Back Alley Brewing
Back Alley Brewing. Photo by Jennifer Baron.

Four Pittsburgh breweries. Two have been around since last year. One just opened. One’s already making a name for itself and hopes to welcome patrons by the end of the summer. Each one has a different story that makes it unique.

Coven Brewing in Lawrenceville and Bona Fide Beer Company in the Strip District are the comparative veterans and although they’re fewer than three miles apart, their histories and approaches are very different. Back Alley Brewing Company had its grand opening over St. Patrick’s Day weekend in the old Dormont Borough building. Hazel Grove Brewing is gearing up for a late summer/early fall opening in Hazelwood. But it’s already in the mix, though: its beers are on tap all over town, and the brewery will be on hand for many Hazelwood events through the spring and summer.

Coven Brewing

Caiti Sullivan and her business partner, Trevor Greer (rhymes with beer), colleagues at Dancing Gnome Brewery, had been considering the idea of opening their own brewery but hadn’t gotten past the “what if” stage, Sullivan says.

Then, late in 2021, Roundabout Brewery announced the closing of its Butler Street location in Lawrenceville.

“We hadn’t made a business plan, we hadn’t looked for funding,” Sullivan says. But the prospect of an existing brewhouse and taproom was too good to pass up. They went for it.

“We moved in in February (2022), and we opened in April. I’ve never talked to anyone who has done it faster,” she says. 

The secondhand brewing equipment was a bonus, but “it came with a lot of expensive problem-solving,” she adds, referring to the seven-barrel setup as “Frankenbrew,” held together by DIY fixes.

Caiti Sullivan co-founded Coven Brewing in Lawrenceville. Photo courtesy of Coven Brewing.

In spite of all that, Coven had its first beer, a saison called Curses in Cursive, ready for the opening. 

“It was super well-received,” Sullivan recalls. “We had a lot of industry support.” 

Coven’s draft list tends towards carefully made hazy IPAs, but patrons can also find sours and saisons. The house IPA, Swanky, is hopped with sabro and Falconer’s Flight, a proprietary blend of Pacific Northwest hops. 

Sullivan and Greer experiment, too: they offer a Sour Swanky, conditioned with blood orange, mango and passionfruit. (The draft list changes, of course. Check Instagram for the current list and food truck schedule.)

Beer and conversation are the rule at Coven. Unlike many breweries, it doesn’t load the calendar with weekly events. (Sometimes “it’s kind of nice just to be in a bar,” Sullivan notes.) There’s room for 25 customers in the taproom; as the weather warms up, Coven offers sidewalk seating for up to 50 people. 

Coven’s first-year challenges were significant, Sullivan says: “I expected it to be hard, and it’s been harder. There were times when I wondered if we could do it.

“But I’m really looking forward to year two.”

Travis Tuttle is co-founder and brewer at Bona Fide Beer Company. Photo by Annette Bassett.

Bona Fide Beer Company

Bona Fide welcomes its patrons to a different kind of brewpub — not surprising, perhaps, because it has a different kind of vision.

In contrast to the minimalist, tidy warehouse style of many local taprooms, Bona Fide is serving cocktail lounge chic. The former Strip District location of Chicken Latino has been transformed with leather couches, hand-screened wallpaper from Printsburgh and a full bar, in addition to beer and wine.  

“People love the couches,” says general manager Nina Pagley. “It gives a living room vibe: good drink, good beers.” 

They’re also open seven days a week starting at 10 a.m. and until midnight on Friday and Saturday — longer hours than just about any other local brewery. No food trucks here, but customers can bring their own eats from one of the many Strip District restaurants.

Bona Fide is owned by Christian Simmons — co-founder of Four Seasons Brewing Company and owner of Pennsylvania Libations, which represents distilleries, wineries and breweries throughout the state — and Travis Tuttle, co-founder and brewer at Butler Brew Works.

The brewpub opened in November and its mix of a small but solid beer list with wine, cider, and classic and creative cocktails made with Keystone State liquors has been popular. But the ambitions of Simmons and Tuttle go beyond that. 

Tuttle brews the taproom beer on-site, but Bona Fide has also contracted with Helltown Brewing in Export to brew and can lagers and IPAs. Six-packs and cases should be available in retail stores throughout the area by mid-May. Tuttle says they’re looking at a price point of between $9-$11 for a six-pack, less expensive than many craft beers. 

“We have the pricing and the distribution set up (through Pennsylvania Libations),” Tuttle says. “We see ourselves as being something like Southern Tier.”

At the same time, Bona Fide is looking forward to being one of the three beer makers — along with Abstract Beer and New France Brewing — included in Hazelwood Brewery, set to open later this summer at 5007 Lytle Street. “It’s coming along,” Tuttle says.

Back Alley Brewing
Back Alley Brewing. Photo by Jennifer Baron.

