First Draft: Pittsburghers can relax: The mayor is fixed
I didn't say anything at the time.
It was October 2013 when then-councilman Bill Peduto had agreed to meet me for an interview at his favorite bar, Cappy's Cafe in Shadyside. I was writing a profile of the next mayor of Pittsburgh — Peduto had won the Democratic primary, making the actual election a mere formality in a city that simply does not elect Republican mayors. We sat at the bar for about two hours as Peduto opened up about his upbringing in Scott, his somewhat nomadic post-college years, the death of his older brother and his start in politics.
About an hour in, he asked the bartender for his regular order: a shot and a beer.
The shot was Maker's Mark bourbon. A fine selection.
But the beer? Miller Lite.
And that simply would not do.
Look, this is not an assault on Miller Lite or any other mass-produced beer. If you prefer light American lagers, that's fine. Who am I to judge?
But something about William Mark Peduto drinking Miller Lite offends. This is the mayor of the next great American city, a proud native of Western Pennsylvania, an impassioned champion of all things Pittsburgh.
So ... Miller Lite?
“I used to be a Rolling Rock man,” Peduto recently explained. “Then they moved to New Jersey, and I stopped drinking it. I started trying other beers and I just kind of fell into Miller Lite.”
Fair enough. And truth be told, Peduto has done a lot during his short tenure. At public events like his recent Christmas party, he served not Miller Lite, but East End Brewery (prompting the Larimer brewer to tweet: “Gotta love a mayor whose beer order requires a fork lift.”). He's put in miles of new bike lanes. He recently doled out tens of thousands of donated money to hard-working city employees on “Undercover Boss.” And, he shows up for work every day, a task his predecessor never seemed to view as, you know, an actual job requirement.
Then again: He drinks Miller Lite.
Something had to be done.
I called Pete Kurzweg, owner of the Independent Brewing Co. in Squirrel Hill, and told him I needed to “fix the mayor.”
“I've been trying to fix Bill's beer taste for years,” Kurzweg said. “Let's do it.”
We settled on a roster of six breweries within city limits. We picked the beers. Then we pitched the mayor: Come to the Independent and let us show you the error of your ways.
Peduto entered the bar at 9 p.m. Monday, as scheduled. A nice couple vacated their seats at the packed bar, and we bellied up.
First up: Penn Pilsner from Penn Brewery in Troy Hill.
Kurzweg poured sample-sizes of both the Miller Lite (which I smuggled into the bar) and Penn Pilsner. Peduto noted the difference in color — the clear gold of Penn versus the cloudy yellow of Miller— then sipped.
“Tastes good,” said Peduto, a fan of Penn Brewery for more than decade.
This is a beer right in the mayor's wheelhouse: clean, crisp and distinctly not over the top. Peduto is not a fan of the types of beers often associated with craft brewers — big, rich, often hoppy and spicy ales. Rather, he enjoys the no-nonsense pilsners of Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
“I don't like beer to be overtaken with spices and hops,” he said. “I've had IPAs that have given me heartburn. I like beer; I don't like the taste of beer to be overpowered.”
OK then, Mr. Mayor, now try a sip of that Miller Lite.
“Obviously a more-watered down taste,” he said.
Indeed. Moving on.
Next up: Church Brew Works' Pious Monk Dunkel, a dark lager commonly brewed in Munich.
Peduto's eyes lit up.
“Whenever I get a variety pack from Church Brew Works , this is the first to go from my fridge,” he said. “Definitely molasses-like. Might be too rich for a day-to-day beer, but definitely full-flavored.”
The third beer was a gamble: Small Crop Session IPA by Hop Farm Brewery in Lawrenceville.
In agreeing to let us fix him, Peduto specifically requested no hoppy beers. Kurzweg overruled the mayor, certain this IPA would win him over. Why? Because while the hop aroma is strong, the body is clean and crisp. And it's a session IPA, so the alcohol content is lower.
Unconvinced, Peduto raised his glass, took a deep sniff, then sipped.
“Tastes like grapefruit,” he said. He drank again. “I never would have thought that a beer with other flavors, a heavier type beer, could also taste lighter. This is a pleasant surprise.”
And how's that Miller Lite tasting now, Mr. Mayor?
“Less and less like beer,” he said (and by George, I think he's getting it!).
Next, an English mild by Roundabout Brewery in Lawrenceville.
Turns out, this is not his style. That's not a mark against Roundabout, which brews some of the finest beers in the state, let alone the city. But it was a miss on our part, a bad style recommendation. So we moved on.
Co-Star Brewery , in Highland Park, makes one of my favorite beers: a strong, malty doppelbock that finishes with subtle hints of chocolate.
Peduto was leery. He had not dabbled much in the dark-beer world since a brief tangle with Beck's Dark in the 1990s. But he gamely raised his glass and sipped.
His eyes widened. His head tilted thoughtfully to the side. He took another sip.
“This doppelbock has that same flavor (of a dark) but in a lighter way,” he said. “It just has a full taste to it. This is another big surprise. This could end up in my fridge.”
As it should, Mr. Mayor. As it should.
The final act: East End's Homewood Reserve, a lovely, ephemeral punch to the face. Homewood Reserve is a stout that is aged in bourbon barrels for eight or nine months. This is a special beer: strong, made in limited runs and hard to find.
Peduto lifted the glass, then stopped. The bourbon aroma hit his nose even a foot away.
“It's sweet,” he said after a tentative sip. “My usual go-to at the end of the night is a Maker's Mark, but this would be nice, too.”
Despite this beer's boldness, he liked it. “I had that sip a minute ago, and I can still taste it,” he said with a smile.
Care for another sip of that Miller Lite?
He did not.
“I was never really one who got fully into the microbrews and everything else,” Peduto said at the end of our session. “I was simply a Rolling Rock drinker, a little bit of Beck's, and then I settled on Miller Lite. But I have a lot to choose from. If anything from tonight, I've learned that my thoughts of what I didn't like in a beer was really just (based on) ignorance of what's out there.”
Kurzweg and I poured a glass of the Homewood Reserve and smiled, our mission accomplished.
“I look back to when I was in my 20s, and there was nothing like this,” he said. “Even five years ago, there was only a small fraction of what we have now, but it's taken a hold in Pittsburgh. ... This is a city that has always been a craftsmen's city, and they're bringing back a history that goes back to the 18th century.”
Full disclosure: We did not completely fix the mayor, as he said he will continue drinking Miller Lite from time to time.
“However,” he said, “there's more than one color in the Crayola box and there's certainly a wide variety that I can choose from now in Pittsburgh.”
So rest assured, Pittsburgh: The future of the next great American city will not be forged by a mayor who drinks Miller Lite.
At least, not as much as he used to.
Chris Togneri would make a terrible mayor but a wonderful ambassador of Western Pennsylvania craft brew. Or king. Either one. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ChrisTogneri.