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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Scream for me, Pittsburgh! - Part II

I was pretty excited on Saturday, which was the day of the Maiden concert. I'm proud to say that I still get excited about going to concerts, even as a middle-aged 45-year-old. I had planned to hit a few breweries in close proximity to the venue, the PPG Paints Arena (where the Penguins play), prior to the show. We'd been trying to meet up with Ron and Jen (some beer friends who happen to be huge Maiden fans) to no avail. Seems as though our itineraries weren't in sync. Nevertheless, Pleeps was ready to get some drinking in because he didn't have a ticket to the show and would therefore be stowed away in Brewslut's backpack for most of the day. 

Pleeps is ready!

We began the day at Cinderlands, a place I'd only just heard about a few weeks prior to our trip as a result of skating around the internet in search of new breweries in the Pittsburgh area. Cinderlands is relatively new (they opened in December 2017) but had already established a well-deserved buzz by the time we visited. I had worked in the original - and much smaller - Lawrenceville taproom as our first stop of the day. 

When we entered, we found a pair of stools at the bar. The place itself is long and narrow, with some tables in the back and the bar up front. It immediately struck me as a cool neighborhood bar. The bartender was friendly and talkative, and was happy to answer all my questions. The beer menu was chock-full of diverse beer styles, and we were eager to dig in. 

Inside Cinderlands' original Lawrenceville taproom.

Beer-wise, there was lots to be had, so we dove right in. I started with When Doves Cry, a Paloma Sour IPA (likely paying homage to the Prince song with which the beer shares its name). This deliciously complex concoction is Cinderlands' adaptation of the beloved Mexican warm-weather cocktail, the Paloma. Bright, citrusy, and tangy, this satisfying beer offers a hint of tequila spice thanks to the addition of agave nectar. Further dry-hopping lends a huge smack of grapefruit in the finish. This one was right up there with Hitchhiker's A Different Animal and was a joy to drink.

Pleeps fit right in at Cinderlands.

Full Squish - Big pineapple aroma followed by juicy tangerine and a dried mango. Pineapple bread on the palate with a big, fluffy mouthfeel and equal parts crisp and round. Hop-saturated finish. Light golden and hazy. This may have been my favorite IPA of the trip. 

Meanwhile, Brewslut was off in tart land enjoying a pair of fruited ales from its "Whipper" series of Berliner Weisse beers. Cherry Lime Whipper blends the pucker of limes with sweet, jammy cherries. Think a refreshing cherry limeade and you get some idea of what this beer is about. 
The other, Passionfruit Dragonfruit Whipper, boasts a super-bright tropical aroma with tangy passionfruit at the forefront. Bracingly tart on the palate, the beer eventually opened up to offer ripe tropical fruit flavors with a hint of grainy sweetness. Yum! 

As we were trying to sync up with Ron, Jen & Co., they mentioned that they had to double-down on some "banana chocolate chip pancake beer" from Cinderlands. Unfortunately, the beer wasn't available at the taproom where we were sitting; it was only available at the "Warehouse" location. Pleeps somehow overheard "banana," and immediately began salivating at the mere mention of this beer. Ugh. I decided to ask the bartender, "How far away is your Warehouse location?" He immediately replied, "Seven blocks." Damn! That's doable, I thought. So after we settled up, we decided to skip on down to the Cinderlands Warehouse location to see what all the fuss was about. Looks like Pleeps would get his way again... as usual! 

Outside Cinderlands Warehouse.

Mural outside Cinderlands Warehouse.

I must admit that I was pretty blown away by this place immediately, especially for a brewery that's only been around for less than two years. Situated in Pittsburgh's Strip District in the old Spaghetti Warehouse, the impressive Cinderlands facility is bright and beautiful with a modern yet minimalist ambiance. The expansive first floor features tons of seating options and a large bar with breathtaking views of the surroundings. The second floor boasted an overlook of the brewhouse and fermentation cellar as well as an additional bar, more seating, and an adjacent rooftop patio. I really wish we could have stayed here longer, because we'd just become fast fans of the beer and I was starting to fall for this place. 

