Alumni become ‘The Brew Gentlemen’

Students use self-defined education to open craft brewery in Braddock, Pa.

Christa Hester Sep 23, 2012

Ideas, like good beer, take time to perfect. Key components to both are the right ingredients, environment, and timing.

So what do you get when you combine two fraternity brothers with a passion for craft beer, Carnegie Mellon’s entrepreneurship program, and a city full of beer lovers? The Brew Gentlemen.

Created in 2010, The Brew Gentlemen is a Braddock-based craft brewery that began as the brainchild of Carnegie Mellon 2012 alumni Asa Foster and Matt Katase. Foster and Katase are “The Brew Gentlemen.”

“We both lived in Morewood freshman year,” Foster said. “And then we both joined [Sigma Alpha Epsilon].” The bonds of brotherhood, as well as a feeling of disenchantment with their majors, brought the two together. Foster was an art student, while Katase was studying operations research.

“We were both interested in craft beer and we often joked around with the idea that we would create a brewery someday,” Foster said. “Then, the Thanksgiving of our junior year, Matt came to Boston for the break and we were sitting on the couch just watching football and decided to just drop everything in life and do it.”

With the craft brewery scene quickly gaining popularity, the pair petitioned and received permission to change their areas of study to a student-defined major. “Our majors were in the way of what we really wanted to pursue,” Katase said. In their new majors, Foster and Katase were allowed to take the entrepreneurship and marketing classes they needed to make The Brew Gentlemen a reality.

“We got a lot of help from entrepreneurship professors,” Katase said. “[Barbara] Carryer and [Robert] Culbertson, in particular, really helped us form the backbone of our company. They told us our business plan was sh*t, that this has to be more than just a dream, and they really got us to think about the specifics. And they’re still helping us to this day — which is awesome.”

Carryer, an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship in the Tepper School of Business, continues to coach and encourage the pair to focus on the business end of the endeavor. “I really pushed them to go out and talk to distributors, to restaurants and bars to see who would carry the beer, to make them figure out how a new beer gets to market,” Carryer said.

Culbertson — an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship and CEO of GetABBY, a consumer communication platform — also lent some hard-hitting advice to the young businessmen. “I got pissed off at them in one class,” Culbertson said. “To the point of saying, ‘Would you just get off the pot already and do it?’ I told them they were making some stupid decisions, and oftentimes I kind of embarrassed them in front of the class. But that really made them get off the pot and start doing something.”

“[Robert] is a tough-love kind of guy,” Katase said. “But we got past that.” As part of an apprentice project Culbertson conducts in one of his classes, Foster and Katase started throwing dinner and beer-tasting parties for friends, peers, and individuals involved in Pittsburgh’s craft beer scene.

“For our first event,” Foster said, “we put on a four-course beer dinner cooked entirely by us and featured our White Sky alongside three other beers.”

“We’re both foodies; we love cooking and mixing ideas and ingredients,” Foster said. “So making nontraditional beers like our White Sky is what we want to be doing.” The White Sky is The Brew Gentlemen’s flagship beer, and it has received positive feedback in the brew community. It’s a wheat beer brewed with chai spices like cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, and black pepper.

The beer’s spicy taste, combined with the lightness of the wheat, makes it a “year-round seasonal,” as The Brew Gentlemen call it. White Sky is a good winter beer because of its warmth and spiciness, but it also works as a summer beer because of its light and refreshing taste.

“I actually hired them to provide the beer for a party that I gave in the middle of August,” Carryer said. “It was really great beer, and all my friends — about 50 people — really liked the beer, too. Super enthusiastic response.”

The duo has also created a beer called Business Casual, a caramel-colored session red ale, and revived General Braddock’s IPA, a bittersweet East Coast India pale ale.

“Part of our agreement with [Barbara] is that we have to come in and talk to her students once we’re successful,” Katase said. “... and bring beer.”

Carryer wasn’t alone in her praise of The Brew Gentlemen’s products. “It’s good beer,” Culbertson said. “If they had it in a restaurant, I would absolutely order it. I think they could sell their stuff tomorrow.”

Culbertson advised the duo to take advantage of the growing interest in craft beer and to get their product on the market as soon as possible. “Right now the window for craft beers is huge,” Culbertson said. “Everybody wants a craft beer and they don’t care so much if they have to pay six bucks a bottle for it, and I don’t want them to miss that window.”

The Brew Gentlemen already have some prospective restaurants and bars wanting to buy their beer, but the pair is waiting to perfect and test its recipes before officially opening for business.

“I think there’s another hurdle to get over, which is how they will handle demand,” Culbertson said. “We are all fearful of failure — there’s no question about that — but we’re also fearful of success.”

“Every entrepreneur wonders, ‘Gee, what happens if I suddenly get orders for 1,000 kegs, what do I do?’ ” Culbertson said. “The new entrepreneur always reacts, ‘Oh my god, I’m done, I’m doomed.’ I sit here and say, ‘Hey, time to throw a party! Wow, people want 1,000 kegs of your beer? Holy crap! That’s a great problem!’ But when you’re living it, all you can see is the logistics: How are we gonna deliver it, how are we gonna brew that much by that time, et cetera. It goes back to the dating analogy, ‘She invited me to the prom. Oh my god. Oh my god, I’ve gotta rent a tux.’ ”

Although The Brew Gentlemen undoubtedly have some hurdles in their future, things are looking good from their Braddock facility. “Braddock is the perfect backdrop for a brewery,” Foster said. “It’s quiet and we’re right in the backyard of the steel mill.”

Their establishment, which is about 3,000 square feet and currently houses their production facility and pilot brewing system, is owned by the Heritage Community Initiatives. “The mayor [of Braddock] and the Heritage Community Initiatives — a nonprofit that’s trying to revitalize Braddock — really helped us find our space,” Katase said.

Foster and Katase are surprised by the amount of support they have received from the Braddock and brewing communities. “The cooperation and willingness of other breweries to lend a hand has been overwhelming,” Katase said. “From just giving us feedback on our beer to letting us borrow equipment to just teaching us anything and everything we want to learn.”

“Everyone is extremely willing to pour you a beer,” Katase added. “Because, really, the competitors are the big three: Bud, Miller, and Coors. The craft guys are all in this together, and they wanna see each other do well because, what is that saying, ‘Rising tides float all boats?’ ”

Since their first dinner party in April, The Brew Gentlemen have been invited to and have attended a number of other beer dinners and tastings, the biggest of which will be held on Oct. 6 in Braddock. The event, “Tapped: Braddock,” will feature a pop-up beer garden provided by The Brew Gentlemen, cocktails from Bar Marco, local food trucks, and live local music.

“We’ll be pouring the White Sky and the General Braddock’s,” Foster said. “And there’ll be a pig roast by Kevin Sousa [owner of Salt of the Earth], who’s opening a restaurant above our brewery. He’s a resident badass, so that’s gonna be awesome.”

The Brew Gentlemen plan to open their facility to the public early next year, where they will have beers on tap.