In Pittsburgh, Beer Fuels a Steel City Renaissance

July 26, 2018

By Mike Greger, July 26, 2018

Everyone is telling me Pittsburgh is having a “moment.” But what the hell does that mean? It’s a worn-out and tired term that doesn’t fully tell the tale of this blue-collar town nestled in the majestic Appalachian Mountains. Instead of a moment, I believe the Steel City is finally telling her story, on her own terms. There is a new sense of Pennsylvania pride, where sourcing local ingredients and giving back to the old neighborhood has become almost as important as rooting on the Steelers, and beer is at the forefront.

Interest in Pittsburgh brewing reached fever pitch in 2016, after plans to build a 50,000-square-foot National Beer Museum were announced. In August, the city is hosting the nation’s first Black Beer Festival. Yes, Pittsburgh is much more than steel and sports.

As I prepare to make my first visit to Pittsburgh in seven years, I jot down a loose itinerary on a piece of paper—and then crumble it up and throw it in the trash. The best trips can’t be mapped out. They must be experienced. The two most hyped breweries in town—Dancing Gnome and Brew Gentlemen—have been open for less than five years. Fourteen short miles separate the two hop factories and I plan on exploring every nook and cranny in between them.

Day 1

Dancing Gnome

I have stalked the Instagram of this two-year-old brewery every day for nearly a year, drooling over owner and brewmaster Andrew Witchey’s “Jam” series of New England IPAs. My adrenaline is pumping as we park not too far from a food truck hawking mac and cheese. The décor at Dancing Gnome is minimalistic: White subway tiles and Edison bulbs light up eight glistening taps. I order Better One Or Two, an imperial IPA, clocking in at 8% ABV—and Etch, a Key lime IPA brewed with Sauvignon Blanc juice. They go down way too easy—creamy and smooth, not bitter at all. I turn to my girlfriend, Kristin, for a reaction: “Totally worth the five-hour drive.”

Dancing Gnome is very much a destination brewery—an asylum for hop heads—where you are bound to encounter bearded men sharing rare cans. The brewery’s own prized cans sit out on display, illuminated on wooden book shelves amid wild plants and space figurines, with celestial names such as Infinite Highway, Nobody’s Robot, Lustra, Punchlion and Beyond Infinity. A guy at the end of the bar takes me through their whole IPA portfolio and we debate the merits of our favorite hop varieties.  

Not wanting to leave without trying a style other than IPA, I ask for Sua Da. It’s a sweet milk stout that serves as a tribute to the Vietnamese iced coffee drinks found in many Pho restaurants. They brew this little stout—registering at just 4.8% ABV—with lactose sugar and conditioned it atop 20 pounds of locally-roasted coffee. Remember: Pennsylvania Pride starts with sourcing locally. The beer is equal parts sweet and roasty, ideal for taking to the beach with a banh mi sandwich. I agree with Kristin: Totally worth the $35 in tolls.  My only complaint is that they don’t devote more taps to stouts.

Dancing Gnome

Hitchhiker Brewing

Located about a keg’s throw from Dancing Gnome is Hitchhiker Brewing and their new 15-barrel brewhouse and taproom. With my taste buds delightfully unhinged from the juice bombs down the road, I gravitate toward A Different Animal, a kettle sour that tastes like the unknowing offspring of a gose and kolsch. Kristin opts for Bane of Existence, an IPA disguised as a tropical fruit smoothie, generously hopped with Citra, Motueka and Simcoe. A man named Doug is seated next to us and appears to be talking about a jilted ex-lover when I overhear him tell the bartender that Flyers fans suck. “When was the last time the Flyers won the Stanley Cup? 1975?,” he asks. I start chuckling and confess my Flyers fandom, and we agree they are in a serious drought.

The topic soon turns to the revitalization happening here in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania. Doug lives a few doors down from Hitchhiker, and he tells us the town has been encouraging businesses to utilize local entrepreneurs. The 35-foot-long steel bar we are sitting at was made by a neighborhood blacksmith and the brewery’s 100-year-old façade once housed old Fort Pitt Brewing. It’s reminiscent of what is going on in my Philly stomping grounds, in the Brewerytown section of the city.