Back Alley Brewing

If the owners of Back Alley have had to deal with financial setbacks, construction issues, and a pandemic-era near-catastrophe — and they have — at least they’re happy they’ve done it in Dormont.

“The municipality has done everything they can to help us out,” says Cody Hoellerman, a co-owner who handles sales and marketing for Back Alley. In tribute, the brewery offers Mountain of Gold, a Pittsburgh-style lager. The name references Dormont, which comes reasonably close to meaning “gold mountain” in French.

Hoellerman says Back Alley will be part of community activities this summer, including Party in the Park, held at Hillsdale Commons Park across the street from the brewery.

Hoellerman and his partners (business manager Patty McKinley and brewers Lee Sifford and Patrick McKinley, Patty’s husband) are longtime friends who started home brewing in college, and continued in, yes, a back alley off of Latonia Avenue in Dormont. 

“It’s really a hobby that got out of control,” Hoellerman notes.

Photo courtesy of Back Alley Brewing’s Facebook page.

By early 2020, the partners decided to go pro. They settled on a location: the former municipal building on West Liberty Avenue. Once the pandemic closed everything down, banks pulled back on their expected loans, putting Back Alley’s lease in jeopardy.

But the partners pivoted to create an account with Honeycomb Credit, a crowdfunding platform that allows supporters to invest in new or expanding small businesses. They raised about $200,000, installed a garage door and completed other improvements and finally welcomed customers on March 16. 

Back Alley has a seven-barrel setup, and offers as many as 15 beers on tap ranging from the award-winning Fluffernut, an imperial butternut squash ale, to stouts, kölsch, IPAs, sours, wheat beer and more.

“Our goal is, no matter what you want, even if it’s a Miller Lite, we’ll have something you’ll like,” Hoellerman says.

The brewpub seats up to 100 patrons, with additional summertime patio seating. Current hours are Thursday through Saturday. Food trucks will be on hand on Fridays and Saturdays, but the Back Alley crew also encourages visitors to grab takeout from one of the nearby restaurants. 

“We have a big attachment to Dormont,” Hoellerman says. 

Barb Hartman wants Hazel Grove Brewing to be a part of Hazelwood. Photo courtesy of Hazel Grove Brewing.

Hazel Grove Brewing

Like the Back Alley partners, the owners of Hazel Grove Brewing are committed to the community where they do business. While Barb and Steve Hartman and their partner Larry Adams are still months away from opening the doors to their brewery in Hazelwood, they’re already part of the neighborhood.

They sold their beer during the Friday fish fry at Community Kitchen, a Hazelwood nonprofit that offers free culinary training and apprenticeship classes for people facing employment challenges. The brewpub plans to feature food from Community Kitchen. 

The road to Hazelwood started in Lebanon County, where Steve grew up.

“My first homebrew was in seventh grade,” Steve recalls. He had a science project due, and “my uncle Ed was a homebrewer. He told me to do an experiment in fermentation.” As Steve remembers, he made an English porter.

Steve moved to Pittsburgh to attend Carnegie Mellon University and met Adams, a fraternity brother, as well as Barb, a Pitt student. After Steve and Barb married, they had two sons, and their careers eventually took them to Seattle, where Steve joined a homebrewers group and started entering competitions. 

“Right out of the gate, he was winning contests,” Barb says. When the Hartmans moved back to Pittsburgh in 2021, they joined Adams in looking for a potential brewery location. Last year, they were excited to find 4609 Irvine St., a 6,400-square-foot space that formerly housed a construction company. 

“We bought the building even though we weren’t sure if the zoning would be approved,” Barb says. 

With that hurdle cleared, the work continues. They’ll have a 5.5-barrel brewhouse and a pub with 12 taps.  

In the meantime, the Hartmans and Adams brew their beer at Cobblehaus Brewing Co. in Coraopolis. They’ve secured taps for Hazel Grove beers at Mike’s Beer Bar, Carson Street Deli & Craft Beer Bar and other local spots, including their neighbor, The Woods House Historic Pub. Like Back Alley, they brew a little something for everyone, including a Belgian dubbel, farmhouse ale and a stout made with coffee beans from Hazelwood Cafe.

“We’ve never brewed the same beer twice,” Steve notes. They’ll narrow their list down as they discern the most popular offerings, but a range of styles will always be on tap.

The Hartmans and Adams plan to staff Hazel Grove with Hazelwood neighbors. They hope to welcome thirsty patrons by summer’s end.

“We think we found the perfect community,” Barb says. “I can’t wait to have people come into the bar and say ‘Hi Barb!’”

Annette Bassett

Annette Bassett is a freelance writer and grant writer living in Bloomfield. She likes visiting local breweries, going to concerts and walking the neighborhoods of Pittsburgh while listening to audiobooks. She prefers wired earbuds.