Commonwealth Press Ale By: Chris Wise
Over the past few years, craft brewing has experienced a revolution, and as craft beers become more popular, the amount of choices becomes staggering. So how does someone even get started in the brewing industry? The story of Commonwealth Press Ale shows that not everybody goes through the process of home-brewing, laboring in their basement for years before producing their first commercially available brew.
Dan Rugh started Commonwealth Press in his basement (I guess the story does start in a basement) in the South Side of Pittsburgh in 2002. After suckering his wife into helping with the venture, they set up a space to do design work in the attic and screen printing in the basement. Although it was a tight fit, living and working in the same building, Dan and his wife did it for three years, until they were able to move the operation to a newer, larger location.
After moving to the new location, a loft above a beer distributor, still in the South Side, Commonwealth again experienced an increase in business. They again had to relocate, this time to their current location on Carson Street, which currently serves as their retail space while their production is done at a warehouse a few blocks away on 23rd Street. Over the years, Commonwealth Press has had the privilege to work with many local Pittsburgh businesses and artists, as well as collaborate with them to come up with some very interesting products. In 2011, Commonwealth Press collaborated with Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller on his Blue Slide Park release, they created shirts based on artwork by Gabriel Roth.
Through his work with Pittsburgh locals and his roll-with-the-punches attitude, Dan Rugh and Commonwealth Press have been able to handle setbacks along the way and thrive when given the opportunity. Last year, someone threw a brick through the storefront window, smashing glass and shutting down operation for a while until it was fixed. While some would see this as a setback, Rugh and Commonwealth Press turned the story on its head, and used the story to generate coverage on local news stations (and even ending up on NPR’s morning edition) for the company. Deciding to auction the brick off in a charity style event, Commonwealth Press was able to raise enough money to fix the window and donate the leftover money to various charities. Rugh explains why the incident meant so much to the company: “I think it was seeing people that we barely knew – or we didn’t even know knew us – coming to help for something that could have been easily ignored. That simple feeling of community over something trivial lets you know that we are all part of this great city.”
Rugh and Commonwealth Press has shown their support of Pittsburgh over the years, holding an open house with food and beer to the public to show their love of the support they got from the city. Commonwealth Press has also opened their doors for print-your-own parties in which the public can come use their equipment to produce whatever they can dream up to print.
This attitude of giving back to the community and forming lasting relationships with their clients, has allowed Commonwealth Press to become involved in some cool collaborations. One such collaboration is the beer barge they held in 2013 during Pittsburgh’s craft beer week. Taking beer lovers out on the river for three hours to sample craft beers being featured in 2013’s Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week. The event was such a success, Commonwealth Press has decided to hold one again in 2014, this time with two Gateway Clipper’s joined together because Gateway doesn’t have one big enough to hold all the participants.
While Commonwealth Press has found success in their ventures outside of printing, Dan and the company fell into brewing after joking around with longtime clients Penn Brewery. A longtime brewer in Pittsburgh, Penn Brewery is one of the most popular and respected breweries in Pittsburgh, who has been working with Commonwealth Press for a number of years. One day when Penn Brewery’s Co-Owner Sandy was in placing an order, Dan jokingly asked what it would take to produce a Commonwealth Press Ale. The response from Penn Brewery was of course, they would love to come up with a brew for their friends at Commonwealth Press.
So Dan sat down with the brew-master at Penn Brewery to talk about how he wanted it to taste, and Dan was able to be involved with the building of the ale from concept to completion. They got to decide on what hops to use, and landed on a blend of German Perle and Spalter hops along with Willamette hops from the Pacific Northwest. They then mash hopped their ingredients with whole leaf fuggles, and got to be involved the whole way, even stirring the tanks and boxing the beer after it was brewed. The result was an ale coming in at 4.5% ABV and 45 IBUs, and it was met with enthusiasm from beer drinkers across Pittsburgh, though it did run into some problems along the way.
If you think producing your own brew for the public is an easy process, think again. From getting the label approved by the government for use; to finding a distributor, getting the label to be put on the bottle correctly, Rugh notes “There were so many intricate details that needed to be addressed that it’s almost impossible to list everything, but I can honestly say that if there was something that could go wrong, it probably did in one way or the other.” But Dan and his team are used to rolling with the punches to get a job done: “The thing that made it so fun though was the entire crew at Penn are so laid back and cool that no matter what went wrong, we just rolled with it, fixed it, made it part of the process and moved on.” Even though their previous distributor pulled out at the last second last year, Dan was able to contact one of his clients at Buddy’s Brews in the South Side who were more than happy to take the entire stock off Dan’s hands.
Dan’s view of his experience in brewing has been very positive, so much so they are doing it again this year, and plan to make it a habit every year. Dan says the response he’s got from last year’s Commonwealth Press Ale and beer barge have been great: “We sold it all (their ale and tickets to the barge) so that’s pretty rad. I haven’t heard any complaints yet, except the kegs sold out too fast.” Dan’s sense of humor about both his successes and setbacks likely are a big reason he has been able to find support from the Pittsburgh community through the years. So make sure to get your hands on a case of Commonwealth Press Ale this year before it sells out, and get a great taste of what collaborations between a few Pittsburgh craftsmen can bring about.
Now proudly distributed locally by family owned Vecenie Distributing Company.