Andrew Witchey: Founder and Brewmaster, Dancing Gnome Brewing Company

Going Pro by | Oct 2017 | Issue #129
Photos by Daniel Baca

Andrew Witchey can talk about the intricacies of aroma hops all day long. He loves throwing them in the brew kettle, and loves drinking the beers they create even more.

In fact, the drive to launch his own brewery started in brewhouses and taprooms, where Witchey got hooked on the people and culture of craft brewing. “I was spending a lot of time at breweries, meeting the brewers and owners, talking to them, and I realized this was an industry I wanted to become a part of,” he recalls.

Dancing Gnome Brewing Company, the hop-forward brewery and taproom Witchey opened on the outskirts of Pittsburgh last year, sprang from the desire to help grow craft brewing’s culture in his small corner of Pennsylvania.

1. Drink it in
Witchey’s beer-drinking palate developed under the influence of breweries like Hill Farmstead, Tired Hands, Cellarmaker, and Bissell Brothers, as well as his Pittsburg neighbors, Roundabout and Brew Gentlemen. He remembers thinking, “The flavors in this are absolutely insane. Why is this beer so different, and how did they elicit these flavors in brewing?” Hanging around breweries and chatting with brewers while drinking a pint of something amazing solidified Witchey’s desire to join the industry. “I wasn’t sure how to get in,” he says, “but I knew this is what I wanted to do.”

2. Build for yourself
To explore the creative side of the industry, Witchey picked up a serious homebrewing habit; completing a course at the American Brewers Guild solidified his desire to chase a brewhouse job. But if he was going to trade a career in videography and fashion photography for brewing, Witchey reasoned, he wanted to be building something for himself, not somebody else. “I’ve always wanted to own my own business,” he says. Two years after writing his business plan—and many test-batches later—Witchey opened Dancing Gnome in October 2016.

3. Ask yourself, What’s next?
“There’s always fear in opening something new, across any industry,” Witchey says. “Even more in brewing, because the upstart cost is so high. So, in my head, there was no way I would let this not work.” While Dancing Gnome’s successful launch was validating, it didn’t take Witchey long to ask, “OK, what’s next? We had to keep going, making the beer better, getting it into consumers’ hands more efficiently, giving better service. It’s great to open your doors—it’s a relief, all the heartache and difficulty was behind us—but there are still crazy things ahead.”

4. Challenge expectations
Dancing Gnome’s sought-after IPAs and Pale Ales serve up intense flavors via bales of hops, while its Stouts evoke flavors of chocolate, coffee, and dark fruit without actually using adjuncts. “We are molecularly seeking these flavors through technique and ingredients,” Witchey says. He thrives on challenging drinkers’ expectations, whether it’s by channeling a Vietnamese iced coffee in a coffee-infused Stout brewed with lactose, or by serving tropical aroma-bombs to customers who don’t think they like hoppy beers. “Our philosophy is flavor,” Witchey argues.

5. Offer consistent variety
Witchey walks a line between meeting customer expectations by cranking out flagship brews and playing around with experimental recipes. He drives variety by staggering the releases of four core Double IPAs, establishing a rotating series of Pale Ale and lupulin powder recipes, and toggling between his flagship IPA, Jam, and Jam variants that bring new hop combinations to the table. “I love consistent variety,” Witchey says. “Personally, I want to drink a product I know and love, but I always want to try something [new, too].”

6. Stay fresh
The insane demand for Dancing Gnome’s beers far outstrips Witchey’s ability to meet it. In its first 12 months, brewhouse capacity doubled to 2,000 barrels per year. Every release is an event, and it’s not unusual for cans to disappear within hours of going on sale. “I’ve stood in those lines, too. I’m not new to it,” Witchey says. Well ahead of his first-year growth projections, Witchey is keeping the focus on quality and freshness. “I’m brewing to be able to get people the beer they want to drink, and it bums me out if we can’t,” he says. “It’s a work in progress, and it will be for quite a while.”

7. Give ’em what they want
While Dancing Gnome’s portfolio includes Stouts and farmhouse ales, it’s tilted heavily toward hoppy ales because that’s where Witchey’s own tastes lie, and because his customers devour the stuff. Dancing Gnome’s four rotating Double IPAs don’t just utilize different hop combinations; they have drastically different malt bills and varied water profiles. His Spy Dolphin DIPA, for instance, combines sweet, bready malt with notes of peach and pineapple, while his Better One or Two is citrus-forward, with orange, grapefruit, and mango notes, and a touch of pine sap.

8. Chase the beast
Witchey’s recipe creation process normally starts with a concept of what he wants the beer to look and taste like in the glass, and works backward from there. His Exquisite Beast DIPA, however, didn’t take that path. “I thought it would be a cool name, and I almost designed the beer around that, which is not something I’d recommend,” Witchey says. The recipe lays Denali, Mosaic, and Amarillo hops on top of two kinds of English base malt, plus spelt, oats, and flaked wheat. The resulting beer sends waves of pineapple, red berry, and lemon zest cascading into the glass. It’s a dangerous Double IPA that doesn’t drink like one. “This isn’t a kitchen sink beer, but I purposely wanted to utilize more ingredients in a big beer.”

9. Jam on
Jam, Dancing Gnome’s flagship IPA, was not supposed to be a flagship. Witchey envisioned the IPA, built on a base of rye, oats, and Golden Promise malt, as being a showcase for a variety of different flavorful, aromatic hops. That changed once he piloted the recipe with the dank, earthy, and spicy Vic Secret. The combination was so intriguing it forced itself into Dancing Gnome’s regular rotation. Witchey now brews two versions of Jam—the core Vic Secret recipe, and one that swaps in hero hops like Mosaic, Citra, and Galaxy. “They’re different across the board, even the haze levels are different, despite all being the same beer, ultimately.” 

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