Spirited rebels speak proof to power


Our entrepreneurial summer series dawned last week with stories of the inspired women who run bed & breakfasts and vacation rentals along our region's trails.

Successful businesses usually have great stories – of innovation or tradition, local roots or international reach. In the second of six episodes, we'll get a taste of the craft beverage market, where the story has to have as much kick as the product.
Click to read previous episodes from this series:
Rebellion Rye was Ed Belfoure's first product, named for "those rebellious souls who began the rye whiskey tradition here in southwestern Pennsylvania," according to the website of his company, Red Pump Spirits.

Ed's a chemist, so distilling a spicy, bold, barrel-aged, 90 proof whiskey is well within his technical ability. In a distilling world that features huge global players with vast marketing budgets, plus a growing crowd of small craftsmen, quality is essential – but not sufficient. "We can't be just like the other people, or we'll be lost in the shadows,” says Ed. To his top-shelf product he adds a compelling story, and show-and-tell (and-taste) sessions at his Washington, Pa., distillery.

When it comes to drink, “average doesn't cut it,” says David Kahley, President & CEO of The Progress Fund, which has made loans totaling $2.68 million to 13 adult beverage businesses. The consumer is “demanding unique experiences, different experiences. … They want to go and experience and sample, and their expectation is that it's going to be a cool place.”

That once-exploding sector appears to be heading into a period of consolidation. Does that dampen opportunity? Not necessarily. The Progress Fund is open to brewers, vintners and distillers “who have the right story, have the commitment, have the unique place and venue,” says David.

Ed's buying local grains, branching into exotic liqueurs, and emphasizing the region's spicy distilling history that runs from the Whiskey Rebellion through Prohibition to today. “We use that as a way to really get fired up to make a great product,” he says. In the region's distilling heyday, "the whiskey they produced went down the river to Cincinnati, St. Louis, New Orleans and overseas. … We want to carry on the tradition."
Can a beer and a burger be cousins?
By its very nature, tradition endures. First-mover advantage, on the other hand, usually evaporates as competition emerges. “When we were opening our pub, there were roughly six breweries in the Pittsburgh area and a handful north of us,” says Travis Tuttle, co-owner of Butler Brew Works. “Craft beer at that time was something people would travel for, and they still do. But now there are 37 breweries in southwestern Pennsylvania. So you have a lot of people who will go to their local brewery, and then occasionally go on the road."

How is Travis going to lure locals and road trippers? A revamped menu. Collectible cans. Unique brews like his new Coastal Warfare IPA. And coming soon, there's the cow story. That's right, cow story. The leftover parts of the grains used to make those adventurous ales are fed to a local farmer's bovines. The resulting beef will soon be on the taproom's new menu, so you can match your burger to your beer. "It's a unique flavor on the beef,” says Travis. “It's fun to be able to tell a story in your menu."

Another great story: While Travis reworks the menu, a nearby pub is sharing the wares of its kitchen with Butler Brew Works. That exemplifies a small business community that is both competitive and collaborative. “You see a new business in town,” says Travis. “You introduce yourself. You offer your resources to one another. And most of the time, it turns into a great relationship."
A national thirst for local taste
Barry Young recently showed up at a local small business mixer and met a jam maker. The host restaurateur was adding that entrepreneur's jam to Barry's Boyd & Blair Potato Vodka and making “some phenomenal cocktails,” he says.

Barry co-owns Pennsylvania Pure Distilleries, which burst from the region's rich soil a decade ago. This year its gold-medal-winning spirit was placed on hotelier Marriott International's beverage cards. And its new Bly Silver Rum follows part of the vodka's winning formula, using a locally made main ingredient (molasses) and meticulous craftsmanship. Barry's hands-on attention to every batch of his homegrown spirits is featured in today's Living section of the Tribune-Review.

"The whole farm-to-table, buy-local movement keeps growing,” Barry says. "People have just started to apply it to the distilled spirits they drink." Of course, discriminating sippers in the Keystone State appreciate the local sourcing. But a hyperlocal storyline can also have national appeal. Buyers in Barry's second-largest market – California – especially seem to savor the idea that the farms are close by his distillery. "I think that resonates,” says Barry.

Like Red Pump Spirits, Pennsylvania Pure Distilleries is hosting tours and tastings. The two regional distillers do have one big philosophical difference.

Barry is very deliberative about new products, saying, “just because I can make anything doesn't mean I should.”

But Ed? Well, Red Pump has six products and is rolling out a new limoncello at the same time it's working on an amaro. Liqueurs and whiskeys mature within different time frames, and Ed wants to have a range of offerings in production to quench the public thirst for quality, regional spirits.

“I'm sitting here talking with you and looking across the room at these barrels full of whiskey, several thousand dollars in each of them,” and many months to go before they can be bottled and sold, Ed says. “A lot of grain in there, and a lot of time and money.” That, and a lot of good cheer. “Right now,” says Ed, “the business is good.”
Next week: It crawled from the Yough to infest the nation's trails, and other monstrous tales.
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Greensburg, PA 15601

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