Jeff and Caitlyn Hanna are regulars at Harvard & Highland in East Liberty where the $2 Dale’s Pale Ale special makes for a fun and affordable evening out. But when Caitlin approached the bar one evening to re-up on her two-dollar beer, she was in for a surprise.
“The bartender said they were out of the Dale’s,” says Jeff, her husband, “But he asked, ‘have you had this CoStar beer yet? It’s really good!’”
As a matter of fact, she had. CoStar is brewed, fermented and kegged in the Hannas’ garage—just about 15 blocks away. That moment stands out in her husband’s mind as a sign that CoStar Brewing was going somewhere.
It’s a familiar trope in the craft beer world: a couple of lifelong friends purchase beer-making kits and start brewing in their free time. They learn the ins and outs of making beer and start to experiment.
They brew together for four years, and the friends who regularly drink those homemade brews constantly urge them to take their operation to the next level.
And then, as is the genesis of so many great ideas, one evening filled with booze and joy turns their ambition into something greater—a pact.
For Jeff Hanna and Dominic Cincotta, that evening occurred the night of Hanna’s wedding.
“At Jeff’s wedding, there was a little bit of whiskey involved, and at one point, we looked at each other and wondered what it would take to start a brewery,” Cincotta says. “What would it take to do this for real? By the end of the night, we’d agreed that we would really look into it, and that turned into a huge plan.”
That neither had even the faintest idea how to go about starting a brewery is an understatement. But Hanna and Cincotta are both classic self-starters; from fixing cars to undertaking complex home improvement projects, there’s little the two of them can’t accomplish through study, practice and sheer force of will.
They contacted the state and federal governments, researched health codes and worked closely with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to transform Hanna’s detached two-car garage into a nano-brewery which met all legal health, safety and building requirements.
“We really wanted to do it ourselves,” Hanna says. “We didn’t have a ton of money or resources, but we wanted to figure it out.”
They invested in a half-barrel brewing system and one 40-gallon fermenter, then set about making beer, tinkering with recipes and adapting to their new equipment while going through the licensing process. In November of 2012, the state granted CoStar a license to begin commercial brewing.
Hanna and Cincotta never looked back. Though the two have full-time jobs which keep them occupied during the week, they meet in Hanna’s garage every Saturday around 6 a.m. to start brewing. A typical Saturday sees them run three batches of one recipe through the system, yielding about 40 gallons—just over one keg’s worth of beer.
Kegged into sixtels—thin barrels which hold just over five gallons each—and delivered to a handful of bars throughout the city, CoStar has become the unlikely darling of Pittsburgh’s thriving craft beer community.
“These are smart guys, they’re good brewers and they’re making as good a beer as anyone in Pittsburgh right now,” says Pete Kurzweg, owner of the Independent Brewing Company in Squirrel Hill, where the tap list consists exclusively of locally produced craft beers.
Because CoStar is only cranking out one keg a week, there’s been considerably more demand for their beers than they’ve been able to keep up with. The Independent regularly keeps a sixtel or two of CoStar’s latest product in its queue, and you’ll occasionally find CoStar’s beer at Kelly’s Bar & Lounge, Bocktown Beer and Grill, Mad Mex Shadyside, Shiloh Grill, Harvard & Highland, Harris Grill and William Penn Tavern—as eclectic a mix of bars as Pittsburgh’s capable of delivering.
But if there’s anyone who still needs convincing as to the quality of CoStar’s product, it’s Hanna. Like any good artist, he’s relentlessly self-critical.
“I still think people are just being nice,” Hanna deadpans, despite CoStar’s recent success. “Anything I make or do, I think it’s terrible. If I see it or taste it, all I can think about is how I could have done something different to make it better.”
Cincotta is the opposite, constantly monitoring feedback on the beers through Untappd, a popular mobile app which allows beer drinkers to keep track of and rate brews as they drink them.
“Jeff still gets paranoid when I try to show him the Untappd ratings,” Cincotta says.
