Tapping the market

In a frigid, former thermal-window plant off 12th Street, Matt Winrick is resurrecting a once-thriving industry that hasn’t been seen in Altoona for four decades.

He’s brewing beer.

Winrick, 32, is the founder, brewer and sole manager of the fledgling Railroad City Brewing Co., a self-proclaimed “startup nanobrewery” producing craft beer in tiny quantities for sale to whoever walks in. After repeatedly selling out in his first few weeks, Winrick said he hopes to expand the business – one of several craft breweries forming in a region of Pennsylvania long called the “Beer-muda Triangle” for its apparent lack of good suds.

“Right now our output’s what I thought it would be in two years,” Winrick said as containers full of a German-style wheat beer waited to be packaged nearby. “In two weeks, we make eight kegs of beer. And we end up selling eight kegs of beer in two days.”

Winrick and his equipment have been overwhelmed since Railroad City Brewing gradually opened to the public in fall and winter. With a backlog of bar orders and family and friends working as volunteers, his tasting room is open only on Fridays and Saturdays – and they often have to close early when supplies run out, he said.

Navigating a thicket of regulations and state licenses can pose a challenge for any beer-maker. But a yearslong, nationwide surge in craft beer’s popularity has drawn many former home brewers like Winrick into the industry, even in cities and towns that haven’t hosted breweries for generations.

“That arc that runs from State College to Johnstown and Altoona – it’s been dry,” said Jim Weber, Central Pennsylvania correspondent for the Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. “There are so many portions of the state that are underserved. But I think there’s room in a lot of towns for a small guy who’s willing to take a chance and dedicate a tap handle to the local stuff.”

Altoona’s last notable brewery, the Altoona Brewing Co., closed in 1974, according to timelines collected online by beer researchers. Its products, Curve Beer and Pops Brau (with the slogan “Just say P.B.”) have long since vanished, their labels and cans now the domain of collectors.

Holding a glass in his brewery Thursday, Winrick fondly described the days when even modestly sized cities could boast several breweries. The rise in craft brewing could mark a return of those days in Altoona if others take a chance, he said.

“I think with the population here, you could easily support one or two more breweries. And that’s something I’d love to see,” he said.

While Altoona accommodates its share of bars, six-pack shops and distributors, in some ways it’s behind the times when it comes to beer. Many locals haven’t tried a craft beer, Winrick said; he hopes to wean the populace by producing analogues to familiar brews before experimenting with stranger styles.

He has at least one local precedent: Marzoni’s Brick Oven & Brewing Co., a combination restaurant-brewery with locations in Duncansville and Greenwood, has served its own beer for years. While the brewing equipment at Marzoni’s dwarfs Winrick’s tiny operation, he hopes ultimately to sell throughout Blair County, while Marzoni’s beers are available only in-house or for takeout.

The first step, Winrick said, is to get his production to a level where his facility can maintain regular hours. He hopes to shore up his weekend supply and introduce weekday hours by summer, he said.

After that, he could sell by the keg to local bars or can his brews for mass sale. As it stands, Railroad City Brewing offers only large bottles and refillable growlers for takeout.

The journey from local, small-scale brewer to regional household name is a slow one, however, as Charlie Schnable can attest. As co-owner and brewer at Otto’s Pub & Brewery in State College, Schnable’s products are available in shops and bars from Erie to Lancaster.

“We started out with just a handful” of sellers in the early 2000s, Schnable said. “Then everything kind of exploded around 2008, 2009 – the whole market.”

With a college town and a wide selection of bars, Centre County is fast becoming the exception to central Pennsylvania’s “Beer-muda Triangle” reputation. A state liquor license database shows five manufacturers there, including some that have opened in the past year.

“We’re kind of stuck between the great area of Pittsburgh and the great areas of Philadelphia and Harrisburg,” Schnable said. “But it’s still a great market.”

Some in the industry said they’ve heard rumblings of additional craft breweries in the area: One might be forming near Ebensburg, Winrick said, and another in Bedford already has a website.

But while Pennsylvania’s otherwise-restrictive liquor laws can occasionally help brewers – by allowing them to sell directly to bars, rather than through middlemen, for example – local restrictions can force manufacturers to shift their strategies before they begin.

“In our first attempt to open our establishment at this location, we were met with some opposition,” the managers of Bedford’s Blind Pig Brew & Q wrote on their website. “We were in fact ‘prohibited’ from opening a combination restaurant/bar by the local bureaucracy. Not easily deterred, we decided that if we couldn’t get a license to sell alcohol made by someone else, we would make our own.”

The Bedford Borough Council rejected a request last year to transfer a liquor license to the proposed bar and restaurant. The state database doesn’t show anyone there with a beer manufacturer’s license.

The authorities in Altoona, however, have been supportive through zoning and license questions, Winrick stressed.

While state and federal licensing can pose problems for local brewers, support from nearby businesses and government can be key to a craft brewery’s success, Weber of the Mid-Atlantic Brewing News said.

And for dedicated brewers like Winrick, who won awards for his homemade beer before turning his hobby into a career, success can be uniquely rewarding, Weber said.

“Guys with a single facility, not doing multistate distribution, are not going to make a ton of money,” he said. “But they’re living the dream.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.