With the influx of new players into the brewing industry, competition has become increasingly fierce. This battle to create brews that possess curb appeal for both casual drinkers and beer nerds continues to escalate, and it may be most interesting to see how our state’s long-standing breweries handle those changes.
One of the most lively case studies is Penn Brewery. After a close call with closing, the Western Pennsylvania brewery was revived by Sandy Cindrich, Linda Nyman and Corey Little. We spoke with Sandy about how they have brought Penn Brewery into the present, while maintaining their old-world aesthetic and heritage.
BOP: Penn Brewery has been around since 1986 heralding an old-world aesthetic and European styles of beer. Can you tell us a bit of history about the brewery?
Sandy Cindrich: Penn Brewery began brewing craft beer back in 1986, making it one of the pioneers in the American craft movement. It is located in the historic Eberhardt and Ober Brewery building in the Troy Hill section of Pittsburgh. We started out brewing classic lagers and German beer styles, adhering to the strict quality standards of the 16th-century Bavarian Reinheitsgebot, or purity laws. As we’ve expanded our lineup in recent years to include IPAs and other styles, we’ve stayed true to our quality craftsmanship, brewing all of our beers by hand with the finest barley and hops. Penn Brewery was also the first “tied house,” or brewery and restaurant, under one roof in the state of Pennsylvania.
You took over the brewery in 2009. What motivated you and your colleagues to enter the brewing world, and what guides your planning in terms of branding and production?
When we (I along with my business partners Linda Nyman and Corey Little) took over the brewery in 2009, it had nearly closed. The restaurant had been shut down, and all of the beer was contract brewed off-site. So in 2009 when we took ownership, we had the daunting task of trying to bring Penn Brewery back to what it used to be and what people remembered. The three of us are all from Pittsburgh, so we knew what Penn Brewery meant to Western Pennsylvania, and we did not want to see it end.
As far as what guides our planning and branding, we have never gone too far away from our roots as a German brewery. We have remained true to what Penn was 30 years ago, but have also updated our branding along the way. We also continue to focus on traditional German-style beer, but add new styles to our lineup based on what we see that the consumer is looking for or something different that we know we can do well.
How much beer does Penn produce in a year, and how wide is your distribution footprint? Are there any plans for expansion?
We produce about 9,000 barrels each year. In addition to Pennsylvania, we also distribute in the Brooklyn/Manhattan area of New York, eastern Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland. We are currently continuing to focus on Pennsylvania and the surrounding states, as we know that local is very important to the craft beer consumer.
As CEO of Penn Brewery, what does a typical day in your shoes look like?
My days are typically split between both the brewery and the restaurant. We have an excellent management staff for both. I spend time meeting with managers to discuss weekly reviews and updates. The brewery requires weekly production planning and sales updates. I am also responsible for anything that involves the PLCB or TTB.
We see you spent time specializing in software engineering and project management. What skills transferred over into the brewing world? Did you learn anything in the brewing world you didn’t learn in other industries?
The most important skill that transferred to the brewing world was the skill set that I had from project management. Being a project manager requires you to be organized and planned, and have a complete understanding of what must happen for a project to be successful. It does not mean that you are responsible for completing all pieces of that project plan, but it is your job to make sure that you know who is responsible, and who can get the job done. When taking ownership of the brewery, it was very important to make sure we knew that once we had our plan in place, we knew who the correct team was to execute the plan.
I learn something new in the brewing world every day! That is what makes this industry so great. There is so much happening in this industry, you would have to try hard not to learn something new in a given day.
Can you describe the atmosphere in the brewery and pub? What are some standout items on the menu?
Much like our brewery, our restaurant has remained true to its German heritage, but has also updated its image to include more of a fun and laid-back feel. Our menu does a great job reflecting this. We have the traditional German dishes on the menu that one would expect when coming to a German brewery, but our chefs have done great incorporating pub food that is prepared with our beers. Some of the signature dishes include schweinebraten, spaetzle and jaegerschnitzel. Some of our more contemporary dishes include flatbreads and cheddar cheese curds. We also have a great cheese platter paired with a five-beer sampler.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs, especially in the brewing industry?
As in any business, you should have a solid understanding of where the industry has been, where it is now and where you see it going in the future. The brewing industry has changed dramatically, even in the last seven years since my partners and I have been involved, and it continues to change every day. In an industry as dynamic as this one, it is important to have a solid business plan, yet one that is flexible enough to easily accommodate unexpected change.
The Brewers of Pennsylvania is a nonprofit trade association that brings together leaders of Pennsylvania-based breweries in order to promote and protect the brewing industry in the state. Established in 2011, the Brewers of Pennsylvania serves the consuming public of Pennsylvania by encouraging brand diversity in the market. We believe in the nobility of brewing and hold dear the great traditions and history of Pennsylvania brewing.