a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Craft beer is making this bar a destination

Bartender Devon Keeliher of Beaver, Pa., draws a pour from one of 16 taps that deliver exclusively craft beer at Bocktown Beer and Grill near Pittsburgh. (Observer-Reporter)

By Scott Beveridge

PITTSBURGH – Chris Dilla laughs now about the bankers who looked at her as if she were crazy for wanting money to open a craft beer bar in a strip mall where other businesses were struggling.

“They were not real receptive,” said Dilla, who would eventually win the support to invest in Bocktown Beer and Grill in North Fayette Township. “They just didn’t understand craft beer.”

What they also didn’t get was that beer created by independent, specialty brewers has loyal followers who will travel distances to places, like Bocktown, where such brew flows in great volumes from the taps.

“Beer is making the place a destination," Dilla said. "We’re not just a bar, but a restaurant that just happens to have an incredible beer selection.”

Craft beer tends to be heavy on flavor and made by passionate, creative brewers who are not to be afraid to experiment by adding flowers, fruit and different spices to the barrel, she said.

There are always 16 of them on tap at Bocktown, with such names as Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout, Coney Island Mermaid Pilsner, Rock Bottom Uppity Jagoff IPA and Furthermore Fallen Apple.

“We try to be regional first,” said Dilla, whose Pittsburgh suppliers include the Pennsylvania Brewing Co. and East End Brewery Co. Those made by the big corporations, such as Coors and Budweiser, come here in bottles that are tucked away in a cooler for those rare customers who don’t show up here with a discriminating palate.

The commitment has paid off as her business has grown by as much as 10 percent a year, even during the recession, and the price of a draft does not come cheap.

Dilla said she owes her success to a number of factors.

There has been a trend growing at restaurants across the country of customers seeing a beer list as more important than the wine list. Younger adults have been raised in a food and beverage culture where they have been given many more choices, Dilla said. Meanwhile, the number of craft brewers has been growing since the 1980s, she said.

However, Dilla is especially savvy in the way in which she uses social media – Facebook, Twitter and foursquare – to grow her customer base via smart phone communications.

“It’s a great marketing tool, and it’s free,” said Dilla, a guest speaker at last year’s PodCamp Pittsburgh, an “UnConference” run by and for technology nerds. She is known there as an entrepreneur who has developed one of the best social media business models in the city.

The magic has worked so well for her that customers often encounter long waits for a table.

It’s also not uncommon for two or three kegs to kick behind the bar in 10 minutes’ time.

Bocktown is tucked away at 690 Chauvet Drive in a near-vacant Pool City Plaza, across the parking lot from Target, where four surrounding stores have closed since the bar opened four years ago.

“And our sales have done nothing but boom,” said Dilla, who is about to open a second location at Beaver Valley Mall, and looking to open a third somewhere in Washington County.

Another is under consideration in Monroeville.

She knew her plan would work because she, too, loves a good craft beer and grew tired of driving around looking for a good restaurant with craft beer.

“I would find even (restaurants) in Washington County, where I would say, ‘Oh, thank God they have that beer,’” she said. “And then we’d go back and they were giving it away to get rid of it.

“I just knew the commitment would have to come from within the business rather than the customers coming in and asking for the beer.”

(This story first appeared in Living Washington County magazine, a publication of the Observer-Reporter)

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