Eleventh Hour Brewing Company: How a Kitchen Brewing Kit Turned into a Neighborhood Hangout
Established in 2017, Eleventh Hour Brewing Co. is a local craft brewery located in Pittsburgh’s Lower Lawrenceville neighborhood. Keana McMahon, co-owner of Eleventh Hour, sat down with Lawrenceville Corporation to discuss Eleventh Hour, what it’s like to be a woman in the brewing industry, and the importance of knowing your neighbors.
LC: How did Eleventh Hour Begin?
KM: When you’re with someone for a while, you start running out of gift ideas. I decided to get him one of those at-home beer kits. I’m bad at surprises, so I just told him. He suggested that I get a higher-quality beer kit so he could really try out making beer. He was really interested in beer, so I invested in something better than what I was originally going to get. So, he started making beer in the kitchen at home. That was probably in 2006, maybe. He did a lot of it at home. Making beer was more his thing than mine—I was just along for the ride. Sometimes he needed a second pair of hands to help, so I’d be the one helping him. Sometimes his brother would come over and help us. Even my son, who was in high school at the time, got involved. We eventually graduated from the kitchen to building a system in our garage, which is what most homebrewers do. There’s only so much you can do on the stovetop. Our adventures in brewing just snowballed from there.
LC: Are you from Pittsburgh? Why did you choose Lawrenceville for Eleventh Hour?
KM: My husband is from Mt. Lebanon. I’m from Altoona, PA, and I moved here in 1990. I’ve been here longer than where I grew up. We live in the North Hills, and Lawrenceville wasn’t originally on our radar. We wanted to open a place in the North Hills are where we lived. We started looking at places and rentals up there, but everything in the suburbs is just strip malls. It’s nothing special, and we couldn’t really find what we wanted for the brewery. My husband and I found a couple of places. A lot of the landlords we spoke to were of the older generation. They didn’t really know what exactly we were planning to do with the place. Craft beer hadn’t caught on much yet either, so some of the landlords had concerns that we wouldn’t be able to make rent. At the time when we were looking for the place, there were only about 14 other breweries in the Pittsburgh area. The one landlord said he would prefer a restaurant in his space rather than a brewery. No one really thought it would be too successful when we were trying to sign a lease.
A couple of months later, we were at a beer festival in Pittsburgh. Some people who worked for the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) of Pittsburgh came to our booth and asked if we were open yet. We explained our situation, and they suggested that we look downtown. My husband and I really wanted to stay near our home, but after another six to nine months of looking with no luck, we decided to call the URA. A lot of big banks wouldn’t help us at first, because we had no experience. The URA helped us with our business loan, and banks were more open to helping us once we had the URA backing our brewery.
The URA suggested that we start looking at some places downtown, so that’s what we did. My husband took a day off work and we drove around the city. We toured a place closer to the Convention Center 4-5 times that we really liked. We had a graphic designer and an engineer come to the site to develop some designs. As we were pulling together a leasing deal, the landlord canceled our agreement, because he got a better deal from a New York boutique hotel company. So, we were back to square one.
My husband and I started driving around again. We started on the far end of Butler Street and worked our way towards the Strip District. We happened to be driving past 37th and saw a ‘for lease’ sign on the edge of the building. We had been working with a real estate agent, so we asked him to call about the building. It had been vacant for 5 years, and the location just worked for us. It looked nothing like it does now when we first got here. My husband and I did everything, and we spent a lot of time putting it together.
LC: As I understand, you’re a member of the Pink Boots Society. Can you talk a little about that?
KM: Sure! Pink Boots Society is an international organization of women who get their money from the brewing industry in any shape or form. So, you don’t have to be a brewer. You could be an accountant for a brewing company and still join. There’s a minimal yearly fee, and each city has its own chapter. We have a Pink Boots Society chapter in Pittsburgh that has monthly meetings, and there’s a national convention every year. They take trips to Germany and other parts of the world where beer is an older and more prominent craft than it is in America. Members pay to go on these trips, but Pink Boots also provides scholarship opportunities for trips. They also provide scholarships for brewers to advance their skills and knowledge through education.
Every year around spring, Pink Boots curates a blend of hops from the Pacific Northwest. That blend is then available for anyone in the Pink Boots Society to buy. We can make any kind of beer we want with it, and then 20% of the proceeds go back to the Pink Boots Society in order to fund these scholarships. Brewing is such a male-dominated industry, but there are women in the industry who would probably brew circles around some of these men. We don’t receive as much recognition, so Pink Boots is a place where women in brewing can receive recognition and resources. When you join Pink Boots Society, they give you an option to purchase pink steel toe boots to wear in your brewhouse. I don’t always brew, but I do have a pair that I wear for safety purposes when I’m in the brewery.
