Sudsy strategies.

By now, it’s not just something for Portland to be smug about. Nearly everywhere in America—urban centers, suburbs, college towns, sometimes even rural hamlets—seems capable of supporting a craft brewery. Not only have the numbers of breweries and the often family-friendly brewpubs increased precipitously in the last five years, but the market share for craft brewing has surpassed over 10% of the total share in beer sales—a feat that would have seemed unthinkable a decade ago, back when places like Denver and Portland were toying with microbrews long it caught on elsewhere. The closest analogy I can think of is if independent studios began encroaching on Hollywood’s dominion to the point that a Pulp Fiction or My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Napoleon Dynamite or Juno or God’s Not Dead topped the box office every month (to choose the most eclectic array of movies that I can muster without further research).

What we’re seeing is a re-emergence of the golden age of brewing that pre-dates Prohibition, when just about any town over 5,000 had at least one facility, if not more. We haven’t quite returned to the per capita quantity of breweries from a century ago, but at current growth levels we just might get there. Perhaps most intriguing about this renaissance is the fact that the earliest and now most prominent of these quaffing destinations sprouted in areas otherwise considered high risk. With few exceptions, the archetypal craft brewery flourished in old, previously vacant (or underutilized) industrial buildings, often in a part of town that was, until recently, neglected and forlorn.

The February 2015 issue of Planning magazine, in an article “Welcome to Beer County” by Allen Best, deduces that entrepreneurial-minded brewers gravitate toward these structures for myriad reasons. Among them:

  1. microbrewing operations need sturdy floors with great load-bearing capacity, which is easy to find in an old factory building;
  2. industrial zones pose fewer zoning or permitting hurdles, because brewing (which is, after all, a type of manufacturing) typically constitutes a by-right use;
  3. a tap room that only serves booze won’t summon many moral objectors in a gritty, depopulated area;
  4. the process produces a great deal of effluent that sewage treatment facilities in smaller communities may not be able to handle.

While all of these explanations are viable, I deliberately ordered them in what I suspect is descending influence on a fledgling microbrewer’s location decision.

The truth is, only the first of these—the strength of the floor—is likely to be a deal-breaker. Now that the novelty has worn off, savvy craft brewers will open their business wherever they see a credible market entry point, and in a post-1970 bedroom community that lacks a real industrial quarter, the next best option may be an old, empty Steak and Ale or Bennigan’s, or it could be the corner storefront in a strip mall. With the escalating proliferation of craft brews, it isn’t unheard of to find a hip, homegrown incarnation (like this one in Greenwood, Indiana, not far from where I grew up) in the same building as a consignment shop, insurance office, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu academy.

No surprises there. Craft brewing, intrinsically a niche offering, depended upon cheap real estate and a soft regulatory environment to cushion itself from the prevailing, untested market. And, like so many trends when they go mainstream, it migrated to the suburbs. Much of suburban America is exclusively residential, and it may be quite a drive to get to a building over 50 years old, let alone an underutilized factory. So the strip mall microbrew satisfies the surging demand for local innovation in fermentation, but in a convenient and unapologetically non-threatening environment.

While craft brewing might now stretch across two extremes of the cultural and metropolitan spectrum, the verdict isn’t out yet on how well it can flourish outside of its habitat in the old factory buildings. Here’s another effort.DSCF2945

At the time of this photo from last summer, The Brew Gentlemen had not yet opened. But it’s up and running now.

And, while the location is a far cry from strip-mall suburbia, it also doesn’t quite synch with a repurposed old hulking shell in a once-prosperous industrial quarter near the inner city.DSCF2941

The Brew Gentlemen sits on an old commercial main street. While such a location is hardly out of the ordinary—even towns under 5,000 people with nary a larger community in an hour drive are enjoying renewed activity along their old main streets through emergent microbrewers—not corridor has endured quite as profound challenges as the one where The Brew Gentlemen decided to set up shop.

