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Mindful starts big in the South Hills

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You can’t blame a startup business for taking a conservative approach. Modest beginnings, after all, can lift some pressure and leave room for growth.

Or, you could do what Mindful Brewing Co. did. Go big. And knock it out of the park.

Brewer Nick Jones said the original plan for Mindful was to follow a time-honored blueprint for new craft breweries: Find a place just big enough for the brewhouse, a small tap room and space to park a food truck or two. What Mindful ended up with instead was a two-story palace, with a full restaurant, what would be a first-class bottle shop if it were a standalone business and a brewery that’s been turning out first-class beers since it opened four months ago.

The decision to forgo the more modest plans was driven by the space;  the Library Road property that had been home to the John McGinnis & Co. grocery became available during the search, and although was larger than what the Mindful team had envisioned, it was too good to pass up.

Another accident of timing worked in Mindful’s favor as well. The wife of brewer Marcus Cox had just accepted a job at the University of Pittsburgh and Mr. Cox — twice named Champion Medium Australian Brewer for the beers he made at Thunder Road Brewing near Melbourne, Australia, his hometown — came to Pittsburgh last year in search of a brewing job. “I put in one application, and that was here,” Mr. Cox said.

Mr. Jones had several recipes ready for the big time, including his hugely popular lime-agave wheat, and Mr. Cox brought several of his staples, including what is now Mindful’s Straight Kolsch and Red Brain amber, from Australia. They’ve worked together to scale recipes for their 10-barrel system, and they’re working on new beers, with each other and with outside collaborators.

The brewers and the rest of Mindful’s crew hasn’t had much time to ponder how things have been going since the doors opened in late January … because they’ve been far too busy. But with four months behind them, the guys running the brewery say they now have a sense of what beers are popular — the three aforementioned beers are all in the top four best-sellers — and how much time and tank capacity they can devote to experiments. And they might even be able to make enough to distribute a bit to other craft beer spots in town.

Because, you know, they didn’t start quite big enough.

Post-Gazette coverage of Mindful Brewing Co.:

Pittsburgh beer in Playa del Carmen

I’ve noticed a serious lack of palm trees in the Pittsburgh beer scene.

That’s not the case in Playa del Carmen, a fast-growing city on the coast in Mexico’s Riviera Maya region; in fact, there are several palm trees just outside the front door of Carmen Beer Co., the city’s first craft brewery.

The other cool part? Carmen Beer Co. happens to be owned and operated by a Pittsburgh native. In his travels as a beer judge, Jeffrey Michael was surprised to find a couple years ago that the scene in Mexico was just getting started — somewhere south of 200 craft breweries — while the number back home was ballooning towards 5,000. Those numbers, he said, made sense to someone who was considering starting a brewery, and he found a spot in a strip mall big enough to host a brew house and a good-sized tap room in the front of the house.

It took some work to reach his opening day — importing a brewhouse, tracking down supplies and building out to the unique specifications of a brewery all take time, especially when you’re communicating in two different languages. But once Carmen opened its doors five months ago, it’s gone well, Mr. Michael said; he’s selling all the beer he makes, and he’s already found loyal customers among tourists and locals.

There have been some bumps along the way. Local bars often don’t have draft systems, presenting a challenge for a brewery that doesn’t package. And as is the case in the States, it can be hard for a small brewery to compete with ubiquitous brands like Cornona or Modelo when it comes to establishing a foothold in the region’s hotels and resorts.

But there have been nice surprises as well. In a city where the average high temperature in the dead of winter is 84 degrees, the brawnier styles — a barleywine and an imperial stout were both on when I visited last week — have not only been accepted but are among the most popular styles Carmen produces. And Michael said he’s starting to get inquiries about getting his products into the hands — and glasses — of the region’s tourists.

Here in Pittsburgh, we sometimes avoid crossing rivers, even if there’s good beer on the other side. And yes — getting to Playa del Carmen means crossing many rivers, not to mention a good bit of the Gulf of Mexico. But if you’re in the Riviera Maya, make sure you plan a stop at Carmen Beer Co. for a taste of home on the Caribbean Sea.

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