Inside Voodoo Brewery in Homestead. Photo by Brian Conway.

Up and down the Mon Valley, where blast furnaces once roared, there’s a new industry in town stoking economic growth in long-overlooked mill towns: craft breweries.

Christine Mondor, principal at evolveea and president of the Pittsburgh Planning Commission, says that to understand the impact of craft beer on former mill towns, it helps to get a little zen: picture a stone laying on the beach. The wind is blowing, and little grains of sand pile up and gather around it.

“It attracts a lot of other stuff,” says Mondor. “It slows people down, and then before you know it you’ve got a little ecosystem there that’s supporting a whole lot of other permanent plans and structures.”

In just a few years, Voodoo Brewing Homestead and Brew Gentlemen in Braddock have become lodestones, pulling in other businesses and visitors to the long-overlooked neighborhoods to which they’re wedded.

Their success has prompted other towns to pursue a piece of the action:

Duquesne: untapped potential

Duquesne City Manager Frank Piccolino couldn’t believe his eyes.

Driving down Braddock Ave. on his way to play golf one Saturday morning, Piccolino saw “what had to have been 300 to 400 people in line outside of the Brew Gentlemen,” waiting patiently for a limited bottle release.

That’s when he was certain: Duquesne needed a microbrewery.

“You see all these old mill towns, Homestead and Braddock all of a sudden popping up,” he says. “We saw what Brew Gentlemen did in Braddock. We saw Voodoo, Blue Dust, Dorothy 6 down in Homestead. We said ‘hey, why not us?’”

Four years ago the small riverfront city a few miles east of Homestead received a grant to update their Comprehensive Plan with zoning and subdivision changes to make it easier for a microbrewery to open within city limits. In the meantime, the city has been snatching up abandoned buildings, including the old VFW and Moose Lodge, to sell to potential brewers.

Besides cheap real estate, Piccolino lays out his case for Duquesne: There are tax incentives; hundreds of thousands of people pass through Duquesne on Route 837 to and from McKeesport and nearby Kennywood; 1,000 people work in the nearby City Center and the GAP trail passes right through town.

“We’re not a steel town anymore,” says Piccolino. “We have to think of something else. Is a brewery going to save everything? No, but a brewery is going to bring people in that never were going to come to Duquesne, and it could spur something else.”

It wouldn’t be the first time.

Brew Gentlemen

Brew Gentlemen taproom in Braddock. Photo by Brian Conway.

“Brew Gentlemen provided Braddock this really great shot in the arm,” says Braddock Mayor John Fetterman. “It also provided proof of concept: [owners] Matt and Asa demonstrated that if you produce a quality product, people will flock and come out in droves to our community to support the business.”

Carnegie Mellon classmates Matt Katase and Asa Foster opened Brew Gentlemen in 2014. Foster fell in love with Braddock and its history during a sophomore year course when the pair, originally from Hawaii and Boston, bought into the Mayor’s narrative of Braddock as the new urban frontier.

It didn’t take long for them to distinguish themselves in an increasingly crowded craft beer marketplace: their flagship General Braddock IPAa nod to General Braddock’s Brewing, the town’s last brewery, which closed in 1937came in at #2 in a blind taste test of nearly 250 of the nation’s best American IPAs.

“The majority of people who come here haven’t been here in quite some time, or hadn’t been here at all,” says Katase. “And now that we’re pulling in people from a wider radius than Allegheny County, it’s cool that we can share Braddock not only with people who lived next to it and never visited, as well as show it off to people from out of town and out of state.”

Asa Foster (L) and Matt Katase (R). Photos courtesy Brew Gentlemen.

Beer is a serious economic force in Pennsylvania. According to a study released last month by the National Beer Wholesalers Association and the Beer Institute (partisan sources, for sure), the direct economic impact of the beer industry in Pennsylvania in 2016 was $11.4 billion. In the 34th House District, which includes both Homestead and Braddock, the economic impact was $33.6 million.