Our view from the bar at Cinderlands Warehouse.

Now, on to the beer. The beer they were raving about is called Pancake Galaxy: Banana Chocolate Chip. A blueberry version also exists but sadly was not available during our visit. I must admit I was a bit skeptical of a "banana" beer because bananas really don't ferment out, and most beers I've had in the past that were brewed with banana didn't really carry through with the flavor. Well folks, this beer is an exception to the rule. Pancake Galaxy boasts big banana and vanilla aromas with a hint of acidity on the palate, then follows through with maple, cocoa, and cinnamon flavors. For an IPA, this sucker is creamy, rich, tangy, and fruity. I must admit I'd never had a beer quite like this before. Not only is this beer creative, it tastes good too. Well played, Cinderlands! 

They had Pleeps at banana!

After enjoying our shared pint of Pancake Galaxy, we were finally able to rendezvous with our fellow Maiden brethren over at Grist House. We'd first visited Grist House back in 2017 during our Easter weekend trip (as recalled in Jammin' in the 'Burgh: Part 1). It was quite a chaotic affair to say the least. This time wasn't much different. One of the newer, trendier breweries in the 'Burgh, Grist House suffers from being located in a small neighborhood area with, shall we say, "challenging" parking. Factor in the brewery's popularity and things can get messy. Nevertheless, I was up for hanging with our friends and talkin' metal for a while. The only thing I like talking about more than beer is music, so when I can combine these two pastimes, it's a win-win for me!

When we arrived, we had to get creative with our parking spot. Being the talented parallel parking champion that I am, I was able to secure an extremely tight spot right around the corner where other parking novices would surely fail. Seriously, I'm the fuckin' man when it comes to parallel parking. As predicted, things were in full swing when we rounded the corner and approached the brewery. The outside courtyard area was booming with food trucks, an outside beer truck, and tons of customers. Grist House is very dog-friendly, too, so there were several furry, four-legged friends mingling with us lesser humans.

We decided to grab our beers at the outside beer trailer since there was virtually no line and we weren't sure if it would be a shit show inside. I think we made the right decision. We found an empty high-top table outside near the entrance, but no sooner did we set our drinks down that I heard, "Ffej!" I looked over to see our friends occupying a table inside near the bar.

After I'd ordered my beer, I quickly realized it's the same beer I had last time we visited. Hazedelic Juice Grenade is a super-hazy NEIPA with creamy notes of orange and mango. I enjoyed this one a bit more than some of the others we'd sampled during this particular trip to the 'Burgh, and I may have even enjoyed this more than the first time. Perhaps it was because of the company and my anticipation for the concert. Either way, it served its purpose. 

Outrun Cowboy - Light bodied and crisp unfiltered pilsner with subtle grassy and citrusy hop flavors. For a brewery that prides itself on hazy IPAs, this was a refreshing change of pace and was definitely above average... certainly better than I was anticipating. Lagers are definitely much more tricky to brew (or at least brew WELL) than ales. At least that's what I've been told. I'm no brewer. I just help market the stuff. But I've been on a lager kick lately so this one went down quickly and effortlessly. 

Up the Irons! \m/

We had time to hit up one final new place before heading to the arena for the concert. Spring Hill looked like a pretty interesting place when I discovered it using BreweryDB. Surrounded by beautiful scenery and foliage, the small brewery is located inside of the WBU Event Venue building, which sits on top of Spring Hill with the city skyline as an amazing backdrop. The owner happened to be tending bar during our visit, and it was nice to chat with him about brewing, his beers and what influenced him to start a brewery. 

Spring Hill seems to have carved out a niche in creating lower ABV "table" beers in the vein of rustic farmhouse saisons, balanced pale ales, and delicate sours. I must admit that it's a nice change of pace from seeing eight beers on the board and five of them are hazy IPAs.  

Table beers abound at Spring Hill.

After a quick perusal, I settled on a beer called Afternoon. Touted as the brewery's flagship hoppy saison and described as an "all day crusher," this flavorful ale weighs in at only 4.5% ABV and boasts notes of grapefruit and peach with a crisp malt backbone. This one was quite enjoyable. Brewslut opted for Chimney Swift, a "Red Sumerian" sour ale spiced with orange peel and coriander. This was equally as refreshing. 