While many modern craft breweries rely as much on image and branding as on the quality of their products, the CoStar guys believe the beer should speak for itself. Accordingly, you won’t encounter a CoStar beer with a fancy name. Their doppelbock is known simply as “Doppelbock.” A coffee porter goes out labeled as “Coffee Porter.” A particularly delicious oatmeal stout made with real maple syrup goes simply by “Maple Oatmeal Stout”—a favorite at the Independent, where the beer-savvy staff and ownership tweeted at CoStar over the weekend that “we’re going to struggle to keep any of this [beer] for the public.”
At the same time, CoStar’s tendency to brew rich, flavorful examples of the styles they take on leads to their beers being both simple and approachable.
“We’ve always wanted to make beer that we like and that we hope people will want to drink,” Hanna says. “We’ll never be one of those crazy, experimental breweries.”
The no-naming naming rule has two exceptions. Top Down was one of the first beers Cincotta and Hanna ever brewed together. An homage to Anchor Steam, a San Francisco beer which Cincotta counts among his personal favorites, Top Down falls into a small, often overlooked category of beers known as the California Common—a lager-style brew marked by sweet and nutty flavors. Fittingly, CoStar’s other branded beer is its flagship IPA, Hopland Park, which traces its roots to the duo playfully altering the hop schedule on a particular batch of Top Down and accidentally substituting an East Coast ale yeast in place of a San Francisco lager yeast.
“When we were opening the brewery, we had to go to the Highland Park Community Council to get approval to run this operation out of the back of Jeff’s home,” Cincotta says. “One of the agreements we made was that we’d pay homage to the neighborhood in our first beer.”
Another agreement the duo made to gain the council’s approval stipulates that they can’t conduct any retail business or distribution from the brewery or keep official hours. Accordingly, CoStar doesn’t offer the services which many conventional breweries do, including growler fills, free samples and—as it’d be farcical in a two-car garage—tours.
“Our setup doesn’t quite lend itself to having a nice retail operation,” Hanna says.
Though CoStar’s current incarnation is little more than an elaborate home-brew system, the sense of community it’s helped create in the neighborhood is substantially bigger than Hanna’s two-car garage.
Every Saturday around 4 p.m., just as the CoStar guys wind down on their final batch of the day, neighbors begin gathering in and around the garage. By 5 p.m., a cast of characters any neighborhood bar would be thrilled to have as regulars turns the garage into a low-key, informal block party.
There’s Brett, a British ex-pat who spends his free time picking records and antiques at estate sales. He puffs on a cigar while his wife, Shelly, converses with another neighbor about work. Odell, a disheveled army veteran in a shiny green jacket who lives down the block, talks government conspiracies to anyone whose ear he can bend. Friends casually come and go for hours while the assembled drink bottled beer from Troeg’s and Green Flash.
For as universally social as the whole thing is, there’s something about the scene that’s uniquely and authentically Pittsburgh.
It may not remain that small for long. Hanna and Cincotta, who’ve recently been joined in the business by Hanna’s brother Thomas, have their sights set on expanding CoStar later this year. The tentative plan is to move CoStar’s brewing operation from Hanna’s garage into a Homewood storefront, and upgrade the half-barrel system to a more professional, higher capacity 10-barrel system.
“The space wouldn’t be anything big or fancy, but we’d have room to bring food trucks out and have some outdoor seating in the summertime,” Cincotta says. “We want to keep it as simple and social as your living room.”
For those invested in Pittsburgh’s craft beer community, the move can’t come soon enough.
“When these guys start expanding, look out,” Kurzweg says.
While CoStar looks to move on to bigger and better things in 2015, there’s good reason to expect the beer will remain the same.
“Our thing has always been to try and brew the best beer we can,” Cincotta says. “Even if it never went anywhere and we wound up with what’s basically a fancy homebrew setup, that’s fine with us. It wasn’t that we had to do it, but that we wanted to see where it went.”
More than ever, it’s clear CoStar is going somewhere.