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Extra: Farewell to the Beerman

A commemorative run of Oskar Blues G’Knight imperial IPA, with a label printed in honor of Tony Knipling.

Even now, days later, it’s a difficult thing to write: Tony Knipling died last week.

To say that Tony was a longtime craft beer rep at Vecenie Distributing Co. in Millvale is accurate. And completely inadequate.

He sold his own brands, sure. But nearly everything he did — from being one of the longest members of the Three Rivers Alliance of Serious Homebrewers to the long-running Craft Beer School series with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust — helped sell better beer in the broadest sense. He was one of the first people in town to do it and I don’t think there’s any question that he reached more people with that message than anyone else in town.

After calling hours for Tony and his family on Sunday, a bunch of us met at East End’s taproom in the Strip to have a beer or two and talk about what we would remember most about the Beerman. This is easily the longest video I’ve ever posted here, but the memory of Tony Knipling is absolutely worth the time.

Redefining the craft

What is craft beer?

For years, that’s been something of a floating target, with the official Brewers Association definition fluctuating as size and ingredient requirements changed. And recently, there are new challenges; as international corporations buy more craft breweries, it’s becoming harder to discern whether a brewery is independently owned or a division of one of the big guys.

Does it make a difference? In terms of quality, probably not. Wicked Weed, the most recent sale of note — the Asheville, N.C., craft beer darling was snapped up by The High End, the crafty division of Anheuser-Busch InBev — probably won’t do anything to change the quality of Wicked Weed’s beer; in fact, given AB-I’s record of investing in the breweries it buys, the beer could conceivably get even better.

But AB-I has another record that might matter even more: It has been fined, repeatedly, across the country for illegal practices that push smaller breweries from the shelves in retailers and from the taps in bars. The latest set of charges against the giant came earlier this year from the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, which says AB-I gave away equipment — stuff like branded draft towers and refrigerators — worth a collective $1 million to bars and retailers with the stipulation that the gear would be used only for AB-I products. Those charges, combined with a history of aggressive lobbying in support of taxes and distribution laws that hurt small brewers and even limiting the sale of desirable ingredients — note: AB-I owns those South African hop farms — have left many small brewers and consumer with a case of bitter beer face.

Not long after the buyout of Wicked Weed, the Brewers Association — the trade group representing craft brewers — reacted, creating a seal independent breweries could use on their products to indicate that they are independently owned. The seal definitely got the attention of AB-I; it immediately lined up several of its employees from High End breweries for a video rebuttal.

The organizers of Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week — I speak with Brian Meyer, above, president of the Pittsburgh Craft Beer Alliance, in this week’s show — have followed suit, issuing a statement saying they would apply the Brewers Association standards when determining which breweries can participate in official PCBW events. In short: if you’re an independent craft brewer, you’re in; if you’re owned by one of the big boys, you’re not.

So what should a consumer do? We’re all free to apply whatever criteria we like when we’re making decisions about what we purchase and what we don’t, and there certainly plenty of folks who continue to say “If you like it, drink it,” without regard for ownership. My two cents: Ownership matters, as does the motives of those owners. I will miss drinking Wicked Weed’s beer, once I finish the last couple of pre-buyout bottles I have stashed. But in the meantime, there are plenty of independent craft breweries — including more than I can keep up with right here in our backyard — to keep us from getting too thirsty.

Bringing new beer to the Steel City

pound lohman

Shane Lohman understood Pittsburgh Craft Beer Envy — the knowledge that there are dozens of labels we can’t get readily available just over the state line in Ohio — better than most.

As a craft beer lover, Mr. Lohman knew firsthand the beers and breweries he couldn’t get here. And as the owner of a retail distributor — Lohman’s Beer in Wexford — he suspected that some of those breweries would do very well once they got started.

So Mr. Lohman did something about it. He sold his retail business to his father — Pennsylvania’s wholesale licensees cannot also hold retail distribution licenses — tracked down an importation license — one that would allow him to bring new labels into the state — found a warehouse in Lawrenceville and opened Steel City Beer Wholesalers.

