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Crafting a better beer: Drink local, Pittsburgh

The years of domestic lagers overshadowing the market are past, and the new beers in town—crafted by several small breweries in the area—now are the choice of beer connoisseurs in the region.

Led by East End Brewing Company, a Homewood craft brewery, this group of craft breweries offers a variety of seasonal and regularly available brews which those with discriminating palates will even drive across town to buy. People like Bellevue resident Eli Zlokas, who often makes a weekend trip to East End Brewing to pick up a half-gallon growler bottle or two of freshly brewed beer, see the value in these locally made beverages. He brings the bag of hard pretzels often sitting at the brewery’s Growler Room bar on weekends.

Zlokas, like nearly all of East End Brewing’s fans, enjoys the best-selling Big Hop IPA, a hoppy India Pale Ale made from Centennial and Cascade hops. Available in many bars around town, it could be the most popular of all of the beers made by these craft breweries. East End Brewing also offers Monkey Boy, a tasty hefweizen with a crisp finish. The brewery’s Black Strap Stout, a strong stout brewed with Black Strap Molasses and brown sugar, has dark chocolate and black coffee notes and a good bit more kick than a Guinness or Murphy’s Stout.

East End Brewing’s other popular beers include Fat Gary, a sweet brown ale, and Smokestack Heritage Porter. One of the brewery’s more popular seasonal beers is Snow Melt Winter Ale, a malty tasting, ruby-red, lightly spiced dark ale. East End Brewing, along with North Versailles-based Full Pint Brewing Company, Monroeville’s Rivertowne Brewing Company, Lawrenceville’s Church Brew Works and Penn Brewery in the North Side offer a variety of beers enjoyable for every beer drinker’s taste.

Founded by a group of brew pub brewers, North Versailles-based Full Pint Brewing Company began selling beer two years ago and has grown steadily. The owners bring their experience in the industry to the task of creating some of Pittsburgh’s best known craft beers. It’s most popular brew is Tri-PA, an American double Imperial India Pale Ale.

Because it is an owner-operated brewery, Full Pint Brewing takes more chances in creating its products than larger, more traditional brewers, co-owner Barrett Goddard said. “Our Belgian white beer has a lot more to it than others. Our pilsner also has a ton of flavor for a golden lager,” he said.

In addition to its White Lightning Wit, a Belgian-style Witbier, some of Full Pint’s more popular brews include All in Amber, a medium body American Amber/Red Ale; Perc E Bust, a dark chocolate flavor American porter; and Chinookie IPA.

In Murrysville, Rivertowne Brewing’s Rivertowne Pour House offers a several lagers, ales, Belgian whites, stouts, the much-loved Old Wylie’s India Pale Ale and several fruity beers that will tickle the palate.

“People are starting to realize they’re allowed to like a lot of options and flavors of beers. Craft brewing now is accepted as the norm,” Rivertowne head brewer Andrew Maxwell said. “Everybody likes beer, sometimes they just don’t know it until they find the flavor they like. We have a pineapple beer that people who say they don’t really like beer enjoy.”

Lawrenceville’s Church Brew Works is in the former St. John the Baptist Church along Liberty Avenue, and is known for its German-style beers. In recent years, it has changed with the times and now crafts IPAs and other more trendy flavors. The brewery is known for its popular Dunkel beer, as well as its Belgian whites and IPAs, brewery manager Steve Sloan said.
“We’re revamping our pale ale to make it hoppier. We’re doing some experimental stuff,” Sloan said.

Housed in the historic Eberhardt & Ober brewery building in the North Side’s Deutschtown section, the oldest of the city’s craft brewers is Penn Brewery, which creates traditional German lagers and pilsners. Penn’s beers offer a wide appeal, especially for older drinkers who are more familiar with regular domestic lagers, or even for younger ones who like fruity beers, assistant brewer Dave Cerminara said.

The brewery’s top-selling Penn Pilsner is a light German pilsner that’s a fixture in many bars in the region. Penn’s springtime seasonal Weizen is a traditional-style, unfiltered wheat beer and also quite popular. Its Kaiser Pils is a surprisingly refreshing pilsner, has grown in popularity so much that it’s now available in bottles.

“It’s just really crisp and light—a little bit hoppier than a traditional pilsner,” Cerminaro said of Kaiser Pils.   

Perhaps some of the most ineffable things about these craft breweries are the almost home-like warmth they provide for their patrons. At East End Brewing on a recent evening, Zlokas sipped a sample of Big Hop while munching on hard pretzels. Chatting with brewer Brendan Benson, Zlokas seemed as comfortable in the back room brew house portion of the brewery as he might be in his own living-room.

“It’s an honest beer—no formaldehyde, no ether. The right people make the right beer,” Zlokas said. “This place is the American Dream—you’ve got to support an operation like this.”
Captions: Matthew Moninger, Justin Vitale, Stephen O'Neill, Steve Sloan, at the Church Brew Works; Scott Smith at East End Brewery; Jake Kristophel and Barrett Goddard at Full Pint.

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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