I reach for a new beer: Cococino, a thick porter brewed with coconut, coffee, cacao nibs and vanilla beans. I don’t taste much coconut, but the lingering sweetness brings back fond childhood memories of eating raisins in the sun.

Brew Gentlemen

The thing about Brew Gentlemen is that it may be too cool for its own good. Situated in a run-down steel town, it feels like the sort of place Billy Joel might sing about. Or Wiz Khalifa, depending on the time of day. We drive past a few haggard “yinzers” looking to score their next fix and a gaggle of hipsters looking to find the next great IPA. Truth is, you may find both here in this sleepy Allegheny County hamlet now on the upswing thanks to a progressive mayor who believes in The Braddock Promise.

When we pull up, the scene is buzzing and there is a food truck serving up hefty Greek gyros. Inside, couples are watching the Pirates and guzzling hazy IPAs out of stemmed glassware, while children and dogs patrol the hard cedar floors. There is something elegant about the space and the beer, and knowledgeable bartenders echo that refined sentiment by wearing collared shirts.

A mural outside the brewery advertises their flagship beer, General Braddock’s IPA, so I begin there. First sip is smooth and tropical, with notes of mango, melon and citrus, followed by subtle pine. I could drink this all day. Next up, Kabuto, a dank and resinous DIPA featuring the hop formerly known as Equinox. It tastes like adult orange juice. Feeling a need to challenge my taste buds, I move on to Mexican Coffee, a complex stout that delivers a bouquet of vanilla, cinnamon, chocolate and coffee. It’s dessert in a glass.

Brew Gentlemen

Sharp Edge Bistro

Eric at Hitchhiker had relayed a story about partying with the legendary Belgian Beer Whisperer of Philadelphia, and so I hurry over to Sharp Edge Bistro on Penn Avenue. The atmosphere here is Belgian kitsch—sprawling Formica bar, dimly lit tables, high arches and columns, with 35 taps and over 200 bottles. It reminds me of the old Cheeky Monk Beer Café in Denver. Their Belgian-inspired “Over the Edge” IPA, a house beer brewed by Brouwerji Van Steenberge, hits the spot and pairs beautifully with the “Mussels from Brussels.”

In addition to their expansive Belgian beer list, Sharp Edge deftly pays homage to Pennsylvania beers, devoting at least five taps to local beer at all times. I was stoked about seeing two tasty beers from opposite sides of the state: Neshaminy Creek’s Croydon Cream Ale and North Country’s Paleo IPA.

Day 2

Pamela’s Diner

Barack Obama—then-candidate, not President—helped put Pamela’s Diner on the national map in 2008 when wife—and future First Lady—Michelle took a genuine liking to their airy hot cakes. Since then,Pam Cohen—owner of the greasy spoon in the Strip District—has been invited to griddle up her crepe-style pancakes at the White House for them on two separate occasions.

But as the word “pan” is leaving my lips, our server interrupts and suggests trying the “Pittsburgh Hash” instead. Pittsburgh Hash features Lyonnaise potatoes mixed with kielbasa and sauerkraut, topped with Swiss cheese, two eggs “any style” and toast. This hangover-friendly wrecking ball of a dish is the dietary equivalent of a Terrible Towel, soaking up all that double dry-hopped goodness from the night before. It ends up being the best decision of my weekend.

East End Brewing

East End Brewing

We are at East End’s Taproom in the Strip District, located seven miles from the original brewery in a former nightclub space. Opened in 2016, there is no working kitchen and guests are encouraged to bring in food from the robust market outside where places like Colangelo’s, Pennsylvania Macaroni Company and S&D Polish Deli are considered institutions. East End has managed to stay true to what they do, while acknowledging trends in a rapidly growing beer scene. Take Big Hop, for example. Our bartender, Chris—a Flyers fan from West Deptford, NJ— informs me that Big Hop was rebranded as an “American Ale” to reflect what is going on in the IPA category. “We don’t want people expecting a juice bomb,” he says. To that end, they have created Bigger Hop—a juicy DIPA loaded with Simcoe and Amarillo.

