Hart Johnson knows a thing or two about good beer.
As bartender and cellarman at South Side’s Piper’s Pub, Johnson is in charge of keeping the 30-odd tap lines clean and flowing with British ales and—more than ever—local craft beer.
“Our clientele has grown with us growing our local tap list,” he says. Today, a Piper’s patron can order beer from local breweries like Hitchhiker, Brew Gentlemen, Roundabout, Rock Bottom . . .
. . . Rock Bottom? That brewpub chain at the Waterfront? Does Johnson consider them a local brewery too?
“We try to bring beers in that make sense to Piper’s,” he says. “So if somebody brews a bitter that’s really good, I’m putting it on tap.”
Any brewery starts with the brewers, and Rock Bottom has a couple good ones. Assistant brewer (and Homestead native) Matt Gibb cut his teeth at Hop Farm, while Brewmaster Meg Evans spent time at her hometown brewery, Southern Tier, before taking a job as lead brewer at Rivertowne’s Monroeville brewpub in 2012.
She came to Rock Bottom in 2014, replacing Steve Ilnicki, who went on to open Bethel Park’s Spoonwood Brewing. (Spoonwood is also where her husband, James Evans, is assistant brewer.)
The Homestead Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery is one of about 30 locations nationwide. The brand is part of CraftWorks Restaurants & Breweries Inc., a restaurant group that operates 195 restaurants and entertainment venues throughout North America, including brands like Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom and Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurants.
There are eight or nine beers on tap at Rock Bottom at any time, all of it brewed in-house. (Not every Rock Bottom brews in-house, and Evans and Gibbs actually brew all the beer for the Boston Rock Bottom location in addition to the Homestead location.)
About five or six times a year they’re given a recipe to follow for a particular brand-wide beer. Otherwise, they estimate that at least 90% of the beer on tap at Rock Bottom over the course of a year is of their own design.
“They want us to have something red on; it can be whatever,” says Gibb. “We can put out a red IPA, an Irish red, an English bitter. It’s up to us, which is nice. It’s kind of what we’d want to do anyway: brew a variety of things to really showcase what we do here.”
“Honestly,” says Evans, “the biggest difference between us and someone else locally is where the base money is coming from; who does our accounting. Those are the biggest differences. Instead of being able to decide at the drop of a [hat], ‘oh, I need to go out and buy that,’ I just need to go out and get approval.”
Dominic Cincotta, co-owner of Highland Park’s CoStar Brewing, first met Evans when she was at Rivertowne, and he interviewed her for his doctoral degree in Western Pennsylvania’s beer industry. He recently reached out to Evans to see if she would be interested in partnering with CoStar on a collaborative beer for Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week. (She said yes.)
“They hire locally,” he says. “They didn’t ship in some brewer from somewhere else to brew their beer for them. So they’re definitely local.”
“[Evans] does a ton for the local beer scene,” he continues. “She heads up a local women’s brew club of local women brewers. She’s not just in it for Rock Bottom and the chain. She’s in it for the local scene of craft beer in Pittsburgh.”
When asked if she has ever experienced any discredit in the scene for brewing for a national brewpub chain, Evans says she’s never felt out of place. Moreso, if anything, it’s with consumers who don’t fully realize the creative control that they have at Rock Bottom.
“Everything is changing in the beer world,” says Gibb. “There’s a ton of new breweries opening up everywhere. There’s going to be fresh local beer in almost every neighborhood. We’re bringing that here.”