Pittsburgh: A Steeltown With Better Beer

The comparisons between Pittsburgh and Hamilton are pretty remarkable. Not only are the towns known for their steel, but both cities have also had to deal with the decline of that industry. Steel is evident in the architecture of the city, both in old and new buildings. The current emphasis for both cities is on urban regrowth, bringing people and stores back into downtown areas that are often only half-full. They are both working class cities and we all know how much the working class loves its beer. But in Pittsburgh it’s not just all about Coors Light and Bud (though there is a lot of that) – craft beer has a strong handle on the city thanks to a couple of microbreweries in the city.

One great example of urban restoration is the Church Brew Works, located inside a formerly vacant church. It is common now for churches to be repurposed into condos The fermenters are located in the altar and the religious art has been given an uplift, with cherubs now holding pints of beers (surprisingly there isn’t a monk in sight). The booths for some tables are the old pews. The size of the brewpub was astounding and probably seats a couple of hundred people quite comfortably.

The food is fairly standard pub food with the usual Pittsburgh twists (fries in salads and sandwiches). They had traditional pierogies, a staple in the city, but the crocodile and cactus version were more enticing. The three beers ordered for my table were all seasonal selections. The Renegade Black IPA was decent, but closer to a robust porter than black IPA. The Llama Lager was brewed with quinoa and had a slightly nutty edge. It was perfectly serviceable as a nice lager for crisp fall days. The Four Grain Harvest Ale was probably the best of the three, with the fresh grains and hops giving a nice green and earthy depth to the beer. Nothing outstanding, but Church Brew Works is still a must-go place for beer tourists for the unique setting.

The other big brewery in Pittsburgh is East End, which operates strictly as a brewery with kegs/growlers to go. The friends we were staying with had picked up a couple of growlers for our arrival and these obviously did not last the weekend. The Snow Melt is their winter seasonal, an American strong ale that doesn’t fit neatly in one style. Lots of toasted grains with a slightly roasted body, soapy berries leading to a hoppy finish – essentially a bunch of flavours that didn’t completely jive. The other was the BlackberRye Ale, one of their fruit beers made with rye. Rye beers have never been to my taste and this was no exception. The blackberry was very discreet in the flavour, which let the rye be a little overly pronounced. I also sampled their Big Hop IPA, which was a well done American IPA – lots of pine, moderate bitterness, little malts.

In terms of beer bars, there are four Sharp Edge bars around town that cater to American and Belgian beer lovers. We were at the aptly named Beer Emporium location with about forty taps, including one tap stand that was only American IPAs. One cask beer was available, the Victory Hop Devil, with a lot of Belgian taps/bottles, plus a nice collection of bottles from England and Germany. The atmosphere was lacking, but this was the sort of bar where you forgive the decor because of the excellent beers (like my pint of Bells Two Hearted Ale).

One really surprising trend that I noticed was that many bars would have neon signs for crappy brands (Coors Light, Bud) beside more notable craft beer producers (Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams, Brooklyn). Clearly the market for mass produced lagers is still big in Pittsburgh, but most bars are also catering to more discerning beer drinkers. The people like to support their local breweries, which should help craft beer grow in the city.

Pittsburgh is a city filled with oddities (like the Pittsburgh left) and still trying to figure out its place in contemporary America. But it offers hope for all cities that have lost a lot of manufacturing or production jobs. It is surprisingly close to southern Ontario (five and a half hour drive from Toronto), making it a nice trip for beer drinkers looking to go a little further than Buffalo.


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