I can almost hear house music blaring as I order a flight: Bigger Hop, Wheat Hop, Pedal Pale Ale and Moonstomp. The latter is a funky collaboration with Harrisburg’s Pizza Boy and the refreshing Berliner Weisse is my favorite sip—admittedly, it is before noon. Chris and I are lamenting the plight of Samuel Morin, a highly-skilled-yet-injury-prone Flyers prospect, when a Philadelphia Eagles chant breaks out. Turns out, the young couple to our left are from Philly and I join the chorus while adjusting the brim on my Super Bowl champions hat. Meanwhile, the father-son tandem on our right -- two proud Steelers fans and East End regulars -- wryly roll their eyes.

The BeerHive

A bright neon flashing Yards Brewing draws me to The BeerHive, a 12-tap throwback in the Strip District. Yards may have pulled me in, but I’m on a quest for Western Pennsylvania beer.  As I peruse the draft board, there is a solid mix of Pennsylvania craft and established national brands, as evidenced by a Dogfish Head 120 Minute tapping happening in a few weeks. A staff member assures me that Pittsburgh-area breweries are often invited in for tap takeover events.  

It’s common to find Pennsylvania breweries like Levity, Noble Stein, Spoonwood and Rusty Rail are on the taps at The BeerHive. Looking for a suitable thirst quencher, I spy a shiny pounder can in the fridge from Butler Brew Works labeled G.P. Ale. The beer is crisp and slightly bitter, like your run-of-the-mill pale ale, and pairs surprisingly well with a deep-fried gherkin from Pittsburgh Pickle Company. Rumor has it that regulars sometimes sit at the bar and chomp down a whole jar.

Primanti Bros.

Church Brew Works

There is much debate about The Church Brew Works in beer circles. Some I encountered during this trip tell me not to waste my time because the “liquid isn’t that great.” Others, including trusted beer writer friends, tell me it’s a must. Conflicting reports summon my curiosity. Besides, I had recently met founder and owner Sean Casey at a beer meeting and made a mental note to visit.  

I’m awe struck upon entering this painstakingly restored church, which was shuttered by the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 1993 and reimagined as a brewery in 1996. The scene is stunning, with old church pews doubling as seats and a metallic brewhouse occupying the altar. If your eyes catch the light just right, bouncing off the stained glass, you’ll swear there is a brewer giving a benediction. There should be.

I sit at one of the pews – yes, they are originals – and peruse one of the most thoughtful brewery menus around. For dinner, you can splurge on Iowa Fresh Filet Mignon, farm-raised beef from Establishment 8 Angus in Iowa, or Lamb Tikka Masala. I order a heaping plate of pierogies and wash them down with a pint of Pittsburgh Post Grisette (journalistic puns are not above me). Not to worry, there are plenty of punny religious-themed beers: Pipe Organ Pale Ale, Celestial Gold, Heavenly Hefeweizen and Pious Monk Dubbel, which earned a silver medal at the 2012 Great American Beer Festival.

Primanti Bros.

Like Michael Corleone, I keep getting pulled back to Pittsburgh mainstay Primanti Bros. What more can be said about their “Almost Famous” sandwiches stuffed with French fries and coleslaw? The Primanti empire is up to 34 stores, including multiple in the greater Pittsburgh area and beyond. Since I had been to their original Strip District location seven years ago, I decide to test their consistency and type “Primanti Brothers” into the GPS. It lands on their Greensburg, Pennsylvania store, located 35 miles away from downtown Pittsburgh.

This Primanti Brothers was a cross between a Roseanne episode and a scene from “Over the Top”—the 1987 movie about arm wrestling starring Sylvester Stallone. I took a seat at an empty bar and was offered a Miller Lite, on special all day for $2.95. I ordered a capicola-and-cheese sandwich and scanned the draft board, desperately hoping for a hoppy craft elixir amid the American domestics. Like an Eagles fan in Pittsburgh, I see it: Troegs Perpetual, hopped with Bravo, Chinook and Mt. Hood. Two minutes later, a pathetic sandwich was plopped down in front of me.

The coleslaw lacked zing and Primanti’s trademark “fresh-cut fries” were soggy shells of the ones I remembered. Kristin and I decided the beer gods were telling us something: It was time to end our cross-state adventure. Before we do, we order two fresh pints of Yuengling Lager because that’s what you do in Pennsylvania. And there is something nostalgic about it, even if they do use corn in the recipe.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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