Sarah Real and Mike Dell’Aquila met in 2001 working in the math aisle of the Student Book Store on College Avenue during back-to-school season. Soon, they were meeting up for pints at the venerable State College watering hole Zeno’s Pub—so often, in fact, that Real ’03, ’05 MA Com filled in her Zeno’s “beer passport” by sampling 80 brews from around the world. (Like others who completed the passport, she got her name engraved on a plaque mounted on a wall in the bar’s back room.) It was at Zeno’s that the two were introduced to the world of craft beer—a world that, according to Dell’Aquila ’04 Lib, opened their eyes to options far beyond the Yuengling and Natty Light of college keg parties.

The pair fell in love with craft beer, and with each other. They connected over their ethnic differences and multicultural upbringings. Dell’Aquila, an English major, is Italian American; when he was a kid, his family moved from New Jersey to rural central Pennsylvania. Real’s mother speaks Polish, while her Mexican father’s first language is Spanish. Although Real was born in Los Angeles, she grew up on the New Hampshire coast before leaving for college, where she studied telecommunications as an undergrad and for her master’s degree. Dell’Aquila’s family serves lasagna during Thanksgiving dinner; Real learned how to make tortillas from her abuela.


Sarah Real and Mike Dell'Aquila at Hot Plate Brewing Co., courtesy
BREWING SOMETHING GOOD: A love of beer developed over shared college pints put Real and Dell'Aquila on the path to partnership in life and business. Courtesy.


After graduation, the couple—who were married in 2007—drove across the country. At one point in their travels, they popped into the New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, Colo., which is where Real realized she wanted to brew beer for a living. She temporarily put that thought on hold, instead beginning her career in the corporate world doing consumer insights research for companies such as Nickelodeon, Turner Broadcasting, and Viacom. Dell’Aquila also deployed his college degree and worked as a writer and creative director within a number of industries, from cable television and retail to, most recently, sustainability.

But beer was “always part of our life,” says Dell’Aquila. While Real was traveling extensively for work, Dell’Aquila started experimenting with 1-gallon beer kits in their Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment. His success rate was “hit-or-miss,” he admits, but that changed when Real took over the homebrewing process. She was getting so good—and having so much fun—that they felt inspired to finally pursue the dream. They kept their day jobs, but Dell’Aquila began working part time at an award-winning home-brew shop in Brooklyn, just to learn more about the business. Real took classes at the same shop and focused on her recipes. She wasn’t afraid to play around with yeast or hops; she was also willing to take a chance on unusual flavors. Chamomile tea, for instance, was something she loved to drink with her grandmother. Could she infuse those same herbal flowers into a beer? (Answer: Yes. Her chamomile blond ale, called Capable of Anything, is now a signature recipe.)

Around the same time, in 2017, inspectors discovered a code violation in the couple’s condo building, which resulted in the city buildings department shutting off the gas in the entire building. Determined to keep their dream alive—and now without a functioning stove—Real bought an $80 electric hot plate to continue her brewing. This cheap Cuisinart appliance would eventually become more than just a means to practice her craft. “The hot plate is a symbol of our resiliency and not giving up,” says Real. Their new normal consisted of taking hot showers at the gym, using space heaters in the winter months, and—when the temperatures got really cold—occasionally splurging on a hotel room or Airbnb.

Despite these living conditions, they persisted with their dream and boiled the small batches of Real’s recipes on a hot plate. When the beer was bottled and ready to be sampled, usually after a couple of weeks, they invited friends over for “tasting parties.” This happy cycle of brewing—and socializing—was a bright spot for the couple during an otherwise challenging time. It also reinforced Real’s talent: Her jalapeño pale ale, named Shred the Cello, was among the brews beloved in their social circles. By the summer of 2018, they had decided to take a shot at making it work as a business.


head shot of Sarah Real in red framed glasses and a white shirt with hops on it, courtesy


But when Real, a Mexican American woman and head brewer, looked around the craft beer industry, she didn’t see herself represented. That observation is backed up by statistics: A survey by the Brewers Association, an industry trade group, estimates that about 2% of breweries are owned by a person of Hispanic or Latino origin, and fewer than that are owned by women. “I didn’t see myself in the brewhouse or behind the bar,” says Real. Launching herself in the business would be challenging, but she wasn’t afraid to take on both a male-dominated industry and its lack of diversity. She’s always been independent, she says, and finds confidence in educating herself, whether it’s about the chemistry of the brewing process or the types of hops preferred in a Pilsner.

Over time, she grew comfortable in her role, thanks in part to support from the Pink Boots Society, an organization for women working in the fermented beverage industry. “I now feel strong enough to introduce myself as the owner and brewer,” says Real. Through Pink Boots, she also acquired an invaluable network of women in the beer community, as well as a scholarship and professional development opportunities, such as the chance to visit the biggest hops producer in the world in Yakima Valley, Wash., in 2021. “Usually,” says Real, “it’s just the guys who own Sam Adams going out there to pick their hops.” Real was soon being recognized for her work, such as winning the bitter British beer category at the 2021 New York City Homebrewers Guild competition.

