Tag Archives: Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh Part Two : Churches, Lagers, Ales, and More

We had sampled nearly everything that East End Brewing had to offer over the course of a few hours, and decided it was time for dinner. After some basic Yelping and being unable to find anything that excited us food-wise we decided to  head straight to our next brewery for some grub.

Sometimes I do my drinking in church... well most times.

Church Brew Works is exactly what it sounds like – a former church that has been renovated and converted to a brewery. The building is a bit intimidating when you approach from the front, a large brick building that maintains all of the Christian iconography and decor. Little adjustments have been made here and there, and I have to have respect for a crew that took this place and turned it into my kind of house of worship.

It's the little things.

We made it inside and checked out the main room – it’s expansive as you would expect from a former church, and the layout points all eyes straight toward the brewhouse where the altar used to be. We asked if there was a table for two, but they weren’t sure when one would be available so we grabbed two seats at the bar instead. One wall consists of a long bar and stools, almost from the entrance to the pulpit so we grabbed a seat directly in front of the beer menu and one of the taps.

The handles are appropriately ornate and shiny.

We started off with a plate of fries and asked what the server would recommend we try on the beer list. He told us he liked the Hefeweizen but didn’t really drink much beer, and so would send someone else our way. After a few minutes the other server came by and let us know she would try one of the year-round beers to get an idea of what they usually have on offer. That seemed like a solid idea, and so I went with the Dunkel on tap and our trusty co-pilot ordered their Celestial Gold.

The Church Dunkel was a medium brown color with lots of carbonation and a tremendously sweet nose. The smell hit me from a few feet away and consisted of caramel and sugar. The flavor was pretty cloying, and it was hard for me to finish the pint so we traded halfway through our respective drinks as co-pilot was struggling with hers. Celestial Gold is listed as a pilsener and hits the notes you would expect a noble pils to hit. It’s light and bubbly with maybe a finger of head and a faint aroma of hop. There was a bit of a papery flavor, which I think is what put off my partner, as that is one of her pet peeves we’ve found with lighter beers. I noticed it less, but it did have a metallic aftertaste that I thought was prominent. All in all a solid B- but not something I would seek out on their menu.

There was a layer of glass between us and the tanks, explaining the aliens in the bottom right corner.

For whatever reason the seasonal menu didn’t sound appealing to us, so we decided to go ahead and finish off the year-round menu posted on the wall. I went with their Pipe Organ Pale and she opted for the Millenium Tripel.

Our food arrived a few minutes after our second pint, and so I had a burger to pair with my Pale and she had Pulled Pork with her Tripel. The Pale was a light red, almost copper color with a mild smell of piney hops and a hint of malt sweetness. It was a bit thin on the first sip, though not as thin as other Pales I tried recently so maybe that’s a thing in this area, and I’m overly used to West Coast style full body. Smooth and drinkable through the whole pint, but far from my favorite Pale Ale because of the missing hop flavor and thin body. Living in San Francisco has undoubtedly spoiled me.

Coolest brewery ceiling?

The Tripel was a different story altogether, and unfortunately our least favorite of the night. It’s main discernible smell was acidic and green apple/lemony while the first sip was dominated by a sweetness that overpowered most everything with a still very present acidic quality. Not sure if acetaldehyde was created by overused yeast or we got a strange keg, but something was off. Would like to try this one again if I’m back in Pittsburgh to compare/contrast.

After our meal and pints we were ready to call it a day  of tasting and make our way home to save strength for the following day’s drive. But then we were invited to Penn Brewery by our hosts to grab a beer and chat for a while at their outdoor tables. I have a confession here – Penn Brewery was the only place we had been warned away from in all of Pittsburgh. We were told the beer was awful, the brewery unattractive, and it was located on the wrong side of the tracks. On the other hand, we knew a group of folks who would be drinking there and it was likely we were going to be able to sit outdoors which sounded good considering it was still about 80 degrees at 8 or 9 o’clock at night.

So over a bridge, almost into the wrong lane, around a few corners, and to Penn Brewery we went. I left the camera behind but I’ll break down the brews here.

Kaiser Pils – The first beer on the list was a solid pils, and I preferred it to the one I had at Church Brew Works earlier in the day. Well filtered and with a big noble hop smell I got excited after the first sniff. The flavor was solid and paired nicely with our fried appetizers by being clean and crisp. With no off flavors present I was optimistic moving forward after what I had heard before.

Penn Gold – An awesome Helles-style lager this one would have been my favorite if it weren’t for the next beer we drank. A mildly sweet smell that has a pleasing background hop scent is complimented by a smooth German malt profile and golden straw color. Perfectly balanced and easy drinking.