It didn’t take long for Mr. Lohman to score his biggest coup to date, either — and he didn’t even have to leave the state. An evening email to the owners of Pizza Boy Brewing in suburban Harrisburg was followed by a trip to the brewery the next day — led to an agreement to distribute Pizza Boy’s excellent beers in Pittsburgh for the first time. Steel City’s flagship brand had been secured.

He had others set in his sights as well. California’s Knee Deep Brewing. Gypsy brewers Stillwater Artisanal and Evil Twin. Against the Grain from Louisville, Ky. Chicago’s Off Color Brewing.

What’s next? Mr. Lohman said he’d love to serve as the wholesale distributor for any local breweries that are looking for that kind of help. And he’s assembled a list of out-of-state targets, starting with some of the breweries in neighboring Ohio or those to Pennsylvania’s northeast.

“It’s just convincing those guys that Pittsburgh is a great craft beer market, and a growing craft beer market,” he says. “If they can see what we see here every day, Pittsburgh sells itself.”

A smaller package, but a huge change

Cases and 12-packs sit together on the shelves at Beer Express in Robinson.

Cases and 12-packs sit together on the shelves at Beer Express in Robinson.

It sort of came out of the blue a year ago. First, there was word that the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board might issue an opinion that would change the legal definition of a package — as it pertains to the sales of beer — and that the change would allow distributors to sell 12-packs, for the first time ever in the state.

The following day, it was official, and the ruling set off a scramble on the part of distributors that wanted to take advantage of the newfound flexibility … and on the part of breweries that wanted to get the smaller packages into the hands of consumers.

The change came about largely because of an effort here, a push by Pistella Beer Distributors, Save-Mor Beer, Rivertowne Brewing, and the Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania. And the smaller packages have made a difference here as well, from the distributors that sell to the distributors — think the Vecenie Distributing warehouse in Millvale — and the distributors we visit when we want to take home some beer — think Beer Express in Robinson.

Tony Knipling, who manages a long list of craft beer brands for Vecenie, says that in the last year, he’s seen breweries step up to make new packages available to customers in Pennsylvania, even occasionally making special arrangements for mixed 12-packs that other states don’t get to enjoy.

Ryan Federbusch, the owner of Beer Express, has noticed the same thing from the breweries he carries. But he also sees the advantage to the smaller packages from the standpoint of the consumer: more variety, less expense … and a fewer stray bottles or cans from cases we grew tired of filling the beer fridge.

What they say is true: good things come in small(er) packages.

Category: Region | Tags: , ,

The (craft beer) holidays have arrived


Don’t pay any attention to what the calendar says; the holidays are here.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. After all, we’ve been seeing pumpkin beer — the recently crowned staple of autumn craft beer drinking — in stores and at distributors for weeks.

But if you work in the business, what we’ll call Holiday Beer Creep gets started even earlier. Want to make sure your bar has its fair share of pumpkin beer this year? You’re placing orders in June and July. Don’t want your customers to be shut out of Troegs Mad Elf or Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale in December? You’ve got Christmas beer on your mind in August.

The autumn and winter seasons bring distinctive, spicy profiles to the coolers of your favorite bottle shops. In the fall, that means beer that’s part of a larger trend for pumpkin-flavored everything; if it tastes like pumpkin pie, it’s probably going to make customers happy.

(Note: This doesn’t include Oktoberfest beers, those malty German lagers meant to accompany the folk festival that started in Munich in 1810. Before you get too caught up in the pumpkin craze, be sure to give a couple of fest beers a try.)

The winter flavor profiles aren’t as confined, but a bunch are similar: clove, ginger, cinnamon, honey, and maybe with a kicked-up ABV to help keep us warm.

The more jaded among us tend to give a sideways glance at the fall and winter seasonals and, especially, how they seem to stretch the start of their seasons earlier and earlier. But as Chris Dilla, owner of Bocktown Beer and Grill restaurants in Robinson and Monaca who is pictured above, told me this week, there are new ones to try every season — and it would be a shame to miss them.