If someone would have told me five years ago that I???d be sampling craft beers brewed in the back of fire hall in West Newton with a couple from Minneapolis on an unseasonably warm Saturday in October of 2018, I wouldn???t have believed them for a minute. Regardless of unlikeliness, that scene developed just a couple of weeks ago when I and the Minnesotans, who came to town via the Great Allegheny Passage, happened drop by Bloom Brew at the same time. The two took a small detour off the trail and across a bridge that carried PA 136 over the Youghiogheny River. They had done their homework and noted it was the only brewery between Homestead and Cumberland, Maryland, a proper reward after riding the 33 miles from Pittsburgh.
???I thought I was going to get some traffic from the trails and I probably underestimated the amount that we get,??? noted owner Jeff Bloom. Bloom Brew gets customers from all over the world who visit thanks to the GAP trail, as the rail-to-trail conversion that runs from Pittsburgh to Cumberland is more commonly known. Another trail along the former B & O Canal provides a continuous bike link from the Steel City to Washington D.C. ??Daniel Diethorn, a history teacher turned head brewer for Bloom, estimated as much as 75% of customers come from outside the area.
???People message me in advance. They know our hours and they plan their trip itinerary around us being open. I get a lot of people that will email me and say ???we have a big group of so many people and I know you???re not open on Tuesday, but is there any way can you open for us???? We???re pretty accommodating and if we get a large group of people I will go out of my way to extend (our hours).”
Not only did the number of customers from the bike trail exceed his expectations, but Bloom Brew gets a considerable amount of rafters on float trips down the Yough. Located on the banks of the river, Bloom Brew has use of a large area outside their taproom for picnic benches, food trucks and a highly valuable gravel path from the river. ???You can walk out on a Saturday afternoon and look up river and it would actual remind me of hot air balloons in New Mexico. You just look up stream there are all these different colored crafts floating down the river. It???s pretty cool to watch,??? Bloom described.
???We get a ton of traffic when the weather is good. Of course, it???s seasonal.??? Bloom did note that they are open year round even if they have a defined busy season.
The trail and river weren???t part of the business plan initially and the lack of any brewery in or near the Mon Valley footprint drove Bloom’s search for a location. ???West Newton, Monongahela and possibly Rostraver Township were my three options. When we started to look for space, we drove around for almost a year just trying to find something. There’s a lot of zoning laws. Technically when you operate a brewery, you are supposed to be in a light industrial space and West Newton had lax zoning laws where you could use commercial space as light industrial space.”
It all came together for Bloom through happenstance when he was invited to give away some of his home brew samples by Mayor Mary Popovich at a benefit dance for seniors at the Yough Ballroom in the West Newton Firehall. On a whim, Bloom asked if the DJ could make an announcement to those in attendance to provide any leads on a possible location for the brewery. The fire department approached him that evening and suggested he look at underutilized area formerly used for maintenance around the back of their building. Ultimately, he signed a lease with them.
He has had a positive, mutually beneficially relationship with the fire department even though they no longer own the building. ???We actually have a beer that we call 82 Hothead Red that we donate ten percent of the proceeds of the beer to the firehall. We have a boot right on our counter that we take collections.??? They also teamed up with Performance Kayak just up river for their ???Yough Ness Monster??? race with the net benefiting the fire fighters.
They no longer rent from the fire department directly as they sold the building to a third party roughly six months after the lease commenced. Bloom Brew???s business model has evolved over their four years in operation. “For almost three and a half years, we survived on just giving away free samples and (selling) growlers for take away. ??Just this past May, we came to some agreements with the building owner to sell pints and more or less take over the back area to bring in food trucks and bands in . That???s what wanted to do from day one.???
Bloom Brew generally has an extensive beer selection on tap, but both Bloom and Diethorn celebrate their sours. ???Our specialty is our sours. All of our barrel projects are sours,??? Diethorn noted ???We try to put a mix out of everything. We try to make sure the board is balanced so you get lagers, IPAs and a few seasonals.???
Despite Bloom Brew’s success, hardly anyone else has jumped on brewery train in the Mon Valley, Southern Westmoreland County or all of Fayette County. The long established Helltown operates in nearby Mt. Pleasant and Four Points in Charleroi recently opened in the heart of the valley. West Newton is an oddity in the area and the trail appears to be giving them a leg up for investors. Make no mistake, the borough’s resurgence is a slow one, but other businesses are opening and succeeding, including the newly bottled Crooked Creek Distillery. ??Not many small communities can successfully claim tourism has given their economy an infusion of energy. West Newton appears as if they’re headed down that path.
As business has taken off, Bloom doesn???t get as much time to ride the trail himself as he used to. He still gets out now and then. ???I still get out on the trail. I have a couple bikes I keep down there and every once in a great while I manage to get out.??? As long as the trail brings people from all over the world to his door, Bloom likely won???t mind his sacrifice.