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Craft beer craze taps the Eastern suburbs

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Lillian DeDomenic | For Trib Total Media
Andrew Maxwell, brewmaster at Rivertowne Brewing in Export, tests a fresh batch of RT Lager.
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Lillian DeDomenic | For the Tribune-Review
Andrew Maxwell, brew master at Rivertowne Brewing, checks the status of the brewing process from the platform.
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Lillian DeDomenic | For Trib Total Media Andrew Maxwell, brew master at Rivertowne Brewing, checks the status of the brewing process from the platform.

When two strangers find common ground over a craft beer, bar owner Dan Hadley is reminded of why he first got in to the business.

“You’ll have a biker at one end of the bar and a lawyer at the other end talking about their beer,” Hadley said. “Most places they wouldn’t even look at each other.”

Hadley and two business partners opened Dad’s Pub and Grub on Northern Pike in 2012, with a focus on craft and import beers.

The bar offers a variety of 1,000 bottles and 43 taps, according to BeerAdvocate.com.

Hadley said he was confident the business could succeed, based in part on the continued growth of craft beer sales nationwide and within a few miles of the business.

A Rivertowne brewing facility opened in Export two years ago, based on the success of the Rivertowne microbrewery and pub in Monroeville that opened in 2007.

Gateway Grill on Northern Pike expanded a few years ago to include a selection of more than 700 beers and 34 taps.

At least a dozen other bars, restaurants and grocers in Monroeville, Plum and Murrysville now offer craft beer, not to mention the Giant Eagle on Monroeville Boulevard.

Flavors include Pumpkin and Honey, brewed by Dogfish Head in Delaware and Great Lakes in Cleveland.

Most breweries offer both year-round and seasonal varieties.

Pineapple ale — such as Rivertowne’s Hala Kahiki — could be considered a summer beer, while Bison Organic Gingerbread Ale — brewed in California — could be considered a winter beer.

Nationwide, the number of craft breweries independent of Anheuser Busch and MillerCoors increased from 500 to about 3,000 over the past 20 years, according to the national Brewers Association.

Beer distributors in the east suburbs have reaped the benefits of the trend.

Craft and import beer — not including Corona or Sam Adams — make up about 20 percent of business at Salute Beer Distributor in Plum, owner Larry Simpson said.

Eight years ago, craft and import beer made up about 7 percent of sales, he said.

“The first time a customer tries (a craft beer), they’re usually at a restaurant or bar and they find out they like the flavor, ” Simpson said.

“When you drive a Cadillac, you don’t want to go back to a Cavalier.”

A few of the “Cadillacs” are brewed just a few miles away, at Full Pint Brewery in North Versailles and Rivertowne Brewery in Export.

Full Pint Brewery offers seven, year-round craft beers and seven other brews that change by the season.

Rivertowne Brewery offers six signature varieties that are available at retailers in four states.

“I think consumers’ knowledge of craft beer has increased drastically, with the help of business owners and well-trained staffing,” Rivertowne Master Brewer Andrew Maxwell said.

Maxwell has brewed craft beer for 17 years in Philadelphia, Delaware and Western Pennsylvania.

He said the industry has grown from one end of the state to the other by word of mouth.

“(Craft beer) allows for more of a social connection to the consumer than the mass marketing that big companies do on TV,” Maxwell said.

And when it comes to craft beer, there’s a lot to converse about.

The number of Pumpkin spice beers alone available in the region grew from 20 to about 500 over the past five years, Hadley said.

The demand has increased despite a more expensive product.

Craft beer costs an average of $50 per case or $4.25 a bottle, which is at least twice the cost of Budweiser or Miller Light.

But the alcohol content is higher and the ingredients are heartier, so typically customers drink less than three per sitting.

“For the most part, people come in and order appetizers with a big group of people or their family, and they’ll drink one or two,” Hadley said.

From an economic standpoint, two at a time can add up.

In 2012, nearly $2 billion was generated at breweries, restaurants and pubs in Pennsylvania, which ranked fourth highest in the nation, according to the Brewers Association.

Maxwell said he’s watched the industry grow, from the brewery to the bar.

“Craft is bigger than it used to be, and generation after generation the beer has a lot more flavor.”

Kyle Lawson is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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