I'm a waxing gibbous kind of guy.

This place also gets bonus points for playing "Starbreaker," a deep cut from Judas Priest's 1977 album, Sin After Sin. That definitely got me riled up right before leaving for the Maiden concert!

So, it was off to the concert...

What's there to say about the Maiden show? Of course it was awesome! That goes without saying. We had pit tickets (yes there are still a few bands out there that I still get so excited to see in concert and I'll stand in line for 4 hours to get a good spot on the floor) and ended up dead center about 6 or 7 rows back. Sadly, I didn't have any beer once inside the venue because I didn't want to lose my spot. That meant no bathroom breaks, trips to the merch table, etc. We were on our feet from about 4:30 p.m. to close to midnight, when we finally returned to our car parked a few blocks from the arena. Sounds like a lot for an old man, right? Yeah, maybe. But Maiden is worth it.


On Sunday morning, we checked out of our hotel. With sore muscles, hoarse throat and a kick in my neck from the inevitable headbanging at the concert, we lumbered to the CRV to head to the metropolis of Braddock for another visit to perennial favorite, Brew Gentlemen. The town of Braddock seems to be on the up-swing since our last visit. You may recall my previous descriptions of the town (i.e. "the saddest, most depressed town I've ever visited," a "ghost town" and "I felt like I was trapped in a weird episode of the original Twilight Zone.") These are not exaggerations. To put it in perspective, Braddock makes Camden look like a nice place to live.

This time, however, there appeared to be a glimmer of hope as a bit of gentrification was starting to rear its head. Some people frown on this phenomenon, saying it ruins a town's character. In this case, Braddock is in dire need of some cosmetic surgery. It was nice to see rows of brand new townhouses being constructed just across the street from Brew Gentlemen when we arrived. This is certainly a step in the right direction for this dying town. And there were actual stores on the main street. That were open for business. With customers inside! What a novel idea.

After our visit to Spring Hill, I was still kind of in the mood for a "table beer." Turns out Brew Gentlemen has one available amid their roster of delicate hoppy ales. Named simply Table Beer, this light-bodied yet complex ale is an interpretation of a Belgian tafelbier. Traditionally served to accompany meals, this delicate saison is aged for several months in oak foeders with a house yeast culture and then naturally conditioned in the bottle. A little fruity and a tad sour, this light, refreshing beer also had just a touch of funk for complexity. All around, it's a nicely done beer.

Of course, I eventually needed to quench my thirst for hops. Enter Interstellar, a pale ale hopped with Moteuka and Galaxy. This one certainly did the trick and I was pleased with the blend of citrusy and tropical notes of lemon zest and passionfruit.

Pleeps fits right in!

On the way home, we jumped off the turnpike for a quick visit to Olde Bedford Brewing. I must admit, I didn't have very high expectations for this place. I'm not sure why, but for some reason I was just planning to cross this place off the list and move along. The web site seemed outdated and nothing on the beer list screamed "must-go." After a few sips of our beers, we were pleasantly surprised!

Pleeps is always monkeying around!

Nestled in the rolling hill country of central PA, lies the town of Bedford. Its beauty is only matched by its historical significance to our country. Among the trout streams, wildlife and farmland lies the Hideaway Ranch, the home of Olde Bedford Brewing. Our beers are crafted with spring water and often hops grown on our own Hideaway Ranch, in the mountains of Bedford County. As we create new brews, we will surprise your taste buds with unique and delicious flavors along with traditional brews we are sure you will love. We are currently building our new brewery in Downtown Bedford, where we can embrace the History of “Olde Bedford” while making it close and convenient to the public.

Off the beaten path: Olde Bedford Brewing

I decided to stray off the usual path and order a beer called Arancia Rosa [sic]. Arancia Rossa (actually has a double "s") translates from Italian to "red orange," hence the name of this saison brewed with blood oranges. Dry and peppery with a prevalent orange rind tartness and juicy pulp character, this one was pretty enjoyable overall.

