It’s the last Underwear Ride of the year in Pittsburgh, and the atypically warm weather has given way to more seasonal temperatures here in Pittsburgh. That results in significantly less skin, turning the occasionally risqué monthly ride into something more resembling a pajama- and Halloween-costume-ride.
Organizer Scott Kowalski, for instance, is dressed as Eeyore. There’s a Spiderman in the group, a tiger, a woman wrapped in crime tape (for some reason), and the Bumblebee Girl from the old Blind Melon album cover. Also in the crowd, which has gathered after sunset in an unlit parklet in the city’s Lawrenceville neighborhood, are skeletons, reindeer, witches, and a woman on a unicycle dressed as Miley Cyrus. (Her boombox plays “Wrecking Ball” on an endless loop. Which is … you know.)
“Hello Pittsburgh Undie Riders!” Kowalski shouts. The or so 50 cyclists respond by ringing their bicycle bells.
Then they’re off, overtaking busy Butler Street at 8:35 p.m. on Oct. 26. They ride a couple miles to the Downtown Cultural District, turn around and return to Lawrenceville to a local bar which – naturally – has a long list of craft beers on tap.
Herein lies the untold story of Pittsburgh’s transformation from fading steel town to thriving tech/education/healthcare hub: The story of how the emergence of craft beer and cycling has run parallel to – intersected, even – the rise of the city itself.
“It’s the rebirth of cities,” said Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, a progressive Democrat who upended the establishment in 2013 by winning the Dem primary without the party’s nomination.
“The American dream used to be the single-family home in suburbia,” Peduto continued. “We made that our priority by building highways to get people to those homes farther and farther out. That was America from 1945 to 2000. But since then, people have had an American dream – especially those under 40 – of living in a city. With that comes access to the amenities they seek. Those that want to live in a city want bike lanes, they want access to quality craft beers. Those options become part of the urban lifestyle.”
Ten years ago, Pittsburgh’s cycling and craft beer communities were virtually non-existent.
Today, they’re flourishing.
Under Peduto, the city has installed miles of bike lanes, often over the very vocal objections of non-cycling residents. And throughout western Pennsylvania, new breweries open on a nearly weekly basis while existing breweries expand. Ask anyone involved with either community and they’ll tell you the two are inextricably connected. If you’re a fan of craft beer or cycling in Pittsburgh, chances are you’re a fan of both.
“Culturally, at their cores, cycling and craft beer are about sharing an experience together,” said Mike Carroll, Director of Events at BikePGH, a Pittsburgh biking advocacy group. “They’re not about the consumption process, but more about the social environment in which you’re consuming.”
Carroll traced the connection between beers and bikes to the west coast circa 1980. That’s when and where mountain biking became a thing, at the same time that the original craft breweries – including Sierra Nevada in Chico, California – began building a devoted following. Those connections run deep today, Carroll said, noting that New Belgium’s signature beer is Fat Tire, which has a red bicycle on its label, and Oskar Blues Brewery spawned REEB, a specialty line of mountain bikes.
“Beer and cycling have a long history together,” agreed Scott Smith, owner and founder of East End Brewery in the Larimer neighborhood, who was one of the first here to merge his love of bikes and beer. Smith opened East End in 2004. Two years later, he started the Pedal Pale Ale Ride, an annual event in the last week of April in which Smith and others tow kegs of beer, tap them, and drink at the end of the ride. East End raises thousands of dollars for charities through the ride every year. The first ride benefitted BikePGH.
“Someone who rides a bicycle sees the world differently, more intimately, than someone who drives a car,” said Smith. “There’s an amount of local awareness that comes with it – you know your community better. And so you also want to know the people growing your food, brewing your beer.”
Eugene Mangrum, food and beverage director at Pittsburgh’s oldest craft brewery – Penn Brewery, in the city’s Troy Hill neighborhood, just across a highway from the old Heinz factory – often commutes 14 miles to work by bike from his South Hills home. He said the two pursuits are “definitely linked.”
“When you ride, you earn beers – real beers,” he said. “I can’t tell you last time I saw anyone in the cycling world drinking a macro-beer. You just don’t see it.”
In short, bikes and beers are helping drive the city forward, despite pushback.
