Iron City Brewing Co.: Historic Brewery Gets Fresh Start

By Jennifer Zegler

Pittsburgh pride is one of the hallmarks of the newly re-opened Iron City Brewing Co. On Sept. 19, 2007, Iron City Brewing Co. was brought out of the shadows of bankruptcy by a new team led by Iron City President Timothy Hickman and Greenwich, Conn.-based Unified Growth Partners. The new team brings with it a fresh mission for Iron City, but does not forget the history that helped the brewery become a Pittsburgh institution.
“Our core focus is on being a quality regional brewery,” Hickman says. “We’re based in Western Pennsylvania, and that area ties into certain sports teams, blue-collar traditions and strict work ethic. We want to take Iron City brands back to their roots and reflect the Pittsburgh quality and workmanship this city is known for.”
The brewery first opened in 1861, but has spent the past two decades mired in financial troubles. Formerly known as Pittsburgh Brewing Co., the brewery transferred ownership a few times in the late 1980s following financial troubles incurred by two sequential owners.
In 1995, Pittsburgh native Joseph Piccirilli purchased the brewery with hopes of moving it into the 21st century. Under Piccirilli’s ownership, Iron City introduced the aluminum beer bottle, which was a first in the category. Despite attempts at innovation, sales dropped and Pittsburgh Brewing Co. filed for bankruptcy in 2005.
Last fall, the new team of investors reclaimed the Pittsburgh establishment with plans to get the brewery back on track. The group honored tradition by changing the Pittsburgh Brewing Co. name back to the brewery’s original name, Iron City Brewing Co. It also maintained the brewery’s historic Liberty Avenue location in Pittsburgh, which has housed its operations since 1866. The new team has invested $4.1 million in the brewery’s historic location.
In November, Iron City, IC Light and Augustiner beers were re-introduced to the market.
Local focus
Iron City’s new direction includes a focus on its local area. So much so that “quality, regional brewery” is the phrase Hickman and Tony Ferraro, vice president sales and marketing, want used to identify Iron City Brewing Co. Also new is a revived company slogan, “The Official Beer of the Pittsburgh Nation.” The new slogan reflects Iron City’s core area of consumption, which occupies the 80- to 120-mile radius around the brewery.
The people of the “Pittsburgh Nation” are known for their loyalty, especially to local legends, Hickman explains. While in the re-opening process, the new Iron City team wanted to find out more about consumers’ opinions of its brands.
“We did focus groups on what the perception of the brand was,” Ferraro says. “[Iron City] was perceived as inconsistent because the quality of our packaging and bottles.”
The team set to work redesigning the packaging of IC Light and Augustiner brands. The facelift for these brands was a long time coming — IC Light had not received a packaging makeover since its introduction in 1976, Ferraro says. The light beer’s yellow, silver and black color scheme was reinvented in a new circular logo complemented by golden beer tones on its six-packs, 12-packs and 24-packs.
For amber lager Augustiner, the previous packaging embodied “Old World” heritage with a classic shape and Gothic lettering. The new packaging uses earth tones that still honor its traditions, but updates the brand for today. Furthering its history, six-packs and 24-packs feature an exterior building shot of the Liberty Avenue brewery.
In contrast to its fellow brands, Iron City’s logo was left untouched, but the packaging was upgraded. The newly designed and upgraded packaging for all three brands is slated to be in the market by March. These new looks also reflect the brands’ renewed focus on quality, which it hopes will attract consumers.
“We want the upgraded packaging to look 2008 and appeal to a younger demographic,” Ferraro says. “We’re in the upper-premium price range. We want to control what we can do to create a quality product to deliver to consumers who are willing to pay for it.”
Iron City also has partnered with an ad agency and public relations firm to get the word out about its products. The marketing move is as important as the packaging changes, Hickman says.
“We’re also putting dollars into advertising, TV, radio and viral campaigns to let people know it’s the same Iron City they are used to with an upgraded look,” he says.
On the heels of the re-launch of its core lineup of Iron City, IC Light and Augustiner, the company has plans to extend its portfolio. The company intends to re-introduce a past offering, IC Golden Lager. Also in the works are seasonal craft beers, which Ferraro hopes will add some enthusiasm to the brand.
“We want to be able to rebuild the image of Iron City, and by going into craft beers, we want a product that tastes great and will get consumers excited about Iron City again,” Ferraro says. “Consumers will recognize that the maker of traditional Iron City can also produce a quality regional lager and light beer.”