It’s in Braddock, Pennsylvania.DSCF2955

The town is one of many along the Monongahela Valley that stretches southward from downtown Pittsburgh. For much of the 20th century, the “Mon Valley” served as the aorta of the steel industry, peppered with the mills that elevated the city into Pennsylvania’s second largest and an important metropolis in its own right. As the steel industry collapsed up through the 1980s, Braddock—among many other suburbs in the Valley—lost its raison d’être. It had no other industry to fall back on, and its newly jobless residents sought greener pastures, pushing the city into a tailspin from which it hasn’t recovered. At its peak, way back in 1920, it had nearly 21,000 people. But its decline began during the Great Depression, and, unlike most industrial cities, it didn’t rebound (briefly) in the 1940s or 1950s. By the 2010 census, Braddock had 2,100 people—a nearly 90% population loss. Only a handful of industries like the one in the photograph below remain in the Monongahela Valley, and many of the adjacent communities have suffered similar fates to Braddock due to pronounced industry loss.DSCF2956

Braddock Hills, Swissvale, North Braddock, Rankin, Homestead, Duquesne—all of them decimated by steel’s departure from the region, though none have experienced such a radical population plunge as Braddock. So, even though Braddock has been, in most respects, a factory town, The Brew Gentlemen’s repurposes old electrical supply store on the town’s main street isn’t exactly a surefire bet. Braddock Avenue in Braddock doesn’t exactly succeed as a proxy for the Strip District, Carson Street, or a variety of other fashionable, formerly gritty neighborhoods within the Pittsburgh limits. Truth be told, Pittsburgh carries a distinction among Rust Belt cities in that many of the most impoverished areas in the metro are outside Pittsburgh itself. While the city does have its struggling neighborhoods, some independent municipalities like McKeesport or Clairton (both over 10 miles from Pittsburgh’s downtown) were even harder hit. And then there’s Braddock, a quintessential inner-ring suburb.

 

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So why, in a metropolitan environment with no shortage of old industrial spaces in districts with gentrifying potential, would The Brew Gentlemen choose Braddock, a place where the Borough had to demolish many of its old buildings and nearly 40% of the population is below the poverty line? It may have something to do with the borough’s biggest booster, the unusually high-profile mayor John Fetterman. This article—one among many—explores how his innovative economic development strategies have intentionally aspired to reinvent the struggling community through youth engagement, artist initiatives, urban farming, and innovative entrepreneurship. He has courted international media attention, documentarians, and donations from companies such as Levi Strauss to feature Braddock in commercials.  The artistic presence may seem subtle at first blush, but I can’t help but think they have something to do with the creation of all these Braddock-themed murals (coupled with, I suspect, some targeted youth engagement).

As much as I’d like to profile Mayor Fetterman without a description of his appearance, I’m going to succumb because the paradoxes play so critically into his genius at understated, insouciant self-promotion. The Harvard Kennedy School grad is 6’8” tall, over 300 pounds, and he brandishes tattoos that he accumulated in memoriam of each Braddock homicide victim during his mayorship (up to five now, I believe). Perhaps most significantly, he is white in a city that is two-thirds black, and while he won his office by a single vote in the original 2005, subsequent elections have kept him comfortably ensconced in the mayor’s seat, a part-time position with a salary that would barely cover utility bills.

 

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The Brew Gentleman admit on the above Pop City article that they were “drawn to the energy” of Braddock, much of which undoubtedly comes by the happy accident of Fetterman’s election, his three successful terms in office and his recruitment of creative talent to his beleaguered city. The Carnegie Mellon grads operating this microbrew wanted to plant themselves where they could catch onto the comet’s tail, so it seemed like a natural fit.

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The Brew Gentlemen were probably less preoccupied with zoning variances, neo-prohibitionists or effluent, because those were considerations were tangential to running a successful operation. They sought a vibe and Braddock fit the bill. It’s probably safe to assume that the gentlemen didn’t face too many obstacles; after all, their establishment abuts a church.

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In a city with a more secure tax base, the zoning ordinance would regulate the proximity of taverns or other drinking establishments to houses of worship. And, because of the community opposition such juxtapositions often generate (often led by the church congregation itself), it would have behooved the Brew Gentlemen to find a less controversial site. But obviously this didn’t stymie them. Was Braddock simply cool enough for a microbrewery to locate there, or did the microbrewery’s decision to choose Braddock confirmed the suburb’s nascent hip factor? It’s yet another spin on the eternal chicken-and-egg question.