Mayor Peduto joked that opposition to bike lanes is “universal,” then stuck a serious chord in noting that city cyclists are often viewed as “bourgeois.” Craft beer drinkers know the feeling – note Big Beer’s infamous Super Bowl ads in 2015 and 2016, which painted craft drinkers as fancy folks who “fuss over” their beers rather than just drink them.
Back at the Underwear Ride, Eustace Albin acknowledges that the city’s cycling and craft beer communities have a bit of “snobbiness” to them. Albin and his roommate, Thomas Bricker – who dressed as Andre The Giant in a black unitard – live across the Allegheny River in Millvale, home of Grist House, one of the most celebrated craft brewers in the state.
“Not to say we’re bad people,” Albin says, “but there’s definitely a sense of, ‘Oh, I’m drinking Grist House Hazedelic (Juice Grenade New England IPA) and you’re drinking … Coors Light?’
“But both communities are pretty welcoming to people who want to get involved,” Bricker says.
“Yeah,” Albin says, “like, I’ll tell you why I’m riding a Colnago and why you need to get off your Huffy.”
Bricker looks at his bike: It’s a Huffy.
“Come on, man,” he says.
“There’s a certain enthusiasm,” he says, “that goes with both groups.”
Just tap after tap of the Pittsburgh region’s finest craft beer.”
Three Breweries (& a Bar) to visit in Pittsburgh
East End Brewery
Opened in 2004, East End is one of the city’s oldest and most identifiable craft breweries. Owner and founder Scott Smith is an engineer by trade who worked in Chicago, Lynchburg, Virginia, and San Francisco and Berkeley in California before returning to his hometown to open the brewery. East End has two taprooms, one in the eastern neighborhood of Larimer, and one that opened last summer in the city’s historic Strip District. Big Hop American IPA is the signature beer here; Snowmelt Winter Ale is special – a big, roasty, dark winter warmer brewed with Simcoe and Nugget hops that checks in at a 7% alcohol by volume.
In the Troy Hill neighborhood less than two miles from Downtown, Penn Brewery first opened in 1986, making it Pittsburgh’s oldest craft brewery. Penn differs from other craft breweries in that its flagship beers are all German-style lagers, including Kaiser Pils, a cult hit for years that was deemed too hoppy by previous owners and never given a label. But the brewers loved it, so they kept making it for themselves, and to sell to members of the "Kaiser Club" out the backdoor. Kaiser finally got its label in 2008, and promptly won gold in the German Pils category at the Great American Beer Festival.
Under head brewer Nich Rosich, Penn has expanded its beer menu to include dark ales, IPAs, stouts and saisons. Its annual St. Nik’s bock is a Pittsburgh Christmas staple. Penn recently announced plans to open taprooms Downtown and at Pittsburgh International Airport. And they recently discovered a series of ancient lagering caves dug into the hill below and behind the beautiful old brick building, which first housed E&O Brewery in the mid-19th century. Plans are underway to clean and stabilize the caves, then open them to the public.
Ask Pittsburgh brewers to name the best brewer in western Pennsylvania, and the same name always pops up: Steve Sloan of Roundabout Brewery in the city’s Lawrenceville neighborhood. A former semi-pro football player in Germany, Sloan has a masters in chemistry and worked at breweries in New Zealand, California and Hawaii before moving to Pittsburgh to work at Church Brew Works, which in 2012 won a national Best Large Brew Pub award under his leadership.
He and his wife, Dyana Sloan, opened Roundabout in 2014. Everything Sloan brews is incredible, but this holiday season, don’t miss Heini’s Good Cheer, which won the Silver Medal in the Old Ale or Strong Ale category at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival, and the Silver Award in the Old Ale or Strong Ale category at the 2016 World Beer Cup.
Independent Brewing Company
In 2014, brothers Matt and Pete Kurzweg opened the Independent Brewing Company, a name they chose for a reason: The former Independent Brewing Co. was a 19th-century grouping of small local breweries here who found that if they banded together in certain areas, they could buy ingredients at bulk prices while remaining independent.
The Kurzwegs opened the bar in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh with the declaration that they would only serve beer made in western Pennsylvania. There have been a few exceptions – this holiday season, they’re dedicating six taps to European strong ales not usually found in America. Exceptions aside, however, the focus here is squarely on Pittsburgh. No macro-beers. Not even Yuengling, the craft beer king of eastern Pa. Just tap after tap of the Pittsburgh region’s finest craft beer. Also: The food is outstanding.