This Weekend at the Independent: The Manifesto


This is a long email, a summary of German-beer induced reflection regarding our goals and our identity.

In sum, we've decided that the next step for the Independent is to begin serving a small selection of the best available international and national beer in both kegs and bottles that will compliment our present "all-local" tap list.  This will be a minor deviation from our "exclusively local" beer theme, and many of you may not notice or may not care. But we've been at this for almost four years now, and, during that time, carrying an exclusively-local tap list has been a major part of our identity, so we believe that a change from that format requires an explanation to those of you that do care.  Moreover, I'm self-important and long winded. 

So, without further ado, I bring you This Week at the Independent: the Reflections and Manifesto Edition.  You may want to brew a cup of coffee, or, better yet, just quit reading.

For those of you who didn't have a chance to pop into the bar a few weeks ago, we mixed things up at the Independent. In honor of Oktoberfest, we served (for the first time in our history) international beer, specifically a selection of ten beers from Germany that we thought displayed the quality and breadth of German-made beer.

Last weekend we capped that experiment, which we extended due to its popularity, and we can't overstate how much we enjoyed serving those beers and how much our guests enjoyed drinking them. The feel in the tavern was special over the two weeks that the German beers lasted.  There was a sense of history and heritage in the beers that drove discussion and education. There was a childlike joy drinking beer out of our .5L German steins.  But, most of all, there was an abundance of what the Germans call "gemütlichkeit," the feeling of conviviality, warmth, coziness,and social belonging that one feels in the right place, with the right people, and over the right beer.  

For those of us behind the bar or table side, one of the highlights of the event was our ability to share these beers with our local brewers, who perhaps took the most joy at the opportunity to take a deep dive into styles of beer that aren't particularly common and are not always as well executed in the United States (that's not a slight to American brewers -- as my Dad pointed out over an Andech's Doppelbock, the Germans had a 500 year head start).  

In short, Oktoberfest caused us to reflect more thoroughly on an existential question that had been lingering in the back of our minds for some time.  What is the next step for a bar that was built to promote and help build our local beer scene now that scene is clearly thriving?

When we opened nearly four years ago, we were the only bar in Pittsburgh selling exclusively local beer.  There were only five Western PA breweries from which we could reliably source beer.  There were another two or three from which we could occasionally get beer, and, on the horizon, there were another three opening soon.  We figured if we could hold on for a few months, we might just be able to make this all-local-tap-list thing work, and that would be for the benefit of our entire beer community.

Looking back now, that landscape is nearly unrecognizable.  The map of Western Pennsylvania is decorated by local breweries, with more opening every month.  Bars all over Pittsburgh have either adopted an all-local or mostly-local tap list.  The breweries with whom we first worked have gotten bigger and better, adding more fermenters and brewing and selling more (and better) beer.  We no longer have to keep up with the new breweries in town (in 2014, I put untold miles on my car...untold...except to the IRS); new breweries come to us now on a daily basis.  And beer, overall, has improved locally in ways that could flood my eyes with the tears of a proud parent (or at least a bad drunk).  

This altered landscape, on some level, would make it easy for us to have our George W. Bush aircraft carrier, "mission accomplished" moment.  We could walk around the bar in our flight suit sharing chuckles with customers, resting on our laurels, and say "see, we told you so...this local beer scene blew up like a NUCULAR bomb."

But that moment would be as empty as declaring victory in Iraq in 2003.  

Up against the best German beers, American beer still has a lot of work to do.  A large range of styles remain under-represented or poorly executed.  American craft brewers need to pride themselves more on consistency and formal training as German brewers do.  Pittsburgh is no outlier in this regard.

And despite our rapid growth, our city still remains in a comparative blindspot nationally and internationally.  We can and should do more to promote beer tourism in this city, a goal around which the entire city should coalesce for our communal financial interest.  If we want to be mentioned among the ranks of Asheville, Vermont, Denver, Portland, Chicago, or New York City, we have to be better organized, we have to make better beer, and we have to have a broader and deeper national and international reach. 

