By Lew Bryson
Beer Man and Pizza Boy Al Kominski Brews “Off the Cuff”. You Got A Problem with That?
“We don’t have a flagship beer,” says Al Kominski, the “Al” in Al’s of Hampden, tucked away in the hilly suburbs across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg. Al’s is the pizza joint that spawned Pizza Boy Brewing Co., which is now making its way to the Philadelphia area on a more regular basis. “There are some beers we make more often than others.”
Pizza Boy is one of the hot names in brewing, largely thanks to Al’s brewer, Terry Hawbaker. Terry’s been making great beer for years, really spreading his wings, first at Bullfrog in Williamsport. But the credit is equally due to Al’s vision, both in brewing beer in the back of a little pizza joint and in letting Terry run with– well, with whatever the hell he feels like brewing.
Case in point: the day I stopped by the brewery in late May, they were about to blend a batch of Permasmile, their celebrated American wild ale. There were a total of sixty barrels (about 15,000 bottles) from 2016 and 2017, all aging in California wine wood. Terry, Al and the brewing crew tasted each of them to see which would make it into the blend. Those barrels were dumped into two 45 bbl. Stainless steel tanks that are connected, and the beer kept slowly circulating. “It might be ready in November,” Terry says.
Take a moment and think about that, and you might understand why these sour beers command higher prices. Sixty California wine barrels, beer aging for at least a year in leased space; the barrels have to be rotated to keep the wood wet, they have to be moved from the brewery to the aging space, one at a time. The barrels are filled outside, to pick up the ambient bugs [wild yeast] to some extent. Two big tanks are tied up for months. And of course, they are wild beers that are unpredictable and may not make the cut.
“The time costs money, the risk costs money,” says Terry, “and no one understands that, and you never recoup that. Not all of it, not really.”
Al does understand pretty much the whole business, though, in a way few retailers or brewers do. He started with a pizza place in 2002. “I’m a pizza guy, really, just a pizza guy,” Al said. But an unfortunate string of road construction projects were killing the business, and in 2008 they were nearly bankrupt, and he was about to sell the business.
“Then my wife asked me to pick up a six-pack on the way home one Friday,” he recalls. It took him 90 minutes to find a cold six-pack, and the next morning, he realized opportunity was knocking. Get a license, sell six-packs and people would find the pizza. He got lucky and found a license for a reasonable price, cashed out his retirement account, got a loan and bought coolers, taps and beer. “The first day, with no ads, no advance notice, we sold 80 six-packs,” Al says. Things were off and running, and “I sold an awesome amount of beer in 2009.”
But as is always the case, the competition noticed, and soon other people started selling beer in the area. Al’s trying to stay ahead of it, and one day he’s telling his troubles to a buddy at the bus stop. “When are you going to start brewing your own beer?” the guy asks; the guy being John Trogner, co-owner of Troegs Brewing. Good question, Al thinks, and after a two-week work study at their brewery, he ordered a brewhouse from BrauKon in Germany.
After making beer for about a year, Al realized he had to get someone else to brew, so he could run the business. He put an ad on ProBrewer, and Terry called him; can he send a resume to apply for the job? Al laughs. “I told him, ‘I’ve been drinking your resume for years, when do you want to start?!”‘
That’s when Terry’s genius and Al’s genius fused. Terry’s not a volume brewer. “We brew off the cuff,” he says, “that’s how we roll. I’ve been a pub brewer forever. This is the same, just bigger. Al asks what I have in the pipeline, and then he sells that. We brew 40 different IPAs a year; the hard part is coming up with names.” They brew cream ales, Vietnamese coffee stouts and the recent “Arctic Trash” send-up of Arctic Splash, the popular Philly street drink.
But how does an off-the-cuff brewery from a little town across the river from Harrisburg, wind up working with a company like Origlio Beverage, to bring its crazy draught releases to Philadelphia?
“There are three defining things about Pizza Boy as we move forward,” Al says. “The BrauKon brewhouse, Terry running it and signing with Origlio. We were selling some beer in Philly, self-distributing and they were interested. Dominic Origlio asks me, ‘What’s your plan?’ And he tells me some numbers we could do. Suddenly I’m thinking, yeah, why am I NOT with a guy with a refrigerated warehouse and well-paid delivery drivers? It changed how I thought about selling beer.”
And that’s from a guy who has very definite ideas about selling beer. At Al’s of Hampden, there isn’t any table service. There’s a big board showing all the 102 taps (about 36 of them are house beers) with short descriptions and prices. You walk up to the counter, you wait in line and you order full beers, no samplers.
Why so different?
“Why does a chef present a dish the way he does? To be the way he sees it as best,” Al says. “It’s arrogant, I know, but that’s how it is, that’s how I want the beers perceived. No flights. Five beers, all different ABVs, bodies and so on: how do you adjust? No, not happening here. No little Untappd badges? Too bad.”
It’s caused some online angst, but it’s working. If you ever get the chance to go up and visit, you’ll see a very busy place (with a nice, outdoor eating area). You’ll adjust pretty quickly to Al’s methods and Terry’s beers. You’ll be even happier as you see more Pizza Boy, of any kind, here in Philadelphia.