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For better or worse, the renewed attention on a long-neglected nook in metro Pittsburgh depends on certain underlying assumptions. Among the biggest I can see is that the hipster infiltration as an economic development tool is hardly novel these days; every city in America has some “edgy” arts or local food initiative to help uplift its more downtrodden areas. It’s the systemization of a weltanschauung resulting from hybridization of The Hipster Handbook and The Rise of the Creative Class, both watershed publications at the time, but, each over a decade old, a bit musty by now, through no fault of their authors. (It was inevitable that these books’ prognostications of cool would date themselves. They always do.) Perhaps Fetterman thought of branding the “cool city” sooner than most others, but he’s hardly alone: the radically different community of Kokomo, Indiana has been pursuing similar strategies for just as long, as I reported a few years ago.  Practically the entire city of Detroit is banking on a re-colonization of young professionals, and the supply of such human capital in Detroit pales in proportion to the need.

Additionally, these efforts to re-colonize through the free enterprise of bourgeois bohemians invoke a lingering, uncomfortable miasma of sociocultural hegemony, since both the innovators and their clientele are overwhelmingly white, educated and (reasonably) affluent, while the communities where they’re operating are usually minority and impoverished. While Fetterman’s efforts to include the residents of Braddock in its own revitalization through his complementary non-profit work is commendable—they’re his constituents after all—how many of them can easily afford the ales that The Brew Gentlemen sell? For that matter, are any of these initiatives attracting people to live in Braddock? (The 2010 Census still showed a 25% population loss over the previous decade—on par with Detroit.) For that matter, if some of these hip artistic types did move to Braddock in great enough numbers, would that embody the sort of economic recovery that the current citizens of Braddock are seeking?

Since I don’t want to cavil, I’d prefer conclude with a less cynical assumption, which, at this point, can easily supersede the aforementioned dissonances. What this little enterprise in Braddock proves is that, at least for the time being, beer is socioeconomic alchemy. Born (or re-born) in distressed urban environments, the brewery has become a magnet for steering people with fairly deep pockets into areas that may otherwise lack investment interest. Virtually everyone acknowledges that the craft-brewing scene is a fad that will eventually plateau, resulting in the closure of the less successful enterprises when the market reaches saturation. But which ones will close? The ones in “bland” exurban strip malls, the ones where the neighborhood is (still) too poor to buy the products, the ones that don’t offer a complementary industrial-chic motif to their interiors, the ones whose brands aren’t hipster enough, the ones whose brands are too hipster because hating hipsters because mainstream rather than niche? Or the ones that simply don’t make good enough beer or chow? The long-established Portland beer scene is a poor litmus test. Let The Gentlemen help us determine if Braddock is a better brewery bellwether.

4 thoughts on “Sudsy strategies.

  1. Alex Pline

    Interesting article. I do hate the term “hipster” though as it is so loaded with positive or negative baggage depending on your point of view. I like the terms Andres Duany uses when describing revitalization: first come the “risk oblivious”, then the “risk aware”, followed finally by the “risk averse”. In typical Duany tongue and cheek manner he describes examples of each of those groups – the best one being “Dentists from New Jersey” as members of the latter. Not sure if you have see his talk from Detroit last year on Lean Urbanism for Local Governments, but it is really really good and relevant to this post: https://vimeo.com/75794881

    Reply
  2. AmericanDirt Post author

    Thanks for the message, Alex, and I appreciate the video link. Since I lived in Detroit until recently, I’ll take a look.

    You’re right. “Hipster” is an obnoxious word, but I have to use it because it’s doubly effective, not just as a direct reference to a certain sociological type but the swirl of cultural attitudes and connotations that surround it. Kind of like “lifestyle” in that regard, which has managed to remain a buzzword for a quarter of a century, at least. The verdict isn’t out yet on “artisan”, which is another tired neologism (at least new to post-Elizabethan English-speaking countries), but it may prove a short-lived branding strategy. My favorite aspect of “hipster” is how the two primary meanings mentioned above come in conflict with one other: because of the connotations of “hipster”, people to whom the denotations of “hipster” apply are in full denial. No hipster admits he/she is a hipster.

    Interesting to think of how hipsters might fit on the “risk oblivious” scale. Because they’ve be come (for the time being) such barometers of cool, it’s almost like they aren’t taking much risk anymore.

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