Most of that sum comes from the retail side of the industry, but tangible signs of the impact from the breweries are everywhere. Last month, NEXTpittsburgh broke the news that popular Mexican food truck and Brew Gentlemen regular Brassero Grill will open a brick-and-mortar location just a few doors down from the brewery in the renovated (and now fully occupied) Free Press Building.

“The main reason I chose Braddock was Brew Gentlemen,” said Brassero owner, Fernando Espejel. “I see they are doing well and I said let’s go for it.”

Alberta’s Pizza at Brew Gentlemen. Photo by Brian Conway.

“Our proudest achievement is bringing food to a food desert,” says co-owner Asa Foster, who notes that weekly regulars Gyros N’at and Blowfish BBQ both vend during the day even before the brewery opens.

Brassero isn’t the only new business coming to Braddock. Crazy Mocha is planning to open a location on Braddock Ave., with help from Heritage Community Initiatives, and Kevin Sousa’s long-awaited Superior Motors is one month away from opening its doors.

Bob Portogallo is the owner of Portogallo Peppers N’AT, an Italian restaurant that opened last November three blocks down from Brew Gentlemen.

Known for live music, outdoor bocce, and more than 20 craft beers on tap, Portogallo says that he’s quadrupled his business since moving to Braddock from Swissvale. “And we’re just scratching the surface,” he adds.

A Swissvale native, Portogallo just turned 56. As a kid, he used to take the streetcar to Braddock to catch a movie at one of the neighborhood’s three theaters.

He says that the idea of opening in Braddock came to him over a few pints at Brew Gentlemen where he noticed the younger crowdhe calls them “yuppies”didn’t have any qualms about coming to Braddock. The baby boomers of his generation who grew up in the Mon Valley needed some convincing to get past any negative stereotypes that lingered.

“How we measure positive impact is much more in terms of perception,” says Foster. Otherwise, “we’ve tried to be respectful by being as quiet and non-obtrusive as possible.”

Demand continues to grow and expansion is on its way. Brewer Zach Gordon manages to churn out 800 barrels annually using only a 3.5-barrel system, and they can still barely keep up with demand on-site, let alone for distribution or canning.

“Growth is going to happen,” says Foster, “and when it does, it’s coming to Braddock.”

Voodoo magic

Voodoo Brewery’s Jake Voelker stands in front of the names of volunteers who helped transform the blighted former Homestead municipal building into the Voodoo Homestead brewpub. Photo by Brian Conway.

Five years ago, Homestead Borough Council President Lloyd Cunningham made a trip to Oregon with Blue Dust gastropub owner Jerry Millerthe man Cunningham calls “the roots of craft beer in Homestead.” They checked out Rogue Brewing’s operation in Newport, which opened in 1988.

“We saw how good they were to the town,” says Cunningham, how they gave new life to abandoned buildings and gave back to the community.

That, coupled with the success of Pittsburgh microbreweries like the Church Brew Works, convinced Cunningham that Homestead needed one, too. So when word got out that Voodoo was looking to expand into the Pittsburgh market, Cunningham knew what he had to do.

“I chased Voodoo hard,” he remembers. “I must have tried to get them to buy 10 separate buildings.”

Employee-owned Voodoo Brewery came to Homestead in 2015 after purchasing the blighted former municipal building from the borough for $8,500. Based in Meadville, Voodoo is one the region’s largest and most successful craft breweries. Last winter they opened a nearly $1 million expansion in their hometown of Meadville that quadrupled their brewing capacity to about 10,000 barrels annually.

“When we made the decision to come to Homestead we made a very cognizant leadership decision that we were gonna be a part of something bigger than just making beer,” says one of Voodoo’s principal owners, Jake Voelker. “It was going to be about the rebirth of a local community.”

Labor for renovations was provided largely by volunteers: fans of Voodoo who trekked from Meadville as well as nearby residents who wanted to help transform the vacant building into a community hub.

Brian Conway

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.