Right now, we have major importers and distributors that stay outside of the Pittsburgh market based on historically bad business relationships.  We have others that are wary of Pittsburgh, believing it to be too much of a homer market to move small, internationally renowned brands that every other market routinely receives.  

You may read that last paragraph, and you may say, "Who cares!  Who Needs 'em.  We'll drink our own beer!  Isn't that the point that you've been preaching, Pete?"

Well, yes.  It is.  But I think that point needs to change ever so slightly for two reasons.  For one, it's unfair to you the consumer.  Why is it that those of you who are fans of Belgian beer don't get to enjoy Cantillon's Zwanze day, the day upon which the beer world unites together at the same time to release an annual bottling from Brussel's Cantillon brewery -- some of the best beer in the world.  It's a day celebrated in bars in 18 countries and is enjoyed by Americans who live in 24 cities, including ... (hold on, this may sting) ... Buffalo.

Second, it's unfair to the local brewers.  They need places from which to draw nationwide and world-wide inspiration.  They need places for their customers to try the top-of-the-class products against which they want to be measured.  And, it's unfair for us to force Piper's Pub to do all of the heavy lifting on its own in that regard.  

All of this reflection lead us to ask and answer the following question:

Q:  What is the next logical step for the Independent Brewing Company, who's raison d'être is to provide only the best local beer to its customers and to provide unwavering support to our local brewing community.

A:  To serve a small, but well-curated list of the best national and international beers to which we would like to see the best beer in this city compared.

How are we going to do this without compromising our local-first identity?  We're going to take a three pronged approach:

1.  We are going to carry the occasional non-local keg.  The rules for this keg will be: (a) a style that we think is underserved locally; (b) a style of beer that transports well (something without a delicate hop profile and something that we know is packaged in a world class facility that will package the beer with a minimum of dissolved oxygen); (c) styles that say something about the region from which they originate, i.e. beers with a sense of geographical history or that have regional terroir (e.g. Kolsch from Cologne, farmhouse beers from Belgium or elsewhere, pilsners using saaz hops grown in the Czech Republic); (d) beers from responsible importers and distributors that we trust to care for the beer in transit.

2.  We are going to expand our bottle list to put together something in the range of 10-15 beers that are the best available bottle conditioned beers available that we can legally obtain in Pennsylvania at any moment.  These beers will likely be barrel aged or in the farmhouse family.  We began this process yesterday by adding 2016 Orval and Jolly Pumpkin "Rojzilla" to our bottle list.  Orval is a Trappist Ale that is a barnyardy saison with a crisp bitter finish.  It is the beer that kept this style alive (or brought it back, depending on how you look at it).  Rojzilla is a big cherry-tasting farmhouse ale from Jolly Pumpkin, a Michigan brewery that is highly acclaimed, and that recently became available in Western Pennsylvania.  It is sour, barnyardy, and cherry-tasting, but those flavor profiles are restrained and easy on the palate.  

3.  We are going to continue to do thematic tap focuses on a quarterly basis.  Next up, for instance, will be a European Holiday-season focus, with a sub focus on Belgian beer and strong ales generally.  That focus will begin the week of Thanksgiving.

We have spent three and half years being the biggest champions for local beer in Pittsburgh.  We remain the biggest champions of local beer in Pittsburgh.  And it is only because of this reason that we believe that these are the right changes to make.  We will remain a bar that provides a tap list of the best locally made beers from the best local breweries.  You can trust that we will remain that way. Where we deviate from that principle, we promise that it will only be where it is appropriate for the beer style, when we trust the distributor to take care of the beer between the brewery and us, and where we think that we can improve the local beer culture by sharing a well-executed example of a style.

Now that my manifesto is complete, I'll apologize to those of you that are still reading this email.  And I'll close by telling you that whether you are a brewer or a customer, we appreciate your support.  We want to continue to earn your support, and we will continue to work tirelessly to bring you the best beer experience that we can provide.