Levity Brewing Co., based in Indiana, PA, was looking to expand. The owners spent a year checking out prospects in cities like Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Lancaster. Then civic leaders in Altoona got wind of the search.
The brewery launched in 2016, led by co-owners Jared Herman, Luke McKelvy, and Erich Walls, three longtime friends who met through church. Herman was a junior-high biology teacher; Walls worked in sales; McKelvy’s background was in small business lending, but he was also a passionate homebrewer.
The trio agreed on how great it would be when a good craft brewery opened in Indiana.
“Any day now, somebody’s going to do this in our town, and it’s going to be awesome,” McKelvy recalls them saying.
But they kept waiting. In 2014, the founders first began to talk seriously about doing it themselves.
“It was one of those, ‘Why not us? Why not me?’ moments,” he explains.
Unfortunately, the powers that be in their home city were less than enthusiastic. The Levity founders targeted downtown Indiana for their venture, and emphasized from the start that they weren’t bringing in another college bar, but a family-centric craft beer and dining destination. They presented to the Indiana borough council, and “got this grumpy cold shoulder from them,” says McKelvy. Levity ended up launching outside the city center.
A more welcoming attitude greeted their expansion. It started with a single text message in spring 2019.
“A friend of mine and her husband go up to Levity,” recalls Altoona Mayor Matt Pacifico. “She sent me a text one night and said, ‘Is it OK if I give your number out to Erich [Walls]? I know you’re always looking for businesses to bring to Altoona.'”
Adding a fourth brewery in the city of Altoona helps create that critical mass to make your city a tourist destination for craft brew lovers.Mayor Matt Pacifico
Pacifico didn’t hear anything for a few months, but that summer he got a text from Walls asking for a meeting. The mayor moved fast, inviting the Levity team to a sit-down at Altoona’s Clay Cup café, alongside longtime Altoona Blair County Development Corporation (ABCD) board member and development consultant Ron McConnell, plus the owners of the Clay Cup, and local pizzeria and cidery JJ Hadley.
Having the business owners share why they wanted to be in downtown Altoona was key, says Pacifico. Civic leaders can say all they want, but “it’s a completely different story to hear from people who are making the investments themselves.”
The meeting went well, and the Indiana and Altoona contingents quickly became friends.
“They’re family guys,” explains McKelvy. “They care about neighbors and families. Levity has always been welcoming to families.”
That’s no surprise: The three owners have 12 kids between them, from kindergarteners through college-age.
“We have some [breweries] here already, but we were hoping to build on that vibe,” explains McConnell.
“We already have a growing number of microbreweries beginning to open up in Altoona,” he says, mentioning Railroad City Brewing Company, Iron Pint Brewing, and JJ Hadley. “Adding a fourth brewery in the city of Altoona helps create that critical mass to make your city a tourist destination for craft brew lovers.”
Plus, he says, “when I found out Pittsburgh was the second city they were considering, that was even more motivation to get them to Altoona, and have bragging rights.”
McConnell decided that a grand gesture was in order.
“I chartered a bus,” he recalls, filling it with Altoona ambassadors, including elected officials, bankers, lawyers, and beer aficionados, and they all rode to Indiana for a night at Levity.
“They had hats made, before we had even told any of our employees that we were considering going to Altoona,” says McKelvy with a laugh. “These 20 people showed up in our brewery with [embroidered] hats that said ‘Levity Brewing: Altoona, PA.’ It was kind of irresistible.”
According to McKelvy, Altoona was already appealing because of its convenient distance to their first location. He also liked the way local officials moved quickly to support businesses as the pandemic hit, closing city streets so bars and restaurants could seat people outside. A little over an hour to the west, Pittsburgh was another appealing option, “but it’s a pretty crowded beer market right now.” (The owners are keeping a door open to the idea.)
Now we’ve kind grown up, and see it’s about the people, being a neighborhood destination.Luke McKelvy, Levity Brewing Co.
The warm welcome from Altoona sealed the deal.
“They were really serious about coming, and we were really serious about helping them come,” says McConnell of collaborating on financing, construction, and city buy-in.
As their plans got underway, the pandemic ground everything to a halt — but not for long. McKelvy is optimistic that public confidence in bars and restaurants will rebound quickly when it’s safe to gather again, and they want to be ready.
McConnell helped smooth the way.
“When the government shut down the restaurants, they had no income at all. So we made sure they had income,” he says. McConnell bought their beer himself and offered it out of his garage in exchange for donations to Levity.
He was also instrumental in finding their Altoona location on 11th Street in a brick building locals know as the Chalk Box, a former school and office supply store. McConnell is a consultant for Curry Enterprises — Curry Realty bought the building a few years ago, and gutted and renovated the interior. McConnell knew they were “hoping to get a first-class brewery.”
The Levity guys loved the location, near Heritage Plaza, a hub for warm-weather activities like festivals and concerts. They’re developing the 24 x 100-foot main room into a high-ceilinged dining area that McKelvy says will have “a good, warm, industrial feel.” And they’re launching with a small storefront for takeout, coming in early February while they finish the build-out.
“We maybe started out as being totally passionate about beer — beer as the coolest thing in the universe,” says McKelvy of Levity. “Now we’ve kind grown up, and see it’s about the people, being a neighborhood destination.”
It’s a philosophy that Altoona leaders can get behind.
“There is real synergy between the city, ABCD corporation and other stakeholders…trying to bring investments into the city,” says Pacifico.
“The highest and best use of a brewery like that is bringing people together,” adds McKelvy.
ALAINA JOHNS is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and the Editor-in-Chief of BroadStreetReview.com, Philly’s hub for arts, culture and commentary.