Although I enjoyed my beer just fine, Brewslut was the winner with her pour of Jungle Love Espresso Porter. Essentially a variation of its Olde World Porter, this beer is infused with lactose and "Jungle Love" espresso from HeBrews Coffee Company. Creamy, slightly roasty, and certainly coffee-forward with a balanced sweet cream component, this beer was definitely a hit and much better than I was anticipating from this small brewery. Nicely done, Olde Bedford!

Barstool or unicycle?

We still had yet to visit Molly Pitcher's new location. The Carlisle brewery had been around for a few years, and I'll admit I wasn't instantly sold on its beers the first time we visited. I'd heard great things about the new tasting room from several reputable beer friends, so we decided to swing by Carlisle on the way home since it had been a while.

We arrived around dinner time, and it was pretty packed. We managed to secure two seats at the bar, which is always our preferred seating arrangements. Turns out some time away can be a good thing, because Molly Pitcher had its A-game out in full force.

Tap handles at Molly Pitcher.

The two beers we ordered - Turncoat Golden Stout and Zero Cool Brut IPA - were fantastic. The former, a twist on a traditional American Stout, is aged on cocoa nibs and whole coffee beans to add an abundance of chocolate and coffee flavors. And did I mention this is a golden stout? It's definitely a style that has been picking up steam, and I'm really digging these lately. This one was very well-done and enjoyable to drink.

Brewslut's Zero Cool Brut IPA was even better. Dubbed a "zero IBU" beer, this Brut IPA wasn't super dry but had a hefty yet smooth mouthfeel and tons of citrusy hop flavor akin to pineapple and peach. I haven't come across too many Brut IPAs that have wowed me, but this one is probably at the top of the list. I tried to sneak in a few more sips here and there, but the wife was on to me.

I'm glad to see that Molly Picther has really stepped it up since our last visit, which I'm sad to say was in August 2015... almost four years ago to the day! The beers were top-notch and we'll definitely be back sooner than another four years. Plus the new space is warm and inviting. Cheers, Molly Pitcher!

Pleeps and his new buddy, Burple.

I'll admit that one of the other reasons I wanted to swing through Carlisle on the way home was because - in addition to checking out Molly Pitcher's new digs - I'd heard of a new brewery called Burd's Nest that had been open for a year or so. So to paraphrase Ricky, "It's like getting two birds stoned at once."

Since this place was new to us, we decided to test the waters and share a flight of four beers. Here's the skinny:
  • River Burd Bender - collaboration with River Bend. Blonde ale incorporating cashmere hops and finished with key lime.
  • Citra Pale Ale - hazy, citrus-forward American Pale Ale.
  • Golden Tail - golden IPA with pine and citrus notes.
  • Sapsucker IPA - super sweet IPA that had just gone on tap. 
Hmmmm. I'm sorry to report that all of these were a chore to drink. Even sharing 5-ounce pours of each with Brewslut was difficult to swallow.

Inside Burd's Nest.

Look. I get that you want to open your own brewery. It's the dream of any serious homebrewer stuck in a shitty office job that makes you want to stab yourself in the forehead with an icepick. I get it. But PLEASE... do everyone a favor and learn how to brew beer before you open for business. I equate it to playing a gig as a guitarist before learning a single chord. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt if I have one of four beers in a flight that are infected or possess undesirable off-flavors. But all of them?! Seriously, if you can't taste a beer and know it isn't suitable for human consumption, then you probably shouldn't be brewing. I know it isn't easy. But every beer in this sampler flight was flawed and undrinkable. I get that ingredients are expensive and dumping a batch of beer can be a huge loss to a small nanobrewery. But your reputation is on the line. There are so many breweries right now, you can literally walk down the street to the next place. I hate to throw breweries under the bus - I mean, I want to like all of them... who wouldn't? - but sometimes someone has to step up and offer some constructive criticism. It isn't going to be the guy sitting at the bar with his toddler who's chatting to the bartender about the trials and tribulations of life as a Millennial. He's just out to enjoy an evening away from his monotonous life and maybe fill his bloodstream with some alcohol so he can forget about how hard it is to be a parent for a while. In my eyes, breweries have a one-shot deal to win over customers. These days, when I get burned I may never return to a brewery simply because there are limitless options available. It's probably one of the reasons why I drive 75 minutes to Selin's Grove on a regular basis. You know why? Because they know what they're doing. Even worse is when you return to a brewery after a year or two only to find that they still haven't figured it out. Ugh. Unfortunately, this is something we grapple with on a regular basis since we visit so many breweries. Bottom line: Work out all the kinks before you open your doors. Banking on the "drink local" slogan will carry you only so far. Eventually, people will figure it out. Please allow me to offer some constructive criticism. Read this article about common off-flavors found in beer and familiarize yourself with all of them. Enjoying a particular beer style may be subjective to a drinker's tastes or palate, but there's simply no excuse for an entire roster of flawed beers. *steps off soapbox*

