At Creekside Beer, we like to celebrate our fantastic brewery partners, and champion their successes. After all, Pittsburgh is still a small town despite its size, and supporting the local community has never been more important than it has been in this past year, especially through #DrinkPGH. And along those lines, we can’t speak highly enough about those local breweries who consistently provide the top-notch products that customers have come to love, and how much we value our partnership with those same breweries. With that as a backdrop, we recently visited with Dancing Gnome in Sharpsburg, and had the chance to spend some quality time with Founder and Head Brewer Andrew Witchey, and his Head of Operations, Mike Dunlay.
Dancing Gnome Background
For those who are not familiar with story of Dancing Gnome, the brewery was launched in 2016 by Andrew, who had a professional background in film, videography, and photography with a solid career track to prove it. His passion for brewing was largely unsatisfied with his home brewing experience, and so he elected to round out his home-brew experience with some intensive coursework at the American Brewer’s Guild before launching Dancing Gnome. When we spoke with him, Andrew did a pretty impressive job of minimizing the effort involved in gaining the knowledge, expertise, and training needed to consistently brew the top-tier products that DG is renowned for. To hear Andrew explain it, it’s just chemistry, pH, temperature, and a recipe – the same material you learn in your college chemistry classes, although he says the American Brewer’s Guild did a nice job of consolidating and condensing that into their coursework. At Creekside Beer, we think there’s a little more to it than that, and Andrew didn’t do justice to the long hours he spent brewing test batches, refining the recipes and the process, and repeating this cycle for several years before the successful launch of the brewery. It’s worthy of note that Andrew built the Dancing Gnome brand from scratch, and turned it into what it is today.
It was only recently that Andrew hired Brett Herron from a local brewery based in West Virginia, along with an amateur home brewer to help grow their production capabilities.
Evolution and Growth
When Dancing Gnome first launched, their initial focus was on the hazy, hoppy IPAs that were in such demand at the time, and were targeted at their core customers’ demographics. Andrew quickly realized that he was unintentionally excluding some customers when he noticed that he only had IPAs on tap in his brewpub - but nothing for those customers that wanted something other than an IPA. With that in mind, he began expanding their product line to include other styles as well, such as lagers, German and English styles, IPAs that had a lower ABV content, and even sours.
Dancing Gnome Dbl Underscore Raspberry was one of the children of that expansion process. It was an ultra-fruited sour of superior quality, and with a 4.52 rating on Untappd. When we spoke, this was one product that Andrew specifically called out as one of which the DG team was incredibly proud, especially considering the amount of effort required to produce it. However, Andrew realized that this product wasn’t a good fit with the rest of their product line, and wasn’t their forte. That experience helped DG confirm that they needed to be true to themselves and the brand that they were building, rather than chasing something that was hot in the market but wasn’t something that they were passionate about. In other words, as Andrew explained, they didn’t want to chase a “cash grab” with their products.
Still, Andrew and Mike are very open to change, and to trying new things. They are constantly revisiting their mission and vision, and adjusting as needed. Their top priorities are maintaining and enhancing the quality of the products they brew, and serving their customers what they want, while at the same time experimenting with new styles and products. Ideally, they will be expanding their customers’ palates with the new and different styles of beer available without making them feel intimidated, and doing this with a very customer-centric approach. As Andrew says, the quality of the product and service to the customer trump everything in his business, and these high standards are non-negotiable at Dancing Gnome.
Here and Now, and Beyond
Fast forward to today. While the brewpub at 925 Main Street in Sharpsburg is still closed to the public due to COVID-19, their beer garden in the rear is open, with reservations being taken for their firepits, and a socially-distant atmosphere available for all guests.
As of this writing they are still putting the finishing touches on their spacious new facility one block away, at 1025 Main Street. They hope to open this within the next few months as the pandemic winds down, as customers feel more comfortable relaxing in a public space with others, and as life starts to return to normal for everyone.
