This is part one of a three-part series on the story of our expansion. Now that we’re in the final stages of construction, we wanted to give a behind-the-scenes look at everything that’s gone into the project thus far. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for parts two and three.
PART ONE: DEFENSE RENT
The large cinderblock warehouse behind our brewery was a potential opportunity we’d had our eye on since we first arrived in Braddock in 2012 – its high ceilings, open floor plan, and close proximity to our existing space inspired visions of a much larger brewing facility, even at a point when our initial vision had yet to be realized. We weren’t trying to put the cart before the horse, but throughout the early years of our operation, the warehouse (occupied at the time by a biofuel company by the name of Greenlight Energy) remained an interesting hypothetical.
When a portion of the Greenlight warehouse came up for rent in the summer of 2016, we snapped it up and began using it as a much-needed storage solution. The rest of the building (and, in turn, the rest of the property) came up for rent a year later, and although we had no explicit plans in place at the time, we couldn’t risk a rather ideal next move being blocked by an outside party. Until the time came to expand, we needed to pay some defense rent.
With an el primo location acquired and a corresponding line item added to the monthly budget, the gates were open, and the pressure was on. We could now begin drawing blueprints, contacting equipment manufacturers, and seeking the capital we’d need to finance everything. A steady stream of floor plans and spreadsheets began whizzing between architects, engineers, loan officers, manufacturer reps, and our own team as we navigated a complex web of codes and constraints.
One such constraint caused a ripple effect of order-of-operations headaches and holdups: we were not permitted to use a design-build method. That is, although certain variables were impossible to know in advance and were liable to change at any time, we were required to have the entire plan finalized and stamped before we could so much as gas up a concrete saw. Unsurprisingly, multiple chicken-and-egg dilemmas ensued – information that could only be ascertained by reaching a certain point in a given process was often required in order to begin work on that very process.
Frustratingly long periods of downtime alternated with bursts of frantic scrambling in a pattern that stretched on for nearly an entire year. Thanks to the convoluted entanglement of modern building codes, the demands were often either patently ridiculous or clearly unfeasible. For instance, the requisite number of bathrooms was initially determined based on square footage rather than number of occupants, forcing us to argue our case that a half-dozen or so employees have no need for fourteen separate bathrooms. The shot clock was ticking, yet the back-and-forths continued with no end in sight. Hell probably sucks, but at least it’s consistent. Purgatory is just depressing.
Our cautious optimism was restored in the early months of 2019 when the freshly-stamped plans finally arrived on our desks. After what felt like an eternity, the Greenlight project was officially greenlit.
PART TWO: THE FINER POINTS OF FLATNESS ENGINEERING
It’s been said that a good floor is a brewery’s most valuable piece of equipment. Taking that into consideration, the construction timeline can be broadly separated into two phases – Phase One: Things That Involve Floors, and Phase Two: Everything Else.
The moment we were given the go-ahead, we attacked Phase One with a stockpile of pent-up vigor. We set to work carving out trenches for drainage plumbing, turning eight thousand square feet of existing concrete floor into a tidy maze of cliffs and canyons. The trench floors required an even fall from each branch of the system to where it met the main sewer line, giving us our first real taste of precision flatness engineering. In came the plumbers, laying down a seriously chunky tree of piping with vertical stalks projecting upwards where each fixture would eventually be located. The plumbing inspector gave it his blessing, and we backfilled the trenches with crushed limestone.
Thus began a multi-week demolition ballet, loudly converting the remaining floors from big rocks into little rocks. Truckload after truckload of rubble was carted off, leaving us with a warehouse-sized zen garden of loose earth and mill slag. Time to engineer some more flatness.
With elevation measurements set and each subsection graded to slope perfectly towards their respective drains, a vast grid of rebar and wire mesh was laid down and tied together. In addition to reinforcing the slabs, this grid provided a support structure on which to install the radiant heating system – the final piece of the puzzle before we could pour the floors.
