By Liz Ellaby
Joe Pilleteri knows his new brewery will give him ulcers. He got one last week after giving notice to his job, a secure gig at the University of Alabama running a department in charge of occupational safety and health training.
On June 15, that ends, and he begins life as an entrepreneur, bringing the trendy craft beer business Over the Mountain to Homewood.
The Vestavia native, 39, is betting nearly $1 million that Red Hills Brewing Co. gets a foothold on Homewood’s rapidly developing Central Avenue, where it holds a 10-year lease on a 10,000-square-foot former A&P grocery. The property, owned by Ken Williams, attracts crowds of potential tavern customers to Little Donkey, Octane and Steel City Pops.
After suffering a series of financial setbacks, Pilleteri said construction on the brewery will start in the next few weeks, to open in September.
His introductions will be the flagship Red Hills Session IPA, with others to be determined by a brewmaster. Pilleteri said he favors a fruit beer and some darker British-style ales in the mix.
“I’m a home brewer, and all the advice says if you’re a home brewer, don’t open a brewery, because you can’t always make what you like,” he said.
Right now, Pilleteri prefers the sweeter dark beers to the super popular hoppy IPAs around town.
“I know what I like, but if it doesn’t sell I’m not too proud to change it,” he said.
Pilleteri has had to learn a lot about business in the two years since he sat with his wife and two daughters at Little Donkey and envisioned his own brewery in the building next door. He thought he was ready to launch five months ago, when Homewood rezoned the building to allow the bottling operation. But fees charged for out-of-state investments cancelled plans to use funds from old friends living up north and off-shore, he said.
That was ulcer No. 1.
He sought new investors in Alabama, funding half the start-up with a Small Business Administration loan through First Partners Bank. He said he’s raised the other half from nine investors, including many local doctors.
“If this doesn’t work,” he said of the business, “I’ll have to go to Atlanta for my healthcare.”
The craft beer craze is a national phenomenon that has taken hold in Birmingham, with four breweries established over the last eight years. Another, Ghost Train Brewing, is being produced initially from a contract brewery in Mississippi and will hit the shelves this summer. Pilleteri’s will be the sixth and the first Over the Mountain.
Pilleteri had mapped the locations of those breweries from Regions Field east to Avondale Brewing Co.’s location on 41st Street, drawing a two-mile radius around each one to find an open space. He liked a building on Morris Avenue, but at $22 per square foot, it was a budget buster.
“I couldn’t find an affordable place (downtown), and now I’m glad I didn’t,” he said. “Homewood was really the only place with an established area where businesses were so close together that people walk.”
Craft breweries don’t carry the financial risk of new restaurants, but success demands tap-room sales as well as at local stores. In the 1990s, several Birmingham microbreweries failed because of laws forcing operators to choose between selling products onsite and distributing to store shelves. The 2011 brewery modernization law allowed both, making new ventures possible. The state’s earlier “Free the Hops” legislation had already opened the doors to new craft beer markets by raising the allowable alcohol content from 6 percent to 13.9 percent.
Still, brewing is an art that demands financial precision, and Pilleteri’s small operation must maximize profit from every square inch. He plans a small performance space and long bar fronting a 20-barrel brew house, with four fermenters producing about 500 barrels a year for the taproom alone, and 1,500 barrels total, including distribution. (A barrel equals 31 gallons).
Beer making is a remarkably simple process of brewing and fermenting that deviates little in basic form across different breweries.
The first step is to steep a mixture of crushed grain — mainly barley — in water heated to 148-160 degrees. The resulting mixture, or wort, is pumped to a boil kettle for the addition of hops, the flower of a plant that lends beer its characteristic bitterness, flavor and aroma.
“Today we’re all so hops crazy you can even do what’s called a ‘mash hop,’ or add it at the very beginning,” Pilleteri said.
From the boil kettle, the mixture is centrifuged to remove particles, then cooled to about 70 degrees and pumped to the fermenters, the familiar steel vessels with the cone-shaped bottoms.
Here, yeast is pitched into the wort, where it consumes the sugars and produces alcohol and CO2. The resulting beer is transferred to “bright tanks,” chilled to about 32 degrees, and carbonated.
Pilleteri said he wants to produce lower-alcohol “session beers,” so named in England for being safe for workers to drink during work session breaks. With two children, ages 6 and 10, he doesn’t identify with late nights or a hard-drinking bar crowd. He wants to fit into Homewood’s family-oriented setting, he said.
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as a family bar,” he said. “But this could be close.”
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the incoming business. Homewood’s wall-to-wall retail landscape, which first attracted Pilleteri, has created a parking nightmare. Three local businesses filed objections and a petition during rezoning hearings last year. Although the Red Hills Brewing technically has more than the 24 parking spaces zoning requires, a popular tavern will certainly stress that.
And setbacks can still occur. Construction may reveal expensive structural problems; the air handler may fail. Ulcers No. 3 and No. 4.
Some things have worked against those potential ulcers, he said. Pilleteri’s wife, Kate, a teacher at McAdory High School, strongly supports her husband’s mid-life career change. The other is landlord Ken Williams, who turned away other businesses for more than a year while Pilleteri sought backers.
“It took away one of the ulcers I’m probably going to get knowing I have no problem signing my life away to Mr. Williams,” Pilleteri said. ”He’s a great guy.”