LC: Does being a female in a male-dominated industry like brewing present any setbacks?
KM: Yeah, every day. I’m not taken as seriously. For example, I’ll be behind the bar serving a man who knows, or thinks he knows, craft beer well. I’ll tell him something he doesn’t know, or even better, I’ll tell him that he’s wrong about something. Almost every time, that person has no problem arguing with me about it. Sometimes, just the reaction of being a female in the brewing industry is enough. When I tell people that I own a brewery, they seem surprised. They say things like, “You own a brewery? That’s so cool,” but it feels like, “You’re a woman, and you own a brewery? How did that happen?”. And those private Facebook groups for craft beer professionals and enthusiasts can be the worst, but I’m not the only woman in the industry who experiences this.
I run the day to day operations at Eleventh Hour. I focus on the growth of the business, the staff, the front of house stuff. My husband takes care of the back of house stuff. Could I take care of back of house, too? Yes, but I don’t have as much interest in brewing as my husband does. There will be days where I have to call people about orders that came in wrong or a bill that needs to be corrected. I’ll call multiple times and get an indirect response or no response at all. Eventually, I just tell my husband to call whoever is giving me trouble. Once he calls, we never have another issue from that company. My husband denies that it’s because I’m a woman, but it happens too many times for it to be a coincidence. There are some guys in my own brewery that I don’t always see eye to eye with, but I’m thankful to have a husband and business partner that will back me up. When he knows I’m right and I have a point that needs to be heard, he will make sure everyone gets quiet and listens. So, it works.
LC: What do you like about being a small business in Lawrenceville?
KM: It sounds so cliché, but the community and the neighborhood feel here is everything. My daughter had a boyfriend from Brooklyn who went to Pitt, and he told me once that Lawrenceville is one of the only places in Pittsburgh that feels like home. Some of the people on our street have lived here for 35 years. It’s so steeped in history, and you have so many people who have been here for decades. Even though there are new things going on here, it’s not getting too commercialized. You have a place like Walnut Street in Shadyside that has a lot of chain stores, but Lawrenceville is more of a neighborhood. I don’t feel out of place here, nobody does. No matter how you grow up, regardless of class, everybody just fits here. The members of the community are authentic and down to earth. The walking neighborhood community feel is real here, compared to somewhere like the Strip District. Even though people live there, it’s in warehouses that have been turned into condos. Lawrenceville has the rowhouses, which make the neighborhood just feel more welcoming. Building an all-brick townhouse right now would be so expensive, so it’s great to see those older buildings being preserved. While I understand that you must get rid of some old to create new, Lawrenceville has done a pretty good job of integrating both without making it feel like they’re taking away from what’s already here. Lawrenceville reminds me of the neighborhood I grew up in. When I was a kid, I walked or rode my bike around the block. Now, I walk my dogs around the block and it still feels like home. The newness doesn’t take away from the true soul of Lawrenceville, and I don’t think it ever will.
LC: If you had to give advice to an aspiring or new business owner in Pittsburgh, what would you say?
KM: It’s really important to figure out what options you have. You don’t always have to go the traditional route of a bank loan. Get involved with the URA of Pittsburgh; they have great resources. If you’re a woman or a minority, find out what type of grants are available for you. Sometimes, it just takes one piece of the puzzle to make everything fall into place. It’s so important to go to places like Lawrenceville Corporation or your local organization like that and see what kind of services they offer. Even if they can’t help you, they can give you a lead or point you toward someone who can help. You can’t just make one phone call, either. You have to stay persistent and almost pester people to get what you want. I can’t even tell you how many people probably got sick of us calling them. Talk to other business owners, too. Everyone has a unique experience when starting a business, so each person can offer different advice.
Before you sign a lease, get to know the neighbors around you and get to know if you’re going to be welcome. I cannot stress this enough. Get to know the zoning laws of the area, go to the zoning office and make sure you’re doing things by the book. Before you lock anything into place, make sure you have the resources to be there. Make sure you know what you’re getting into before you choose an area. During the process of creating Eleventh Hour, I learned a lot that I didn’t want to learn, but now I know.
And as cliché as it sounds, don’t give up. There were times I turned to my husband and said, “When is enough, enough? I’m ready to be done.” There were a couple of times we were ready to throw in the towel, but we’re sure as heck happy that we didn’t.
Eleventh Hour offers a rotating selection of craft brews and food trucks on the patio. They also support other local businesses, carrying selections from Engine House 25, Arsenal Cider and Apis Mead. Stop by for a pint or take some to go. Don’t forget to say hello to Eleventh Hour’s favorite pup, Archie!