Babies at bars. Pumped breast milk, anyone?

Sometimes it has to be done. I don't like doing it, but people need to learn there is so much more to opening a legitimate brewery aside from, "I homebrewed for two years... how hard can it be?" Please do us all a favor and don't open a brewery just because it's "the cool thing to do." Learn your craft first, not as you go. With that said, I wish the very best for Burd's Nest and hope they can figure everything out. Perhaps someday we'll stop back in to see if things have improved.

Pleeps still had a good time... as always!

I couldn't end such a great trip on a down note, so we headed over to Pizza Boy to meet up with a few friends and enjoy one last beer before heading home. Turns out they now have an end-of-night "pizza clearance" where you can pick any slice out of the display for only $1.50 during the final hour they're open. Score! 

There's always a ton of new beer on at Pizza Boy every time we visit. I got the scoop from a few of the workers, so I opted for Hunny Money, an IPA brewed with lots of wheat and Canadian honey malt. Heavily dry-hopped with Citra, Amarillo and Falconer's Flight, this beer elicits flavors of orange blossom honey, apricot, and citrus fruit. I was happy with my decision. We stayed until close to closing time and stuck a fork in another well-executed Pour Travelers adventure. 

It was great to get back out to Pittsburgh after almost two-and-a-half years to check out some new breweries and revisit some old familiar favorites. I'm glad we made an extra-long weekend out of it. All-in-all, it was a great beer-drenched weekend with a healthy dose of metal for good measure. Until next time... scream for me, Pittsburgh!!!

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Scream for me, Pittsburgh! - Part I

Since Pittsburgh is almost four hours away from little old Annville, a trip usually warrants at least a 3-day weekend. With the recent influx of new breweries since our last full-on brewery crawl in the 'Burgh, we decided to make it 3-and-a-half days. Brewslut was required to be at school for some curriculum writing (yawn!) but was able to skedaddle due to a power outage, so we got to embark on our trip around 2 p.m. on Thursday afternoon. This would definitely put us well ahead of schedule on our agenda, which included visits to four different breweries before retiring to our hotel in the Greentree area. Oh, did I mention that the impetus of the trip was once again to witness the mighty Iron Maiden live in concert? It's not the first time beer and Maiden have intersected with our travels; you may remember two summers ago we traveled to Bristow, VA to see the band on its Book of Souls World Tour (as recounted in Scream for me, Virginia... and you too Maryland!). This time around, we enjoyed some extra down-time to cruise around the greater Pittsburgh area and soak in all that the Steel City has to offer. 

As per our typical modus operandi, we headed straight to a brewery rather than check into our hotel. I decided to hit the brewery furthest away from our hotel and work our way back down. That brewery is one of the 'Burgh's most talked-about: Dancing Gnome. The last time we visited, we landed at Dancing Gnome at the end of the night, so it was a bit of a blur, I'm afraid. We enjoyed a pair of beers and some grub from a food truck, but otherwise the memory of our visit is a pretty hazy one (no pun intended).

