Sometimes local brewers invent flavors out of thin air
There's local, and then there's local.
And many Western Pennsylvania microbrewers are going to extremes in producing beers that are as local as they come.
They grow their own hops and barleys, then haul spent grains to local farmers who feed them to livestock. One brewery recently pulled a key ingredient out of their walls. Another discovered a unique yeast strain floating in the air in and around his brewery.
In short, when it comes to producing a beer that is distinctly Western Pennsylvania, a certain amount of artistry is required.
“Brewers and artists are one in the same,” says Dennis Hock, founder of Draai Laag Brewing Co. in Millvale. “The only difference is that my canvas is in that glass.”
Start with Hock, who literally pulled what he believes is the most important ingredient of any beer — the yeast — straight from the Millvale air.
Founded in 2009, Draai Laag brews wild beers, in which nontraditional yeasts are introduced in a variety of ways. In Hock's case, he used an open fermentation method for the first year he was in business, meaning that instead of sealing off the beer from the outside world, he opened it up and invited in natural, airborn yeasts.
“You just see what happens,” Hock says. “And then you either embrace what you have, or you eradicate everything and get the hell out.”
Hock embraced it. And it paid off.
He and his team of brewers quickly noted a distinct yeast strain that constantly showed up in his beers, a collection of big, Belgian-style ales. (Note: Try the St. Agnus, a dark, powerful and smooth ale that hits the palate with a combination of clove and cinnamon, then departs with a subtle orange-peel tone.) Hock collected the yeast, cultivated it and named it Wild Angels.
The result is several delicious and utterly exceptional beers that can be brewed only in Millvale.
“It's a whole new strain,” Hock says. “It's not only unique to Millvale, it's unique to anything I've ever tasted.”
A hundred miles north, the brewers at Sprague Farm and Brew Works in Venango mix scientific technique with an artist's flair in brewing beers entirely from ingredients grown in Western Pennsylvania.
The High Pa pale ale and Lover's Lager contain hops grown on the Sprague Farm and barley grown on a nearby farm.
“There's definitely a distinct flavor — a little more grassy taste, a greener taste,” brewmaster Ira Gerhart said. “When we started brewing it, it was a lot rawer and coarser. Then I started playing with the process, changing the mash temps and boil times — really trying to get a full body and roundness. Now, it's nice and smooth. You can taste the different flavors for sure.”
It's a beer everyone can feel good about, owner Brian Sprague says.
Customers appreciate that the beer and brewing process are environmentally sustainable. So do the brewers, but Sprague has the additional benefit of having greater control over his ingredients even when market whims — like the ongoing hop shortage — make finding quality ingredients a challenge.
“I understand trying to make less of an impact on the planet,” Sprague said. “I set out with that vision in mind. When we started the brewery, we had this farm, and I thought, ‘We have to grow everything we can and make the beers with what we've grown right here.' We wanted to make it a real farm brewery.”
They did just that. Many other local breweries do the same, even in urban settings. Hop Farm Brewing Co. in Lawrenceville, for instance, grows hops organically and adds them to every batch they brew.
Sometimes, however, ingredients show up in the strangest places.
In May, workers replacing a brick wall at Penn Brewery in Troy Hill uncovered a massive, 5-foot-long honey beehive. A beekeeping expert relocated the hive's 50,000 bees. Brewmaster Andy Rich then borrowed a press from Arsenal Cider House in Lawrenceville, squeezed out 10 pounds of honey and added it to a seasonal summer ale.
“It's cool to be able reclaim that honey,” Rich said as staff kegged the Bee Too Summer Ale. “It probably won't last long.”
Most of the beer was shipped to the local B2 group of restaurants. The brewery held onto a couple kegs, but Rich was right: They didn't last long. Two weeks after kegging, they were already out.
No worries. Rich — and others in Western Pennsylvania — will undoubtedly find new and unique local twists in time for next summer.
Chris Togneri once brewed an Irish Red with water from a friend's spring in Perry Hilltop. Now that's local! He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.