St. Nikolaus Bock – Somehow there were a few left-over kegs of this elixir at the brewery, and I wasn’t complaining. An excellent doppelbock that pours a medium brown with amber edges and smells divinely of roasty and toasty malts. The main flavors are sweet and malty with a moderate ABV and clean finish that keep it drinkable. I imagine this to be amazing in the winter, and it was damn good in the summer.

Penn Dark – Last but not least the eponymous offering from Penn Brewery is a solid dunkel lager that deliver roasty flavor, smooth mouthfeel, and a clean finish that add up to a quality lager. Easy to drink and fun to drink make for a not to be missed pint, and though I finished here I would recommend it or the Gold as a great jumping off point for the brewery’s other offerings.

As we were packing up we were talking about the brewery, and apparently within the last year they’ve had some shake-ups within the brewing crew, and it seems to have worked out in their favor. The beers coming out of this lager brewery were all solid, and as a fan of the art of lager brewing this was a fantastic stop on our trip. Similarly to L’amere a Boire in Montreal this was a lager brewery our host recommended that stood out immediately because of the brew quality.

So what’s the takeaway? First, go to Pittsburgh – the beer is good and the beer is cheap which makes for fun exploring. Second, no matter what you hear go try things for yourself – allow yourself to be surprised and don’t get cynical. Third, if you’re traveling and you have to sacrifice a few hours of sleep for a few hours of fun you damn well better. There’s no point in taking a once in a lifetime trip and avoiding the once in a lifetime experiences.


Pittsburgh – The city that can’t be punned – Part One

Pittsburgh was a damn good time. We stayed for two days and visited three breweries without missing out on the city or the other bars in the area. One might say we had finally hit our stride on the trip, and were moving quickly enough to make it to each city we wanted and still hit all of the beer spots as well.

The sign outside welcomes you to the premises, along with a small keg on the sidewalk. Easy to miss but worth the search.

Pittsburgh is known for its hard-nosed attitude and strong working class folks. East End Brewing epitomizes that solid working class attitude, churning out quality brews at a rapid pace from Pittsburgh’s self-described micro-est brewhouse. We made it to growler hours to sample their wares and were not disappointed – the list included 8 beers on tap and a few sodas as well. I’ll break them down here along with some photos of the brewery.

The day's pours along with growler prices.


Let’s go in list order, since I lack creative spark.

Big Hop IPA – This is a good beer. The shortness of the previous sentence is intentional because I’m not sure there’s much to say about a solid IPA that hasn’t been said. It’s a nice orange color, smells and tastes strongly of hop, and hits all the notes you want it to. If you like IPAs you’ll like Big Hop – plus the frog is awesome.

Bam! Handle Porn.

Monkey Boy Hefeweizen – This was my favorite East End beer of the tasting, and I drank it first. In all honesty it probably was the combination of a hot day outside and the beer being quite tasty that put it at the top. It was moderately hazy and smelled tremendously of fruit – banana in particular but just very estery. The first sip was immediately refreshing, and the rest of my 6 oz. (guessing) made me forget the long hot drive through PA. That’s the sign of a good brew to me.

Fat Gary’s Brown – The name isn’t necessarily a selling point, but this nut brown ale was mild and smooth with a little extra malt flavor that leaned toward caramel flavor. Reminded me a lot of Downtown Brown from Lost Coast which was a go-to beer when I first moved to San Francisco. Solid B+.

Lots of beer from a little space - it can be done.

Black Strap Stout – Roast. Malt. Black. Coffee. Surprisingly thin. Those were my thoughts in order drinking this one. Second favorite on the list, which surprised me considering the temperature outside. A solid stout taste does it for me and ignores the time or weather apparently. The thinness was actually nice, though I usually like more body, and was surprising considering how dark the beer was in the glass.

Joining the rush of breweries working with wood - me likey.

Best Dressed Chicken – Billed as a bitter this one was a bit hoppy for my expectations. An enjoyable pint though, and and interesting color on the pour. Somewhere between orange and brown but almost red held in front of my phone’s flash. Probably what I would go for if sitting at a bar wanting a middle of the road beer that wasn’t too hoppy, wasn’t too malty, but had good flavors. Unfortunately it’s a rare release under their session label.

Brewery wide angle - From left to right : keg storage, brewhouse, fermenters/brite tanks, pallet storage

Pedal Pale Ale – I’m a whore for anything bike-related, and Pedal Pale fits the bill. A dry, single-hopped pale ale that smells sweet and tastes floral it hit the spot nicely. I still prefer pale ales that toy with the interplay of hops, especially since the malt bills are usually bland, but I would dig one of these after a long ride.

Tartanic 60 Shilling – A mild, low alcohol, brown ale that tastes significant for how little alcohol there is. The malt comes through, though not strongly, and the body is light and crisp for a dark beer. My personal preference in dark beer is for something pushing toward the 4.5% range at minimum for body, but this is a nice sessionable ale (and is brewed under their session label) that would make for a nice 6-pack to watch the game.