Before we get into the beer, I'd like to throw out a quick side note. Shortly after we parked at the bar, someone came in and asked if anyone drove an (insert make and model of a car here). Apparently, some patrons' car was sideswiped by a bus right outside the brewery. Oops. Turns out the unfortunate couple was sitting a few stools down at the bar, and the woman responded with, "Are you kidding me? Jesus Fucking Christ!" This offended someone else at the bar, and I just had to chuckle. I remarked to Brewslut that "at least she got his middle name right" and that J.F.C. is easily my favorite compound vulgarity. You get the power and shock value of "fuck" with a little bit of blasphemy thrown in for good measure. It's a win-win. 

Anyway, on our way in, I was excited to see the Pittsburgh Tortas food truck parked outside. We'd enjoyed its food at Brew Gentlemen on one or two occasions, and it was dinner time, so we each ordered a tasty chicken and smashed black bean torta with some kind of flavorful slaw that tied it all together. 

OK, let's get back to beer. I perused the beer menu (a back-lit screen right in front of my face, as it would happen), and immediately a beer called Lull jumped out. Why did it jump out, you ask? Well, the beer is a pale ale hopped exclusively with Nelson Sauvin hops. Always a favorite of mine, these New Zealand-grown hops boast a dominant white grape flavor with delicate berry-infused tropical fruit undertones. Think of a semi-sweet white wine like Riesling and you can get an idea of its flavor character. This beer definitely had some Nelson qualities, but it tasted slightly undone in that I also picked up on some vegetal qualities and a hint of grassiness. 

Pleeps is READY!

While sitting at the bar, we had a fun conversation with a guy about Neil Peart. I overheard him make the claim that "you can't call it bluegrass if it has drums!" I snidely remarked, "I knew there was a reason I don't like bluegrass." Of course, I don't dislike bluegrass; in fact I kind of dig it. Would I want to sit at a festival and listen to it all day? That's an easy NO WAY. But a few songs in a set? OK. Bluegrass musicians are usually pretty legit pickers. At any rate, he also made the comment that "you can't have Neil Peart [mispronounced his name, of course] up there playing all that..." and he then went into an air drum orgasm of tom fills that made me chuckle. I responded, "now you're speaking my language... and, by the way, it's PEART [pronounced correctly, like PEERT]." We then went into a fun conversation about how difficult it is to play Neil's drum parts. I mean, if anyone knows this first-hand, it's me. 

Pleeps gettin' a piece of  my torta and a sip of Citra Jam.

I followed up Lull with the slightly more upbeat Citra Jam. A variation on its IPA Jam, this one is brewed with rye and heavily dry hopped with - you guessed it! - Citra. I preferred this one a bit over the Lull, but it still had a slightly chalky texture with that same grassiness I experienced with Lull. 

We were familiar with our next stop, Strange Roots, in that it had recently changed its moniker from Draai Laag. You might remember that we'd named Draai Laag one of our Top 10 new breweries visited in 2017. Frankly, I was mesmerized by the place. Everything about Draai Laag was spot-on, from the ambiance of the space to the unique beers and elevated experience. The brewery excelled in crafting complex sours, wild ales and barrel-aged beers.

New name, same place.

With Strange Roots, its taproom remains at the same location as our previous visit back when they were still called Draai Laag. While they still seem to brew some pretty out-there stuff, they've streamlined a bit and now offer a lot more - let's call them "safe" - beers as not to alienate any newbies that may wander in for a cold one. I must admit that I was kind of bummed when I discovered this, as I felt they'd carved out a unique niche in a market saturated by hazy IPAs. I will admit, however, that Strange Roots is more memorable - and easier to pronounce - than Draai Laag.

Beer selection at Strange Roots.

With that said, I honed in on an intriguing beer named Lemon Tea Off, a wild ale fermented on lemon peel and black tea. The beer itself is a fairly dry, peppery rustic ale with earthy tea notes and a spritz of citrus by way of fresh lemon zest. This one came across as a saison and proved a pleasant deviation from the one-two punch of haze at Dancing Gnome. 

