Shot and a Beer

Everyone is happy in Pittsburgh these days, or so it seems, with the clear exception of the workers at Iron City Brewing. A few days ago, the troubled brewer announced that production will move from Lawrenceville to Latrobe, putting an end to well more than 100 years of Iron City brewing in the city of Pittsburgh and, the owners hope, to the last decade's worth of financial troubles.

There's no going back or re-writing recent history [the link is to a Wikipedia summary of Iron City], but it didn't have to be that way. Iron City Brewing is a dying relic of Pittsburgh's better industrial and local-brewing past. The beers themselves have a loyal following, I assume, but I've never heard anyone go out of their way to say that any Iron City brand is distinctive or great or even good. The hubbub over the move to Latrobe isn't a hubbub over loss of a distinctive Pittsburgh taste. (For example, the Church Brew Works, just up the street from Iron City in Lawrenceville, makes beer I can believe in.) It's a hubbub over one of the few remaining public connections to the region's 19th century industrial greatness (Pittsburgh was the "Iron City" in the 19th century and became the "Steel City" in the 20th), and over a dwindling number of brewery jobs.

As a non-native, I've always contrasted Iron City with the very different trajectory of my favorite beer from the West Coast, Anchor Steam Beer. Forty-five years ago, Anchor -- a dying relic of San Francisco's better industrial and local-brewing past -- was on the edge of bankruptcy and went up for sale. The brewery was bought for pennies, metaphorically speaking, by a young local entrepreneur named Fritz Maytag (part of the appliance family), who kept the brewery in San Francisco and gradually renewed the production facilities, the brand, and the quality of the product. To many people, Anchor Steam Beer is an microbrew emblem of the high-end Yuppie culture that took over much of San Francisco during the last 20 years, but the real story is one of entrepreneurship, perserverance, and craft manufacturing. Anchor is a tale of urban brewery death and rebirth. Fritz Maytag decided to make good beer, even great beer. To his fans, he's done exactly that.

Renewing the past with entrepreneurship and hard work is the sort of thing that Pittsburgh likes to think it is really, really good at. Make and market a top-quality product, respect the changing demands of the marketplace, and the money will come. But not in this case. The Iron City case shows that sometimes, the mythology is just mythology. In the mid-1980s, Pittsburgh Brewing (the earlier name of Iron City Brewing) had a successful light beer. Around the time that the microbrewing market was starting to take off, Pittsburgh Brewing went in the other direction, and the company was sold to an international syndicate. I wasn't in Pittsburgh then, but in retrospect that bid to hold on to something of a mass market seems arguably to have been the first nail in the brewery's coffin. Around that same time, Fritz Maytag's perserverance began to pay off in earnest. I remember 1985 and 1986 as the time when Anchor Steam beer caught its first modern marketing wave.

Will Iron City survive in Latrobe? Not by pretending that it's still a Pittsburgh product. Only if it makes a beer that enough people want to buy, and only if it can clear up its balance sheet. Honor the ghosts of Pittsburgh past, but don't listen to them. Listen to the marketplace.

Comments

4 Responses to "Shot and a Beer"

C. Briem said... 6/16/2009 1:54 PM

So this isn't a marketing opporunity for Straub?

ChrisP said... 6/16/2009 9:54 PM

It had to be a tough decision in the mid 80s. The region was reeling, pressure was mounting from Imports. PBC had a beer that was just as good as Bud, Miller, Strohs. I can see why they tried to compete, and I can see why they've gone the way of the dozens of other regional macro lager makers (shaeffers, schmidts, rheingold, duke, hamms, stoneys (yes my friends collected beercans in the middle school, why do you ask?)) At least rolling rock had the cool bottles and did some national advertising.

Anchor Steam had a unique taste and was in a region (SF/Silicon Valley) that was going to drive much of the culture for the next 20 years.

My personal theory is that the resurgence of the Grateful Dead helped launch Anchor and several other micros by spreading it across the mississippi when they toured the east coast 2 - 3 times/year. The lot scene when I first started going generally featured a lot of "imports" vendors, hawking molson/heineken/labatts/moosehead. I remember my first Anchor from the parking lot in 88. By 90 or so it was pretty common to have Anchor and Sierra Nevada Pale available. By 92 there were hardly any imports, it was all anchor, sierra nevada, petes wicked, etc...

Lucky for us that locally, Penn brewery got the picture, followed by the Church Brewworks, Rivertowne tavern, etc...

Infinonymous said... 6/20/2009 9:09 PM

Iron City is still Pittsburgh in a nutshell. Millions in public dollars squandered in dubious ways. Poor management. Insolvency. Dysfunction. Failure. Shrug and move on, never examining, let alone changing.

Bad management and egregiously counterproductive public policy/decision-making killed Iron City after a century and one-half. Yuengling, on the other side of the state, grew roughly in concert with Iron City's decline. Iron City's wounds were self-inflicted, with poison applied to those wounds by a couple of mayors.

You are right that it didn't have to be this way, but I don't get the reference to mythology. Nothing but cold, hard, predictable Pittsburgh reality underlies the failure of Iron City.

Iron City beer and the Pirates, once-glorious icons, are still better reflections of the city that supported them for more than a century than many might wish to acknowledge.

Claire Voiante said... 9/12/2009 7:37 PM

I haven't had a drop of Rolling Rock since they were bought by Anheuser Bush, but will continue to drink Iron City... They are still an independent, even though TECHNICALLY they won't be brewing within the city limits... If they HAD to move out of the city, I can't think of a better place than old Latrobe...

Some great t-shirts featuring the IRON CITY BEER logo, with a large inscription stating IRON CITY FOOTBALL; REAL TEAM, REAL FANS, REAL FOOTBALL. Got me a nice hoodie..

http://www.cafepress.com/ICFootball

and another one, aptly titled THE DRINKIN' TOWN WITH A FOOTBALL PROBLEM

http://www.cafepress.com/DrinknTown

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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