Kegs are re-usable, and now the beer filling this one has probably improved.

BlueberRye Ale – I’ve gone ahead and linked to BlackberRye Ale as I couldn’t find the blueberry version. This drank like a light rye ale with a bright pink color. The blueberry is definitely there but more as an accent than a strong flavor. I think using fresh fruit is a great approach, and I’m generally not pleased with syrup beers so this was a pleasant pint in that respect. However, the berry flavor and rye seemed a bit at odds, and I only tried one taster glass worth. That being said, my co-pilot dug it and had a few pours so to each their own.

As we finished our tasting at East End a local guy came in looking to pawn off some chicken wings form a stand he had set up a few blocks away. That kept us in the tasting room even longer, gnawing on wings and drinking an extra pour of our personal choice from the list (Hef for me, Blueberry for her) It was just another little taste of the community in Pittsburgh that supported the local craft scene and it was awesome.

We stood at the counter and drank with a few local business people getting refreshed after a bad day, a local delivery driver, the chicken wing salesman (soda only) and the man behind the bar keeping everyone in good spirits and handling growler fills often. We we energized and ready to make it to our next Pittsburgh stops, Church Brew Works and Penn Brewing. One was old school quality beer, and one was upscale mediocre, but that’s a story for another day.

Heading South to North Country

After an overland journey through the lesser traveled parts of NY state and Pennsylvania we arrived at North Country Brewing, a smallish local pub in the downtown area of Slippery Rock. We sat down at the bar early enough to meet a few regulars and bartenders, who immediately proved to be familial and fun. The vibe of the entire place was country, but with less of a Cracker Barrel interior and more authentically interesting history and décor.

Told you so

The building started life as the county morgue and the staff swear you can see and hear the spirits late at night, particularly in the restrooms that used to house the bodies for preparation. A certificate of haunting lends further credence to the claims, though I’m not completely sold on a group that certifies hauntings. The brewery itself is visible through a plate glass partition in the main entrance hallway, and is of a significant size for the pub. However, in fairness, there are a large number of tables in the restaurant compared to the bar area, and the restaurant was a fixture of the downtown area.

It's a small town, so property is at a premium.

In a small downtown with little to nothing happening while school was out of session, we fit right in at the bar full of folks searching for good beer.  I started slowly enough with Northern Lite, a golden beer with light body and flavor that was recommended for folks who aren’t tremendously adventurous with their beer selection. While it might not have been up my alley, the wisdom behind brewing this kind of ale in an isolated pub like this one is undeniable. If people want to drink something that is light and crisp and you don’t have this type of beer on tap they’ll go across the street where they can find a cheap macro. The right thing to do is brew this type of light beer with proper quality and hope to sway them toward the solid local beers available.

Hopefully one isn't enough, and they gain an adventurous streak after a beer or two!

I want to digress for a minute to rant about why small pubs like this need to invest in their atmosphere and why it matters to me. As a proponent of craft beer in almost every situation I think it helps me make a good case for craft beer when the presentation in a place is spot on. Here at North Country it was obvious that the pub had ceased to be the local spot to drink and had become the go-to for entertainment in this small college town. By offering live music and a solid menu it grew beyond the confines of a local brewery and embodied the town’s spirit. The outside area hosted college age kids who wanted to relax in the sun, and the indoor tables were filled with families celebrating birthdays and a night on the town. The bar held regulars clamoring for specialty brews, and the front door led you directly into the path of the evening’s musical entertainment. This is good for craft beer. This is good for communities. This is good for the business. This is good for people like me who want to prove that craft beer is an awesome influence around North America. /end rant

The aforementioned outdoor area

Back to the beers – I moved down the list with a fair amount of haste and landed on their Firehouse Red. A malty treat after the light beer before it mellowed nicely as it warmed and had just enough balance from hop to dry out the sweet malts. Solidly tasty and gone before I could think about my next drink I asked for a bit of advice. Which beer would they recommend if I wanted to keep it malty? The Breakfast Blend Mild was on offer and hit the spot nicely, another balanced beer with a low enough ABV that it didn’t put me on my ass. The brew poured very light brown, almost the color of light malt syrup, and had that faint waft of candy sweetness that I admire in malty beer. (My milds tend to come out a bit heavy, probably because I let them ferment too long) While my favorite might still be the Ruby Mild from Magnolia on cask this was a tremendous beer to find as I love good milds. I took a few sips of my Co-Pilots pints as well, all tasty but not what I was after at the moment. 

Satisfied with my tasting and ready for a quick nap after a 2 hour drive and only McDonald’s available for lunch we headed over to the local parking lot for a quick snooze. It wouldn’t be long before I would be back on the road again and headed into our next stop… But that’s a story for another day. Good drinking until then.