Backtracking a bit to when we arrived, a guy (whose name we soon discovered was Spencer) was in the process of setting up for Bingo. Apparently, Strange Roots hosts a Bingo Night each and every Thursday evening to entertain the throngs of beer drinkers. Bingo is kind of underrated in that it can be extremely competitive. The game is heightened because you can't see any of the other participants' cards. I love me a good game of Bingo, and turns out we won a few matches. Brewslut won some sweet gardening gloves and a Strange Roots sticker, while I scored a free sandwich (which I cashed in on immediately... a PB&J with Gouda sandwich). I liked it; Brewslut, not so much. I ended up winning another sandwich, but I gave it to a table of locals who hadn't won a round yet. They were happy campers. I suspect that bought me a bit of good karma to burn. 

Pleeps gettin' in on some Bingo action!

After getting tea-bagged I craved some hops, so I opted for a pour of Swamp Whale, a Double IPA hopped with Citra and Mosaic. Overall, it was very similar to the IPAs we experienced at Dancing Gnome. Not to say it was bad or off-putting, but the Bingo was keeping me a bit more interested.

When I went up to the bar to pick up my sandwich, I noticed there were some specialty bottles available for on-premise consumption. One piqued my interest, and the price was reasonable. So, we decided to try one of these more experimental beers since the brewery as Draai Laag had a proven track record.
The bottle in question was a beer called Grand Blü, a collaboration with the popular local restaurant and taproom, House of 1,000 Beers. The beer itself is a wild ale fermented with peaches and "roqueforti," the organism used to make blue cheese. Now this is the kind of beer Draai Laag was once known for brewing. While it didn't knock my socks off, it boasted a pleasant sweet-tart peach punch with some pretty funky, slightly cheesy (in a good way) notes and ample carbonation. It's refreshing to see that Strange Roots continue to brew off-kilter beers like this. Grand Blü was probably my favorite of the beers we tried during this particular visit. 

Pleeps getting Blü with us.

Although we felt like we still had a few rounds of Bingo left in us, it was time to wrap up our visit at Strange Roots and head on over to nearby Roundabout. We'd first visited Roundabout shortly after the brewery opened its doors to the public back in 2013 or thereabouts. Methinks it was right around the time when my blogging motivation was slipping and I soon sank into a 2+ year hiatus. The last time we visited, we enjoyed two of the best beers of our trip in Cadwallader IPA and "And Now Pitching" Gose.

When we arrived this time, the tasting room was pretty barren save for a table of four ladies and a few employees who had just finished their shift. Roundabout also seems to have a small patio area where three additional people were relaxing when we arrived. Otherwise, it was a pretty quiet visit. Beer-wise, I settled on Pacific Sky, an IPA hopped with Nelson Sauvin, Citra and Mosaic - a few of my favorites! Featuring hints of pine needles and light citrus and tropical fruit, this one was a bit too subtle for me. Meanwhile, Brewslut worked on a pour of Barrel Jump, a collaboration with PearlArts Studio, a Pittsburgh-based multimedia dance company. I knew she would order this because it's a Berliner Weisse (her favorite beer style) and happened to feature pineapple and passionfruit. Yes, it was a no-brainer for her.

Pleeps preparing for his Barrel Jump!

We chatted for the employees for a hot minute about our past visits and talked some shop, but it turned out to be a one-and-done stop for us. Since we got a head start on the day, we had plenty of time for one final brewery before retiring to our hotel for the evening.

Our last stop of the day was a new-to-use brewery called 11th Hour. In contrast to Roundabout, things were spinning in high gear when we arrived at 11th Hour. The densely populated tasting room may have had something to do with the fact that about two dozen local bocce ball league - let's call them "athletes" - had congregated there, possibly after a league game or tournament. How did we deduce this? Well, a bunch of them were wearing identical T-shirts and Brewslut noticed they were part of a bocce ball league uniform. So we kicked back with the "athletes" and enjoy a pair of final beers before retiring to the hotel for the evening.

After settling in and taking a moment to peruse the beer list, I decided to go with a Southern hemisphere-inspired IPA called Indigenous Species. Hopped with tropical heavy-hitters Galaxy, Motueka and Enigma, this combo resonated with hints of pineapple, ripe mango, passionfruit and peach. Overall, it was a juicy, dank affair that I enjoyed quite a bit. A good first impression, indeed.