Now, installing a radiant heating system in a nice, rectangular floor with a limited quantity of drains and fixtures seems like it’d be fairly straightforward. It’d probably look something like this:
Doesn’t seem too complicated. Lay the tube in a straight line along the rebar, zip-tie it down, loop it back around, repeat all of that a few times, and call it a day.
Given all of the different pads and trench drains and rooms and fixtures and this one weird little peninsula thing we had to account for, however, our layout looked like this:
So there we were, during the most satanically hot week of the summer, fastening down a quarter mile of tube in accordance with the squiggly bastard above. In spite of the heat, the job presented us with a fun orienteering challenge, and boy, the results sure were satisfying.
We triple-checked our work and made sure everything was ready to be encased for eternity, and in late July, several cement trucks and a small horde of finishers descended on the warehouse and laid down six thousand square feet of gorgeous new concrete flooring. An exciting milestone had been reached, but we weren’t done yet.
The final step in the flooring saga involved covering the main areas of use with urethane cement, a specialized coating that none of us – including our good friend and resident concrete expert George – had any experience working with. This material, as we came to discover, is part science fiction, part demon magic, and 100% pure evil.
Three ingredients, each independently terrifying on their own (methylenediphelyn diisocyanate!), are mixed into a spiteful, gritty sludge that must be troweled onto the floor in a thin layer. It begins setting up in the mix bucket immediately, giving you a sparse few minutes before it becomes too rigid to work with. Even at its most malleable, it has the consistency of taffy and actively resists being spread thinly. After it’s put down, the surface must be smoothed out with a solvent-soaked paint roller. And in the unfortunate event that you get even the slightest bit of this vile goop on your skin, which is completely unavoidable, it’s best to just say a quick prayer and amputate.
Despite the strenuous application process, the juice was worth the squeeze. We were now the proud owners of radiant-heated, slip-resistant, chemical-resistant, antimicrobial, and damn-near-indestructible brewhouse floors.
Phase One was in the bag.
PART THREE: ALL TOGETHER NOW
Somewhere between tearing up the floors and installing the radiant heating system, everything went a bit sideways.
It was late June, and we found ourselves driving sixteen hours through the night to Jackson, Mississippi. A lightly-used brewing system had just hit the market, comparable to the one we’d been in talks to purchase new from the manufacturer – but at a lower price and with zero lead time. There’s probably a sixteen-syllable German word to describe an incredibly lucky break that simultaneously causes one’s best-laid plans to be chucked straight out the window.
We spent the better part of a week in a hazy sprint to disassemble an entire brewery from top to bottom, with the help of a rigging team from Tennessee and the road crew from Sprinkman, the brewing equipment manufacturer in Wisconsin that built the system. A convoy of fifty-foot flatbed trucks laden with stainless steel made their way north to Pittsburgh.
Perhaps the most obvious sign that our timeline had been forcibly rearranged, the equipment arrived several weeks before its new home was ready to receive it. Our monumental acquisition would have to hang tight in the adjacent parking lot until a few more boxes had been checked.
The walls were a journey all their own, requiring multiple long days of pressure washing to strip away the layers of paint, grime, and mill soot. A fresh coat of paint went up, the urethane topcoat from hell went down, and the brewhouse was finally ready to be set in place.
The pair of Sprinkman techs that worked with us in Jackson arrived to reassemble the gigantic Erector Set, piecing together a tangled highway system of pipes and fittings. Somewhere in the mix, we adopted a stray cat who found all of this commotion rather amusing.
And with that, dear reader, we’ve reached the home stretch of our adventure: outfitting the building with a circulatory system. We’re currently neck-deep in the complex process of installing plumbing, electrical, glycol, steam, and gas lines alongside a talented group of tradesmen. On a project of this scale, fifty percent of the work is crammed into the final ten percent of the timeline – but for the first time since we began this process over two years ago, the finish line is now in sight.