Their hobby-turned-business eventually outgrew the hot plate, which could produce only 2 1/2 gallons at a time. The couple was also growing tired of their living conditions—after more than three years, there was still no gas or hot water in that 600-square-foot condo. (When the gyms closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, they bought a battery-operated “camp shower” to bathe in at home.) So, in May 2021, Real and Dell’Aquila decided to leave Brooklyn behind and go all-in on opening a brewery.


top of Hot Plate Brewing Co. barrel, courtesy
HANDS-ON EXPERIENCE: ​​​From hops to hardware, Real takes pride in having immersed herself in every detail of the brewing process. Courtesy.


They moved to Pittsfield, Mass., drawn to its potential as an old industrial town undergoing a revitalization. Dell’Aquila was already familiar with the Berkshires and its outdoorsy charm after visiting the area for writing workshops. Meanwhile, Real’s experience in market research helped to pinpoint the promising downtown location: Pittsfield, which is about 20 miles south of Williams College, is densely populated and has a close-knit community. “It’s not dissimilar to State College,” says Dell’Aquila. “It’s a place where people want to raise their family, because it’s nice and affordable.” The county has academics, arts, culture—and, as they discovered, an underserved market ripe for a new craft brewery.

They began renovating a historic building downtown last summer and documented the entire process on Instagram. While construction was underway on the seven-barrel brewhouse and taproom, the couple attended festivals, pop-up events, and tastings around New England, where they poured samples and got their name out in the community. Real also accelerated her formal and academic training. She participated in the Brewers Association mentorship program; studied at the University of Vermont to learn about the business operations of craft beer; and took a World Brewing Academy course in brewing technology from the esteemed Siebel Institute of Technology, a Chicago-based vocational school and pioneer in brewing education.

Since their move to Massachusetts, there have been plenty of milestones to capture on Instagram (@hotplatebeer), like when the massive brewing equipment was delivered in August, or the day they received their federal brewer’s license. When Hot Plate officially opened its doors in early February, the taproom reached capacity in the first 25 minutes—and stayed that way for three hours.

The design of Hot Plate’s taproom is somewhat atypical. Lots of natural light shines through floor-to-ceiling windows. The cheery rainbow stripes featured on the Hot Plate logo are painted along the walls like a ribbon unraveling around the room. While many conventional breweries tend to have an industrial aesthetic of heavy wood and galvanized steel, Real and Dell’Aquila were intentional in creating a welcoming, gender-neutral taproom. “We want to bring people together from all different walks of life,” says Dell’Aquila. “We want to give them a space they can be happy about.”


Real and Dell-Aquila pouring beers for a packed taproom at Hot Plate Brewing Co., courtesy

OPEN BAR: Real and Dell'Aquila poured for a packed house when Hot Plate opened its doors in February. Courtesy.


They’re also making sure everyone has a seat at the table—literally—by exceeding ADA compliance requirements: A section of the bar is wheelchair accessible, and there is other appropriately fitted furniture throughout the space. “Very often at breweries, people who are disabled can’t sit at the bar,” says Dell’Aquila, who was inspired by Penn State literature professor Michael Bérubé’s classes on cultural studies and disability rights.

The bar features 12 taps divided into three sections. In the first section are classic European styles (e.g., lagers, Pilsners, cream ales), which are cost-effective beers to make. Real and Dell’Aquila wanted to offer affordable options so that quality craft beer can be accessible to as many people as possible. “When we think about inclusivity, we’re also thinking about socioeconomic strata,” he says, acknowledging that not everyone can spend eight or nine dollars on a pint. By making these beers available, they hope nobody will be priced out of the Hot Plate experience.

The middle section of the bar pours what’s popular, like New England IPAs and hazy pale ales. “It’s whatever people are drinking right now,” says Real, “but still within our values.” As for the final section, those taps are where she likes to play the most—slightly different flavors that change with the seasons, like her jalapeño pale ale. “We can introduce people to more than what they are used to without getting too outrageous,” says Real.

One tap has a special significance for the Pittsfield area. It’s dubbed the “community line,” and a local nonprofit organization receives a portion of the proceeds from that tap’s sales. This spring, for example, the Western Massachusetts Food Bank was chosen as a beneficiary to help food-insecure members of the community. “Some of the ideas we have of running this brewery are a little atypical of what a brewery does,” says Dell’Aquila. “We’re setting the tone to operate in a slightly different way.”

They may be just starting their journey, but the new taproom offers a daily reminder of their progress: The old hot plate from their tiny Brooklyn apartment is mounted on a wall, a testament to how far they’ve already come.

Local Flavor

From the owners to the brewer to the guy behind the bar, newly opened Boal City Brewing has deep roots in Happy Valley.
Ryan Jones '95 Com

Crafty Alums

Hot Plate and Boal City are just the latest alumni-owned breweries—from L.A. to New England, Penn Staters are brewing all over the map. 
Robyn Rydzy '95 Com