They are currently churning out in the neighborhood of 2,300 barrels per year at their current facility using a 10-barrel system. With the expansion to their new facility, they can grow this to 3,000-3,500 barrels in the coming year, and can continue to expand to upwards of 8,500 barrels per year as needed. With the expansion to the additional location, they will relocate their brewing equipment from the current brewpub, thereby allowing Andrew to use the original location as a lab space – for brewing small batches of different products without tying up their main tanks for long periods; for innovating and experimenting with new products; for yeast propagation; and for all the things that are the hallmark of the outstanding product that the brewery is known for. This will also let Andrew and Mike turn the original facility into an English-style pub, with a completely different vibe, and allow their customers to sample and savor even more different styles of beer.
Andrew and Mike will still be regularly brewing the high-quality products that Dancing Gnome is famous for. Lustra, their Citra-Amarillo Pale and one of their flagship products, for example, has had the same recipe since day one. Even though the recipe has been continually refined, Lustra has been one of their most consistent products, and one that customers have grown to love. They will also continue produce some offerings with a lower alcohol content, like Aevum, Half Lustra, and Upward Below. Andrew’s intent with these products is to make them as approachable, comfortable, full-flavored, and impactful as some of their double IPAs while still being decidedly crushable without too high of an ABV, so that everyone can enjoy a few.
The Local Scene
The Dancing Gnome is one of almost forty (40) micro craft breweries based in Allegheny County, with that number steadily increasing. However, Andrew was quick to point out that they are all friends - the local brewing community is a small, close-knit group, he said, who often visit each other’s breweries, share some brews, and hang out together. Local brewing leaders like Andrew all work together to promote the industry and the local scene, rather than actively compete with each other. Even before COVID hit, he said, they were sharing resources like grains, hops, cans, labelers, and so on when needed, and helping each other out as much as possible, and he expects that to continue.
They currently claim the #2 spot on the Top 10 Breweries of 2020 in PA according to Untappd and rightfully so. We expect that customers will still line up outside the brewery for their special releases, and that these will sell out in minutes, even with the additional capacity. (Andrew’s tips for those customers looking for those super-special releases like Black Clouds? Don’t wait until 10:00 to be online and looking; get online 10 minutes before and keep watching for your chance, just like you did when chasing those hot concert tickets pre-COVID).
And, as the brewery continues to expand, and even to ship their products sometime in the future, they will build an even more loyal and consistent fan base across the state who love their products and can’t get enough of them. Clearly, Dancing Gnome is one of Pittsburgh’s success stories, and one that is making the city a must-visit destination for the craft beer lover. To hear even more about DG and their plans, along with interviews with other local breweries like Trace Brewing, Old Thunder Brewing, Four Points Brewing, and more, tune in to Andrew Witchey’s podcast, “Good, but not the best...a Dancing Gnome podcast”. And definitely try some of their products. Creekside’s favorites? As part of writing this, I asked the Creekside beer team to chime in on their favorite DG product. Tyler couldn’t narrow it down to a single product – he said that Infinite Highway was his favorite hazy “because it’s incredibly smooth and crushable despite being a double.” And Black Clouds Coffee Cake rounded this out as his favorite limited release, because, as he says, “Well, it’s just awesome.”
Tim Stivers is a fan of Sua Da Stout, because it’s a lighter stout, perfect for winter or summer, and “tastes like an iced coffee.” Like Tyler, he’s also a fan of the Black Clouds Coffee Cake, because it has the body of a nice, thick stout, goes down smooth, it’s not too sweet, and the finish is not too boozy. Elizabeth Hoerath said that her favorite is Altbier, because as a lover of German beers, it warms her heart when she sees see a traditional style brought to life – and done that well.
She also added that Lustra is an easy pick as well, because sometimes you just need something that goes down easy while still being delicious. Personally, my favorite it Lustra too, because it’s a high-quality product with exceptional depth and flavor, and is remarkably consistent – you’re never disappointed with it.
Don’t take our word for it though. Sample some for yourself, and see why all of the hype about Dancing Gnome is so well-deserved!