Leave it to a hitchhiker to keep moving along.
It only took a couple weeks after opening in May 2014 for Hitchhiker Brewing Company owner Gary Olden to realize his popular Mt. Lebanon tap room wasn’t large enough to match his outsized craft brewery vision.
This Saturday at noon, the dream comes true: Olden will open a second, flagship location inside the former Fort Pitt Brewery at 15th and Main in Sharpsburg.
“We had bigger aspirations for what we wanted to do,” says Hitchhiker brewer Andy Kwiatkowski. “It took us three years to get where we are today.”
The 11,500-suare-foot location includes a former power plant with 50-foot high ceilings that will house the brewhouse, while a 5,600-square-foot taproom is situated in an old engine shop that sits adjacent.
It’s easily one of the largest taprooms in the city.
“Where was this space when I was looking to open?” joked East End Brewing Co. owner Scott Smith at a recent soft opening at the Sharpsburg space. “I know it’s not the East End, but I have total building envy.”
The move to Sharpsburg almost didn’t happen. Last January it was announced Hitchhiker would open a new brewery on Bedford Square in the South Side, but the deal fell through. (The Mt. Lebanon taproom will remain open to the public.)
No matter. The Sharpsburg location, with its towering smokestack and art deco facade, is an architectural gem. Fort Pitt moved out in the late ’50s, and the space most recently housed Fort Pitt Classic Cars, from whom Olden bought the building in February. The buildout began in March; South Side’s Lab 8 Designs contributed to the design.
Olden kept the raw industrial feel of the space largely intact: The taproom includes a pair of enormous glass block windows, garage doors and various other mechanical flourishes from its time as an engine room – inside the century-old structure, it’s one of the few places in Pittsburgh where the Edison bulbs don’t seem contrived.
At its heart is the bar, 33 feet long and made of steel, forged in five sections across the street at Gilgamesh Forge.
One of the most obvious additions to the taproom is a pair of 30-barrel wooden foeders. Kwiatkowski will use these enormous oak vessels to begin aging a pair of “solera” beers: they’ll fill the foeders with a mixed culture saison and golden sour, respectively, and as they dwindle over time they’ll be “fractionally blended” with additional fruits and beers to create an ever-changing, ever-evolving ale.
It’s something that just wasn’t possible at the old space, where Kwiatkowski had to duck into the basement in Mt. Lebanon to tinker on a three-barrel system that somehow cranked out enough beer to keep the taproom, and more than 50 accounts across the city, humming.
Hart Johnson, bartender at craft beer destination Piper’s Pub and sometimes-cellarman for Hitchhiker, compares it to a master chef churning out delicious meals using lesser cuts of meats.
“He learned to make good beer on what was essentially a bucket of bolts and two trash cans strapped together. I can’t wait to see what he can do on an actual, real, ‘big boy’ system.”
That new system is five times the size and will allow them to churn out 1,500 barrels of beer annually. The scale is such that they brought on Matt Gibb, formerly of Rock Bottom Brewery in Homestead, to help with the brew.
Hitchhiker has been focused on brewing progressive, forward-thinking beers while maintaining a solid footing in the traditional styles. Ten different Hitchhiker brews were available on tap at the soft opening, from sours to stouts to a medley of IPAs, some straightforward, others brewed with vanilla beans, orange zest and milk sugar.
“I think the general population has become a lot more savvy and a lot more critical,” says Olden, when asked how the Pittsburgh craft beer scene has changed since they opened in 2014.
Up next is a smoked Polish beer known as a grätzer.
“We’re fairly confident there’s no wholesale accounts that want that beer,” he says. “It’s not the trendy thing to be doing; we wanted to create something that’s interesting for people who come to our taprooms.”
The new Sharpsburg location will offer a handful of food selections and will also host food trucks. Eventually they will purchase more fermenters to increase output, as well as a canning line for distribution. There’s even talk of installing a small beer garden in the back.
“We’re going to take advantage of everything this space allows us to do,” says Kwiatkowski.