East End Brewing, Pittsburgh PA
Nate Interviews Owner/Brewer Scott Smith
October 4, 2007
Written by Nate
East End Brewing is, at first, difficult to find; particularly if you’re not a native Pittsburgher. It sits on Susquehanna Street, within a rather large run-down warehouse near the train tracks, not far from some dubious-looking houses. It’s in the borderland between the Homewood and Point Breeze neighborhoods, which may or may not mean much to the out-of-towners. To make matters more difficult, there is no sign on the
building. When the place is closed to the public, there is only a large gray steel door with the name lightly stenciled in purple. During growler hours, the door is open and a keg is placed outside to let you know they’re open for business. Despite this first impression, East End is a place you’ll find yourself visiting again and again - with a cooler, some empty growlers, and a handful of cash.
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The whole operation is owned and run by Scott Smith, a native Pittsburgher. Scott grew up in the Regent Square area of town (patrons of D’s Six Pack know where that is), and his mom still lives in the house there. Scott originally got a degree in engineering and left town to work for what he describes as a "Fortune 500 company in the food sector". First, he lived in Chicago, where he met his wife. Here he also learned to really appreciate craft beer, such as Bell’s products, in some of the landmark Chicago establishments. "I remember having Kalamazoo Stout at the Gingerman Tavern on Clark near Wrigley. Blew me away. I loved Third Coast and Two Hearted."
From Chicago, he moved to San Francisco for five years where "you couldn’t walk down the street without finding a good place to drink good beer. I lived four blocks from Toronado." Next, it was on to a small town in Virginia; followed by a one year stint in Berkeley, CA. At last, he moved back home to Pittsburgh, where after 14-15 years in the business, he decided to stop moving around and settle. The problem was, what exactly would allow him to do that?
"I worked for a good company. I was well compensated, and I liked the people; but I wanted to stay in Pittsburgh, and you only go around once. So I quit that company, then started with another. I quit that one, and ... well, I worked on and off and quit three times in six weeks. It was time for something different."
Scott also enjoyed homebrewing in addition to his passion for craft beers. "Like any homebrewer, I thought ’Hmmm ... maybe I could do this for a living.’ I guess I was just more delusional than most homebrewers. I decided to roll the dice and give it a go." His engineering experience in the food industry gave him some additional skills, including some IT work and inventory management.
"I didn’t have a firm plan to start. I was a mechanical engineer with manufacturing and food industry time - bottling salad dressing. I also did some IT and systems implementation for a while. Now, I bottle beer rather than salad dressing ... which is nice at the end of the day. Having a couple of beers after work is an obvious benefit ... you’re not likely to finish off a couple bottles of salad dressing at the end of the day."
With all of that systems/inventory management background, I asked if he had a special system in place for his inventory. "Really, I’m only using my head. I’m very diligent with recipes and keep notes. As for other scheduling and material management, you know, I just see what I might need soon and order it. I buy grain in 12,000 pound increments."
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Scott’s operation takes up only a small part of the warehouse. The main equipment and keg storage is on the ground floor, and grain storage is located upstairs. Grain is moved six sacks at a time by a grain elevator. When asked about the rest of the warehouse, Scott tells me that the remaining space is taken up by a huge collection of coin-operated rides
(like those for kids outside of grocery stores). "It’s rather spooky, actually. The building over there has a leaky roof and cobblestone floors. You walk in there, and there are all of these machines just sitting there - a bit like something out of a Stephen King book."
He does have some help, particularly in Richard Maier who, despite his other full time job, can be found pouring beers most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. "Richard is a great help - he moves a lot of grain. One time he moved 6000 pounds by himself! But enough of the glamorous side..." As for the rest, Scott does get volunteers and sometimes homebrewing clubs to come in with special projects, like the hand bottling and labeling of Gratitude, Ugly American, and most recently, Smokestack Porter.
Scott next walked me through the historical timeline of this budding brewing operation, and I have to say that I’m not about to start one any time soon.
In January, 2007, Scott marked two years of operation. Before brewing, Scott took an entire year to set everything up. He quit his day job - not an easy decision as the sole earner for his family - "a very patient wife (who likes beer) and two young kids at home. It was an act of faith to give up the day job, then lease this space, buy the equipment, etc."
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With his background, Scott found himself doing just about everything himself: getting in the equipment, learning how it worked, plumbing it, wiring it, testing it. With a few exceptions, all of the equipment came from the defunct Foundry Ale Works: a copper kettle that serves as hit hot liquor tank, two 7 bbl fermenters, a 15 bbl fermenter, a 20bbl fermenter, and a 10 bbl brew house. Scott recently purchased a 20 bbl bright tank, and the
naming rights were put up for bid on eBay (he’s still waiting for the winners to give him the name). He also recently made room for a 40 bbl fermenter that arrived this summer. He’s not quite ready for it, but the economy of scale and future demand is there. The main problem now is storage and, like for other brewers, the whole stainless steel keg shortage issue. He recently bought 200 30-Liter tanks of European design. "Storage is going to be a problem. I have beer made but nothing to put it in. And I can’t make more beer until the tank is emptied."
