Less than five years ago, Central Pennsylvania was somewhat of a craft-beer desert when it came to specialty brands by the bottle or draft.
But tucked away off Wertzville Road in Hampden Township was a little oasis known as Al's of Hampden, a small pizza shop that would help drive the mix-a-six trend and give local beer enthusiasts another option to sample those one-of-kind microbrews.
"We started with six taps and then grew to 14 and then 24," said Al Kominski, a Hazleton native who founded what he calls a "hole-in-the-wall" pizza shop in 2002.
Kominski jumped into the craft beer craze with both feet in 2008 as a way to grow his business.
In addition to the beer taps, which are constantly cycling through various beer labels, Al's has become a buffet of bottled options — both warm and cold — for customers. The pizza shop sells about 350 varieties of beer, and Kominski is always on the lookout for more.
"I get requests all the time," Kominski said.
That's part of the problem. For starters, the Valley Road restaurant's tight quarters make it tough to find room for any more beer.
And with growing competition from other restaurants in the area, cases and kegs of those nontraditional beers are harder to come by, Kominski said.
The latter led to the creation of Pizza Boy Brewing in 2011, an in-house label Kominski started for his own line of beer.
"I didn't want to be (solely) reliant on beer distributors," he said.
With certain brands, he was only able to get a case or two, which doesn't meet high customer demands in a growing area.
The Pizza Boy line of beer, which is made in the lower-level storage area of the building, has allowed Kominski to offer 28 beers at any time. His German-built beer system can brew up to 150-gallon batches, he said.
Pizza Boy currently makes 10 different styles of beer.
Before launching Pizza Boy, Al's was already in need of an expansion, said Kominski, 34, who began making pizzas when he was 13.
"We got even smaller," he said.
Everything Pizza Boy brews up for sale goes right back out the door.
"We brew on a cycle, but we can't keep up with what we sell," he said.
Hoping to take the business to new heights, Kominski purchased a 1.5-acre lot in the nearby Pyramid Business Park, where construction has begun on a 9,600-square-foot brewpub.
The new multimillion-dollar location, which expects to be done in April, will provide five times the seating for the restaurant side of the business and more than quadruple the number of beer taps.
His beer production also will ramp up to 600-gallon batches with the purchase of new equipment, and bottle varieties sold should double, he said.
The current restaurant is across the intersection, opposite the Cumberland Technology Park. It is surrounded by the construction of stores being built by Weis Markets and Giant Food Stores.
"In three years, this building would be obsolete," Kominski said of his current building, which he anticipates will be further pinched off to traffic by the new shopping centers. "We had to look forward. The area's growing, and we're growing."
With the new brewpub, Kominski said, he has plans to distribute kegs of his beer outside Central Pennsylvania and potentially into other states.
He expects the business, which employs about 26 people, to expand by another 20.
The new Al's will include outdoor dining space, which will be twice the size of the current restaurant, Kominski said. It will feature a separate kitchen and bar area with a wood-fired pizza oven.
Kominski said he is hoping to hire a five-star chef for the outdoor area.
The indoor area will carry on the traditional Al's menu with some new items, including steaks and rotisserie chicken, he said, plus a beer sampling area.
The Millennium Way site will utilize beer-serving tanks for Pizza Boy's core house beers that are on tap, which will create more efficiency in the brewing operations.
"It's going to be a big step for us," Kominski said. "It will be a bigger hole-in-the-wall pizza shop."
If the concept works, he said, he could see the potential in hiring a restaurant management group to open additional Al's of Hampden brewpubs in other areas.
"Everything we do is a risk," he said. "This should have been done five years ago, before we sold beer."
Unlike Appalachian Brewing Co. in Harrisburg, Tröegs Brewing Co. in Derry Township and other regional craft brewers, Al's of Hampden has specialized in selling single bottles and six-packs of microbrews that have traditionally been available only at distributors in cases or kegs.
Al's also has a rotating list of craft beers on tap, including selections from Tröegs, for dine-in and carryout customers.
The Hampden Township pizza shop has built its local reputation on carrying one-of-a-kind beer labels.
With the launch of its Pizza Boy Brewing line, Al's has entered the brewpub market minus the distribution. To date, all of Al Kominski's beer styles have been sold in-house and in draft form only.
With the move to its new location next year, Al's will place even greater emphasis on its house beers for restaurant patrons and others stopping in to fill up their beer mugs, often known as growlers. Kominski also will begin selling kegs of Pizza Boy.
Kominski said he does have plans to begin distributing outside Central Pennsylvania — likely starting with the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia markets — once everything at the new restaurant is running smoothly. That could take a year, he said.
Craft beer growth
Growth of the craft-brewing industry in 2011 was 13 percent by volume compared to 2010, when growth was 12 percent, according to the Colorado-based Brewers Association, an organization of craft brewers.
Craft-brewing sales accounted for 5.7 percent of beer volume in 2011, the association said.
A craft beer is defined by Merriam-Webster as a specialty beer produced in limited quantities. Craft brewers are small, regional brewers.