Local breweries, bars plan craft beer bash
Remember when someone asked you if you wanted a beer, and you knew exactly what they meant?
You'd get a pale yellow lager in a can, bearing one of several names, but all basically tasting the same. If you wanted subtle variations of flavor, well, you'd be drinking wine, right?
Now, there's India Pale Ales, wheat beers, Weizenbocks, Czech pilsners, Lambics, Irish stouts, ciders, red ales, and many, many more to choose from. For the uninitiated, it's a little daunting.
Craft beer isn't for everyone, of course. But chances are your all-time favorite beer is still out there, somewhere, waiting for you to find it. The question is -- where do you start?
The first-ever Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week seems like it might be a good place to begin. This week, at dozens of locations throughout the region, there will be beer tastings, beer pairing dinners, "meet the brewers" sessions, and other special events, including several all-new "collaboration" beers made by mixed crews from various local brewers.
"The biggest thing is to kind of educate people in the region about the different craft breweries and places that offer craft beer," says Andy Rich, owner of Penn Brewery on the North Side. "The fans always know about Fatheads and places like that, but we're kind of hoping to show the good qualities and stories about how the segment of our industry is growing, opening minds and palates."
Often, it doesn't take much to get hooked on the intensely different, distinctive flavors of small-batch, hand-crafted beer.
"My father -- who's probably only had three beers in his life not named Iron City -- I took him to a party at the House of 1000 Beers (in New Kensington)," says Chris Momberger, 38, of New Kensington, an economist and craft-beer aficionado who's helping organize Craft Beer Week. "He tried some other beers and has kind of got the bug, too."
Even for a first-ever event, it seems like everyone halfway connected with craft-beer making, selling and drinking is involved.
"I think we're closing in on 250 events in pretty much every area of the region," Momberger says. "You don't have to go Downtown or go to a fancy bar to find craft beer. It's now all over the place. Good quality beers from the West Coast, Eastern PA ..."
The national craft beer movement has its own constellation of stars -- Dogfish Head, Lagunitas, Sierra Nevada -- that will be amply represented at Pittsburgh Craft Brew Week. But a special focus will be on harder-to-find beers -- and, of course, the ever-growing number of quality beers produced in Western Pennsylvania. All levels of craft brewing will be celebrated, from headliners like Penn Brewery -- a pioneer among Pennsylvania microbrewers -- to the very small "nano-breweries" like Drai Laag Brewing Company in Millvale, All Saints Brewing Company in Greensburg, and Helltown in Mt. Pleasant, to the Three Rivers Association of Serious Homebrewers (T.R.A.S.H.).
"I'm very, very happy with the upstarts and the growth," says Chris Dilla, owner of Bocktown Beer and Grill in Robinson and Monaca, a longtime supporter of craft beer and its local creators. "A lot of them are still holding full-time jobs and making great beer. That part of it excites me. East End (Brewing Co.), it's only been six years for him, and the sky's the limit. It's interesting to watch how they build a brand and a business.
"I'm up for supporting any of them," Dilla says. "I totally believe that they're the new building block for regional economies. So many mid-sized breweries like Lagunitas (California) and Dogfish (Delaware) are big employers in their regions. I'd like to see room for one of those regionally."
Pittsburgh's craft-beer scene isn't as well known as some, but it's getting there. The Church Brew Works in Lawrenceville is pretty much a first-day tourist attraction by now. Events like Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week should only help to put the scene on the map.
Of course, just making good beer goes a long way in that respect.
"The thing about the Pittsburgh beers is that they're not afraid to be bold, and they don't stick with a particular style and taste because it's safe," Momberger says. "They're willing to take risks and go beyond what's expected of a traditional brewery. It kind of mirrors the city itself -- the city needed to constantly reinvent itself, to stay on top, after the steel industry went bust. The local craft beers have taken that spirit of constant reinvention, constant improvement, into their work."
That makes it a little difficult to generalize about local beers, though they all share some things.
"German beers have done very well, whenever local breweries have won awards," says Rich of Penn Brewery. "We've won, Church Brew Works has won some awards. It's probably something to do with the water -- dark beers do well. Water-wise, (Pittsburgh) probably matches well with Munich. Recently, people are trying different things with malts, and are doing some creative things."
The local scene is more far collegial than cutthroat, despite its explosive growth. Most local breweries were started by homebrewers, more likely as an eccentric hobby, not a potential business.
The craft-beer business in Pittsburgh has grown to the point that there's now a place where you can actually go in and brew your own beer -- the Copper Kettle Brewing Company, attached to Hough's, a craft beer-specialist bar in Greenfield. Homebrewers can come in and use their brewing equipment, and novices can come to learn how to make their own. It's frequently used for birthday parties, bachelor parties, corporate events.
Hough's and the Copper Kettle will be busy all week, bringing in brewers from all over to demonstrate their craft.
"Great Lakes' (Cleveland) brewer will be coming in, and Sam Adams' (Boston) brewmaster Bob Cannon," says Hough's owner Matt Hough. "They're bringing in 20 beers, unique flights, some that have never been in Pittsburgh before. Rogue (Oregon), who has spirits as well, and Church Brew Works is coming in."