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And that’s a problem! Demand for Scott’s beer continues to grow. In 2004, he sold 2 kegs of beer, and that was before he was gently reminded by a local distributor that he needed to register with the proper authorities. Oops. In 2005, Scott sold around 350 bbls and then near 450 bbls in 2006. Currently there are about 90 bars in the Pittsburgh area that run East End products, and about half of those are dedicated taps.
Starting out was tough. For the first eight months, not only was Scott brewing all that beer, but he was doing all of his own deliveries. "I’d come in on Monday to start three 12-hour brew days - there are economical reasons for back-to-back brewing days - and mid-morning I’d get a call from some bar saying ’We just kicked your keg, can you bring over a new one?’. So, after finishing up, I’d go home to have dinner and help put the kids to bed, then I’d be out for another three hours delivering kegs all over Pittsburgh. When
you deliver at 10am, you’re in and out quick. But deliver at 10pm, and everyone wants to stop and talk. It was a rough start, but at the same time I got immediate feedback from owners and customers."
Unfortunately, self delivery wasn’t the only hassle. "At first, because they’re used to dealing with the big breweries, I’d be asked ’What are you going to do for us?’ - like they’d want t-shirts or a free smaller keg, something. Other than being slightly illegal, it’s also hard for the smaller brewer to make headway. But now, customers are driving the sales." Scott handed me a flyer for a local establishment that was running an independent
film festival for local artists: the beer special was $2.50 pints of East End Big Hop. "I had nothing to do with this, and that’s kinda cool."
Now, other than the yearly Pedal Pale bike ride (a keg of Pedal Pale is ridden to a bar somewhere in Pittsburgh with tons of people on bikes escorting it), Scott now has all his beer distributed by Vecenie. That’s good news for us unfortunates who live out in the sticks but are at least served by Vecenie!
Many of Scott’s beers are a bit on the hoppy side for the casual drinker, such as the Wheat Hop, the Ugly American, Snow Melt, and Pedal Pale. However, he’s tried to keep an even balance with other ’assaults of malt’ in the Kvass, Old Hickory, Black Strap, and others. Regardless, the biggest seller from the start has been East End’s flagship beer: Big Hop. No matter what else is pouring or available, Big Hop is still 60-70 percent of Scott’s
business - which says quite a bit about the changing palates in Pittsburgh nowadays.
As for the recipes and any underlying themes? "I’m making it up as I go along. I come in the morning and ask myself: What do I want? I’ll look in some books, call a few brewing colleagues, and then fly by the seat of my pants. I try to keep the lineup balanced but with a few surprises. The Wheat Hop freaked a lot of people out, since most expect an American wheat to be a step up from a lager, or the base beer for adding fruit. You never know what’s growing in Homewood, but I wouldn’t expect a fruit beer any time soon."
And the kvass? "Brewing with Tom Baker was interesting and a lot of fun. Tom’s more into the malt and the yeast contributions to beer, rather than the hops. I learned a lot from him and got some different viewpoints. It was amazing to see what a tiny dose of Redstar bread yeast could do to all that wort. I think it was done by the time I left that day!"
Many people seem pleased with those experiments. If you come to East End on a Saturday (now from 12-5pm), most likely you’ll be waiting in a line to sample beers and buy some to take with you. I asked Scott if people abused growler hours. "Most people don’t. We’re on the edge of Homewood & Point Breeze and on a side street. I figure, if you’re going to take the time to come find us and are interested in trying something, then I’d rather you taste what you’re buying before walking away with it. Those first few
batches can have some variability, as I dial in the beer, like with the Witte. The growler you bought last time may not be the same this time."
What about Scott’s favorite styles? "When I homebrewed, I never did repeat recipes - I was more interested in process than product. Now that I’m, *ahem*, older, I really enjoy the session type ales, the kvass."
I was curious about Scott’s opinion on beer ratings. Like many brewers, he keeps an eye on them but doesn’t let them guide what he’s doing. "I’m happy with the Gratitude ratings, for example. Oddly, I noticed that there are many more ratings for it on RateBeer than Beer Advocate. RateBeer seems to cast a much wider net, despite the fewer number of locals on the site. Perhaps more people are trading it and drinking it immediately, whereas more local people are storing it? I don’t know." Luckily for all us locals, Scott
frequently takes part in the Pittsburgh forum discussions (user EastEndBrewing). He also runs an informative brewery website and sends out a monthly email newsletter to all his rabid fans, letting us know what festivals East End will visit, and what new beers are coming out.
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For more information on East End, see the website at <a
hours are Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5-7pm, and Saturdays from 12-5pm. Because of Pennsylvania’s alcohol laws and Scott’s lack of a serving license, you can only fill an East End labeled growler. Empties are $3. Refills are $10. Special bottled beers, such as the current Smokestack Heritage Porter, are $10 + $3 deposit for a 1 liter flip-top bottle. The 750-mL Gratitude, usually out at the end of the year, costs around $16.
Many thanks to Scott Smith for taking time out of his schedule (on a growler day!) to meet with me.
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