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Update on Latrobe Brewery

I was away this weekend camping with the family and some friends — which also meant I missed a great beer festival in Santa Rosa — and I’ve been trying to catch up on what I’ve missed. It seems there’s a lot of information flying around about what’s going on with the Latrobe Brewery sale/closing.

I read one forum post on the BrewBoard by a prominent (or at least active) member who took the position that Rolling Rock’s beer isn’t actually great craft beer and the Latrobe Brewery hasn’t been owned by the community for a long time now so what’s the big deal that it may be closed. It may be an unpopular position, but there is a lot of truth to it. InBev has owned the brewery for years and even my first post when the sale was announced I wrote about Rolling Rock’s faux micro status. It’s been marketed as a craft beer but generally the only people who bought that were bridge buyers and casual beer buyers. No hardcore beer geek thinks of Rolling Rock as a craft beer. But the potential closing of a an over sixty-year old brewery is another matter and erases any negative thoughts I have about the beer itself. Why? For one simple reason. I believe our brewing heritage should not disappear. I have mourned too many brewery closings in my brief lifetime. Back in the golden age of brewing — the latter quarter of the 19th Century — there were something like almost two-thousand breweries in this country. After Prohibition we lost more than half of them in one fell thirteen-year swoop. Over the subsequent half-century the number of breweries continued to steadily decrease until by the early 1980s there were only a few dozen left. If you read the Breweriana magazines you’ll quickly see how many abandoned and ruined breweries there are out there. And not all of them closed a long time ago. My wife and I visited the Olympia Brewery in Washington on our honeymoon not quite ten years ago. Olympia, of course, didn’t make a great beer but the brewery itself was beautiful and they had an unbelieveably amazing collection of beer steins. But it’s closed now. The Henry Weinhard brewery in downtown Portland — itself a beautiful brick building — was torn down only a few years ago. Now I didn’t drink either of those beers, either, but I still mourned their passing. And the same is quite appropriate for the Latrobe Brewery, too. The effort to save should be supported by all of us who love beer, regardless of personal feelings about Rolling Rock itself. It’s the history and heritage that is worth saving.

Here’s a round-up of recent news about the efforts to save the brewery:

On June 1, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, John Murtha, Democratic Congressman from Pennsylvania’s 12th District, announced his intention to broker a deal for the Latrobe Brewery and Pittsburgh Brewing, itself in financial trouble. The makers of Iron City Beer have been in Chapter 11 (reorganiztion) bankruptcy since last December. Funding would likely have to come from state resources. Latrobe Mayor Tom Marflak doubted this plan out of hand.

The next day, the Tribune-Review quoted Pittsburgh Brewing president Joseph Piccirilli was willing to meet with Representative Murtha regarding the purchase of the Latrobe Brewery. Piccirilli further stated, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that “The Latrobe Brewery is a beautiful facility. I’m in the beer business and it’s practically in my back yard. We are in the midst of union negotiations and we are working very hard to turn our financial situation around. But if we can schedule something, I’ll speak with the congressman.”

Friday, June 2, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell told reporters that Renaissance Partners, LLC, of Pittsburgh, “has been contacted by the state to study the Latrobe beermaking facility. Renaissance Partners works with the Governor’s Action Team on a regular basis.”

Yesterday, Governor Rendell said “he’ll offer incentives to any company that wants to buy Latrobe Brewing,” according to WTAE Channel 4 in Pittsburgh. From their coverage:

“The commonwealth’s going to come in and sweeten the pot a little bit and give some training money and incentive money so we can keep the jobs in Latrobe,” Rendell said. “There’s no guarantee, but we’re sort of getting our battle plan together.”

Monday, the Governor had spoken to InBev — the current owners of the brewery — and they informed him that “they had some interested investors in the facility.” According to the Tribune-Review report, InBev is “supposed to get back to [the state] this week.”

Today in a news brief, Governor Rendell says he is “guardedly optimistic” that a buyer can be found for the Latrobe Brewery, “including possibly finding another brewer to take over production or convincing private investor groups to buy the facility and develop a new brand.” The Governor’s made these remarks after a speech at the United Steelworkers Building in downtown Pittsburgh yesterday.

And as of this afternoon — around Noon — almost 18,000 people had signed the online petition to save the Latrobe Brewery. That’s three times as many signatures since the petition began almost two weeks ago.

With less than two months before the deadline passes and the brewery closes, at least there’s a lot of activity going on to try to save it. I tend to be pessimistic about these things but, as they say, hope springs eternal. Let’s prepare for the worst, but strive to do whatever each of us can to support the efforts to save the brewery. We owe it to every worker who ever set foot in a brewery to preserve what we can of the heritage that has brought each of us so much enjoyment throughout our lives.

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