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Steve Ilnicki of Spoonwood Brewing Company on Finding Happiness in Brewing and Celebrating Spoonwood’s 2nd Anniversary

Spoonwood Brewing Company is a gem in Pittsburgh’s craft beer scene, with a rotating draft list that will keep you coming back to its spacious and inviting taproom for pints while watching the game or enjoying live music.

The layout invites guests to relax, whether around a barrel turned high-top table, or with a seat outside when the weather permits. The varied offerings on the draft list will pique your interest – Hydra Slayer is an Imperial Red Ale with a caramel malt profile and big hop flavor, while Turtle Eclipse is a tropical stout, meant to mimic the sweet, high ABV stouts often consumed in warmer climates.

Spoonwood is also in the midst of celebrating its second anniversary, and has an array of events lined up to celebrate. We chatted with brewer Steve Ilnicki about the brews, upcoming events, and what it was like to brew a beer for one of his favorite bands.

Tell us about Spoonwood Brewing Company. What is annual production like and how wide is your distribution area?

We have a 15-barrel brewhouse with five 15-barrel fermenters and eight 15-barrel serving tanks. We have anywhere from eight to 12 beers flowing at all times, most of which are served directly from those tanks to the taps. In our first full year (2015), we racked about 850 barrels. In 2016, we racked about 1,060. Our distribution footprint includes the greater Pittsburgh area with a few outliers, and we have grown to about 70 accounts within a relatively small radius. Draft distribution accounts for barely 2 percent of our overall production (about 160 barrels last year).

When did you first start brewing and why did you choose to follow brewing as a career path?

I got into homebrewing shortly after discovering “better beer” in college, around 1997. It was just a bit of dabbling in liquid malt extract fermented in white plastic buckets. It was really terrible, undrinkable stuff, but one great thing did happen to me – I read Charlie Papazian’s “The Complete Joy of Homebrewing.” In some ways, I guess that book changed my life. But that sounds overly dramatic, because it’s only beer, after all. It wasn’t until much later that I decided to get serious about brewing, when I enrolled in the American Brewers Guild course. Around that same time, I did some volunteer work at Rock Bottom in Homestead, and that eventually turned into a full-time job.

Spoonwood seems to put a lot of effort into having an eclectic draft list. How do you determine which styles to produce?

During these first two years, we have brewed a lot of different styles and types, probably in the range of 70 varieties if you include barrel-aged brews. Some one-offs, some repeat offenders, but only one staple: Killer Diller IPA. Killer Diller is my favorite recipe to brew and it is typically my go-to pint. We brew it often, and we play around with the hops from batch to batch, so it remains interesting to me. As we head into 2017 and beyond, I’m sure we’ll continue to add new brands, but we will focus efforts on adding some consistency and stability to the draft list. We have plans to add Working Class Hero (cream ale), Cold Drip City (coffee blonde) and Smoke & Oats (smoked amber) to our short list of staple offerings.

You collaborated on a beer with Coheed and Cambria?! What was that like?

The Coheed and Cambria thing was a lot of fun for me because I’m a huge fan, but that really was the extent of it – a fan doing what fans do. The band’s marketing firm noticed that we have a beer named “Good Eye Sniper,” which is a line from the band’s song “A Favor House Atlantic.” There was some back-and-forth through social media, and eventually we got on the phone with them. The plan was to brew a beer that would coincide with the promotion of their latest album. They decided “Screamin’ Danger” should be an IPA, and took inspiration from the song “Island” off their album “The Color Before the Sun.” We were never able to bottle the beer as the label-approval process hit a snag, but we did a little preconcert promotion through which I got to meet Coheed and Cambria’s lead singer and guitarist, Claudio Sanchez. Now, I can die happy.

We’ll have Screamin’ Danger on tap in February, and we’ll likely continue to brew it at least once a year. We have another Coheed-flavored beer, a dry-hopped Belgian-style tripel dubbed “Ambellina.”

What is most exciting about Pittsburgh’s craft-beer scene?

The Pittsburgh beer scene has evolved rapidly in the past two or three years. There are a lot of quality options with narrowing focus (geographically, by neighborhood), and greater availability of tasty beer from across the country. The most exciting part is starting to see some national recognition for the development of the Pittsburgh craft beer scene.

How can we join Spoonwood in celebrating two years? What events are you most excited about?

We’re celebrated our second anniversary at the end of January. Things kicked off two years to the day, on Tuesday, January 31, with the release of 2 Minutes to Midnight, a barrel-aged imperial stout originally brewed in collaboration with Caliente Pizza & Draft House. The bottle share will feature our last few bottles of Turtle Eclipse, a tropical stout, as well as some goodies from my personal stash. I was looking forward to a big turnout for the bottle share, but it really started as an evil ploy by me to get my hands on some stuff I’ve never tasted before. I’m also looking forward to holding a bottle-only release of barrel-aged Cold Drip Doppio Double Coffee Ale at some point. I’m especially proud of that beer, and I look forward to introducing it to the people who have helped us keep this ship afloat for the past two years. There was also the obligatory birthday cake to celebrate the occasion.

What advice would you give to brewers or entrepreneurs who want to pursue a career in the brewing industry?

I’ve seen several people make their way into professional brewing with just the will and desire. It can be done if you set your mind on it. It takes patience and humility and drive. I sort of followed this path myself, and it doesn’t end when you arrive. Every day, you have to be patient and humble and driven.

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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.

Jay Breslin

Top photo: Steve Madden; remaining photos: Steve Ilnicki