Velum Fermentation fills its big South Side space with beer, pickleball, and more | Pittsburgh City Paper

Velum Fermentation fills its big South Side space with beer, pickleball, and more

click to enlarge A small group of people play pinball machines at a large warehouse space. In the background is a mural featuring the late rapper Mac Miller.
Photo: Courtesy of Velum Fermentation
Velum Fermentation
The beauty of the South Side is often in the eye of the beholder. It’s Pittsburgh’s party spot. It’s the home of 1,000 failed smoke shops and boutique clothing stores. It’s an old-school, working-class neighborhood with some new-school flair. It’s a blight on the city (this one is generally reserved for Twitter bots under KDKA comment sections).

Walk into the massive, refurbished warehouse that is Velum Fermentation, and you’ll see every bit of the beauty on display. Walk in on Wednesday and you might see some intense games of pickleball going on in the back. Come back a couple of days later and there's a farmers market. And you’ll always find arcade games, dogs, and beer.

“We had some ideas of what to do with the space, but so many cool people have so many cool ideas. So we just started listening," says Velum's chief operating officer Jenna McLaughlin, who sat down with Pittsburgh City Paper alongside her brother-in-law, Velum's president and head brewer Nate McLaughlin, for a beer.

Opened in May, Velum has quickly succeeded in the hectic churn of South Side businesses due to a simple formula: a clear identity, and a steadfast commitment to serving the neighborhood.

“We’ve talked a lot about the ethos of this company. Obviously, we’re making beer, but what’s the whole purpose of starting this? And it’s connecting with the community; it’s meeting cool people and making cool stuff,” says McLaughlin.

Velum, for the two of them, comes from over a decade of ideas kicked around and beers shared. Jenna was in Washington working in a different career path and Nate had cut his teeth for many years in the beer industry, working everywhere from DeStihl Brewery in Illinois to Victory in Pennsylvania. Not only did it let him brew various styles of beer, it gave him insight into the best way to turn a brewery into a successful operation.

“I picked up ideas throughout my industry experience, of what to do and what not to do,” Nate says. “I saw that across the industry, a lot of people start too small, and they have to expand quickly and it's painful and expensive. So I picked a spot that I could grow into, not grow out of.”
click to enlarge A pickleball net sits in the middle of a large warehouse space that also features pinball games.
Photo: Courtesy of Velum Fermentation
Pickleball court at Velum Fermentation
The two found a space at the former Duquesne Brewing bottling facility located below Ascend Climbing Gym. Things seemed ready to go.

Then 2020 happened, and the partners learned that the best-laid plans of mice and men don’t generally encounter global pandemics

“We started in 2019, started buildout in January of 2020, and stopped in March. We couldn’t apply for COVID relief because we weren’t a business yet,” Nate explains.

Short on available materials and unable to build, delays kept coming, and doubt crept in. “It becomes a hole you keep pouring your money into, and hope a tree grows out of it," Nate says.

But Nate and Jenna kept wanting to deliver on their goal of a community brewery in South Side, and the community answered back. They invested through Honeycomb Credit when funds got low and paid off their investment since opening by turning Velum into a neighborhood spot.

The taproom exudes an energy not defined by nightlife, or by a constant flow of hustle and bustle. Instead, it's defined by familiar faces, by people walking their dogs there or coming down after a climb at Ascend. They come for the beer
the Think Drink Double IPA and Sweet Taters and Spice Latte Ale are both delicious  and the taproom features events ranging from circus arts performances to Mac Miller Day and children’s art exhibits.

That’s not to say it’s exclusive, or only for South Siders.

“I realized early on there would be a subset of people that were there for the beer and would come to try that,” Jenna said. “But I also realized that for how big our space was, I was devising a strategy to showcase other ideas, and that brings in a whole group of people who otherwise wouldn’t have come. And then we can introduce them to the beer after that, and they may find something they like.”
click to enlarge A tall beer in a glass labeled "Velum" sits in the background of a takeout order of tortilla chips and blanco cheese dip.
Photo: Courtesy of Velum Fermentation
Velulm beer and food options
When asked what about Velum made them the proudest, the answer wasn’t a particularly great beer or a kickass part of their taproom, it was charity and community outreach.

“We don’t charge venue fees for nonprofits, and we did that intentionally for it to be attractive for them to come in and use and for us to give back,” Nate mentions.

Jenna cites Love, Peace and Grilled Cheese, the permanent food truck they’re adding, as well as plans that involve "going to work with local nonprofits, feeding the homeless, doing events here to bring food to people.”

Not everyone drinks beer, but everyone can love Velum. This could be attributed somewhat to the owners' openness to let patrons dictate what happens in its facility — for example, the pickleball started because someone reached out and said the popular pastime would be a good use of Velum's floor space. Community doesn’t come from making people meet you where you are, it comes from giving everyone a chance to find their home at your spot.

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