The idea for Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week came about during a get-together at Penn Brewery for local brewers. To foster a true spirit of collaboration, they decided to brew three unique beers together, using teams assembled from different breweries across the region: "The Cheeky Yinzer" (a British-style IPA), "Inaugural Ale" (a sour-mash red ale) and "Home Opener" (a Kolsch-style ale). The big breweries like Rock Bottom and Church Brew Works donated tank space.
The Cheeky Yinzer was developed by East End Brewing's Andy Kwiatkowski, and won gold in the T.R.A.S.H. Homebrew Competition for IPAs. It was brewed at Penn Brewery, with help from Bill Larkin of Arsenal Cider in Lawrenceville.
Local beer fan Todd McDevitt took collaboration to yet another level. He's the owner of the local comic book store chain New Dimension Comics and a longtime vendor at the Pittsburgh Comicon, which happens to coincide with Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week. McDevitt approached the Rivertowne Pour House -- in Monroeville, not far from the Comicon -- to create a special beer celebrating both events.
They stuck with the superheroes theme, and didn't have to look far for inspiration. The Comicon table next to his for several years has been occupied by Steelman, the black-and-gold costumed hero of game-day tailgates and charity events around town. With his blessing, they created "Steelman Stout."
"Rivertowne decided to host a superhero costume contest that night (Saturday)," McDevitt says. "There will be lots of guys in town for the Comicon -- so there should be no problem getting costumed crazies into the bar that night."
If there's competition for craft brewers, it's against the big, mass-produced beer companies.
According to industry trade group the Brewers Association, the overall U.S. beer market dropped by one percent in 2011. Craft beer, however, grew by 13 percent in volume, and 15 percent by retail sales.
"Once people start liking craft beer, they don't really go back to Big Beer," Dilla says. "It's not just beer with flavor -- it's a whole different industry. I just think they're whole different worlds. I think it's a shame that they're all lumped together."
Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week Events
There are simply too many events during Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week, April 20 to 28, to list, with more (dozens and dozens) being added every day. To keep up with what's going on, see www.pittsburghcraftbeerweek.com. Here are just a few highlights:
• 7 a.m.: "Beer: It's What's For Breakfast." With Penn Brewery at Jack's Bar, 1117 E. Carson St., South Side. 412-431-3644
• 4:20 p.m.: "The Headkeeper Tapas Bar: All Saints & Helltown Tap Takeover." Local breweries featured; "Saints and Sinners welcomed," costumes encouraged. 618 South Main St., Greensburg. 724-838-7439
• 6 p.m.: "5th Annual Fathead's Brewer's Ball VIP Session." Enjoy beers, food pairings and talk with the brewers, with live auctions and entertainment. $65-$95, benefits the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. I.B.E.W. #5 Circuit Center Ballroom, South Side. 412-321-4422
• 1 p.m.: "Sour & Funky Craft Beer Tasting." Flemish sours, wild ales, Berliner weissen and more. $45. House of 1000 Beers, 357 Freeport St., New Kensington. 724-337-7666
• 5 p.m.: "Hough's Copper Kettle & Church Brew Works 'Brew With the Brewer.' " Featuring a pig roast, outdoor party and brewing with Steve Sloan from Church Brew Works. Hough's, 563 Greenfield Ave., Greenfield. 412-586-5944
• 5 p.m.: "World War of Beer." Penn Brewery vs. Spaten, Franziskaner vs. Penn Wheat and more, plus a deck party. Sharp Edge Creekhouse, 288 W. Steuben St., Crafton. 412-922-8118
• 9 p.m.: "Rivertowne Pour House & New Dimension Comics." Coinciding with the Pittsburgh Comicon, featuring Pittsburgh Steelman, plus a superhero costume contest. Rivertowne Pour House, 312 Center Rd., Monroeville. 412-372-8199
• 4 p.m.: "Biking and Brewing with the Swords of the Kegasus." A bike ride celebrating the debut of a podcast about drinking beer, Dungeons & Dragons, video games, science fiction and brewing beer, with a homebrewing/bottling demonstration at the BeerHive, 2117 Penn Ave., Strip District. $10 suggested donation. Starts at Schenley Plaza, Oakland.
• 4 p.m.: "Sam Adams Fight Night." Try 20 different rare Sam Adams single batch beers with Sam Adams' brewer, Bob Cannon. Hough's, 563 Greenfield Ave., Greenfield. 412-586-5944
• 7 p.m. Monday: "Brewniversity's Gender Studies 423: Women and Craft Beer." Discussion featuring local women in the craft beer industry, plus palate education using "the beer wheel." $25, benefits Operation Walk Pittsburgh. Bocktown Beer & Grill, Beaver Valley Mall, Monaca. 724-728-7200
• 6 p.m. Tuesday: "Vegebeerian Night at Piper's Pub." Session Ales, East End drafts, vegetarian food. Piper's Pub, 1828 E. Carson St., South Side. 412-381-3977
• 6 p.m. Tuesday: "Troegs Beer Dinner." $55. Sharp Edge Bistro, 922 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-338-2437
• 4 p.m. Wednesday: "Penn Brewery Grand Slam on Federal Street." Meet a Penn Brewery brewer and sample their beers. Hall of Fame Club, PNC Park, North Side
• 5 p.m. Wednesday: "East End Brewing and T.R.A.S.H. Tapping." Featuring the Three Rivers Association for Serious Homebrewers' winner. East End Brewing Co., 6923 Susquehanna St., Homewood. 412-537-2337