mentioned here, Fury in Irwin, ShuBrew in Zelienople, and Cinderlands in Lawrenceville all host frequent can releases.)
Not all breweries release their cans the same way. Meadville-based Voodoo Brewery, which has a location in Homestead, cans plenty of hazy IPAs but deliberately avoids announcing the releases until the day-of through social media. One of Voodoo’s owners, Jake Voelker, said that it’s a deliberate choice to “keep it as absolutely local as possible.”
“The further ahead you announce you have something coming into your pubs, the bigger the radius is that people can drive in,” Voelker said. “We love those people, too, but the dude who comes in every Thursday for a sandwich and a beer won’t have an opportunity [to purchase cans] otherwise.”
But the can trading culture can also help breweries reach new audiences.
Grist House owner/brewer, Brian Eaton, said can trading has gotten his beer into homes far outside his distribution area, something he can monitor in real-time through Twitter, Instagram, and beer rating apps like Untappd.
“Before, people would come in and get growlers, but after you open it up you have to consume them in a day or two,” he said. “What’s nice with cans is you’re sitting in someone’s fridge, and they see you on a daily basis, your logo and your brand. It’s a constant reminder.”
Because of increased demand, Grist House is working to expand their production and canning capabilities. They’ve also hired a full-time marketing manager to ensure a consistent, eye-catching aesthetic.
Hanging out at Grist House are Katie Village and Jessica Lynch, of West View. Despite the prevalence of IPAs, the pair got to Grist House 40 minutes before opening to make sure they could pick up Kaboom Candy, the fruited sour. Each sips a glass of the purple elixir in Grist House’s outdoor beer garden before heading out. The beer is sweet and tart, like a glass of liquid sorbet.
Village said her husband usually comes to the releases but had to work this time, so she and Lynch, both craft beer fans, volunteered to wait in line and pick up the sour for him — and themselves.
“I was like, ‘It can’t be that crazy,’” Lynch said, before deadpanning, “It was a long line.”
This was the first can release that either had attended at any brewery. So was it worth it the wait?
“Definitely,” Village said. “I can’t wait to go home and crack one open.”