Pleeps meets the indigenous species at 11th Hour.

While I got to know the Indigenous Species, Brewslut worked on her pour of Apollo, another Fresh Fest collaboration, this one with Warcloud Brewing based out of California. Hopped with Lemondrop and Citra, this beer boasts a prominent lemon character. Flaked and malted wheat combined with lactose and vanilla soften the sharp edges, but the addition of fresh lemon juice adds a touch of pucker, giving the beer a lemony cake-like finish. There's no bread, lemony cake! My Rush friends will get that joke.

It's always 11 o'clock at 11th Hour.

Overall, I was pretty impressed with this place. The fact that the spacious tasting room was full of happy customers on a Friday night is a good sign they're doing something right.


We kicked off Friday at Insurrection Ale Works, a place we'd first checked out back in April 2017. I actually hadn't heard of it when we visited originally, but somehow we stumbled on the place at the end of the night. A happy accident, indeed! Although we've encountered numerous breweries with names featuring the "-tion" prefix, this one is easy for me to remember because of the Star Trek: The Next Generation movie of the same name. Bonus points! I recalled really enjoying its IPAs, two of which were named after Phish songs: Split Open & Melt and Weekapaug Groove. More bonus points!

Since I dabbled exclusively in IPAs the last time around, I decided to try something different on for size during this visit. I started with Keep Summer Safe, described as a "rustic American ale." Featuring a malt bill of barley, wheat and oats, this aromatic ale's ingredient list also includes organic Peruvian ginger root and lemon zest. With the addition of Citra lupulin powder, it made for a pretty pungent nose. Ginger and lemon zest are both strong flavors that can dominate a beer, but this one was tempered by the Citra character. I will say that a bit more ginger shone through compared to the lemon zest, but overall it was a nicely balanced beer.

Pleeps does what he can to keep summer safe.

Meanwhile, Brewslut tackled the evocatively named Do Rhinos Run from Thunder? Yes, the beer is named a question. This double oat cream DIPA is brewed with lots of stuff to soften the mouthfeel: malted oats, flaked oats, oat milk and lactose. Hopped and double dry-hopped with Citra and Mosaic, then fermented with a house yeast strain, this hefty DIPA was chewy and boasted plenty of tropical fruit and some ripe melon notes.

Since we were here, we closed out our visit with Optical Hopsation, a spelt DIPA brewed in collaboration with Golden Sky Media for Fresh Fest, the nation's first Black beer festival.

Oh yeah! Remember my buddy from last time? You know, the dwarf I dubbed Calvin? Well, he was camped out in his favorite corner again. He even remembered me. OK, I think he remembered Pleeps. After all, he is the memorable one of the group.

Remember this little guy? Yup... It's Calvin!

Every trip to Pittsburgh wouldn't be complete without a stop at East End, one of the town's "old guard" breweries. As it would happen, we were also on a mission to pick up a 4-pack of the recently released Almost Famous Pickle Beer, a collaboration between East End and famed sandwich restaurant chain, Primanti Brothers. Wait... did you say pickle beer? Why yes, in fact, I did. It's a real thing. See?

You got your pickles in my beer!

We changed up our itinerary to arrive a few minutes prior to the tasting room opening so we could hang with Scott (owner) and Brendan (brewer) for a bit, who were just ending their brewing shift. As always, its a pleasure to chat for a while, and they always take very good care of us.

We had a few samples of some beers before diving into the pickle beer. First up was Smokestack Heritage Porter on nitro. At one time, this beer had been ranked the #1 Smoked Beer in the world on Beer Advocate. The beer has also become a staple of East End's popular Festival of Darkness.

A new beer, Peach Gose, was up next. Enough said! Peaches? Check. Gose. Check. This beer was light, crisp and refreshing with ample peachy goodness... certainly enough to please this lover of all things Prunus persica. One of these days, I'm movin' to the country.

Pleeps in the midst of it all!

Meanwhile, East End recently partnered with Larder of East End to offer casual, counter-service pub fare by chef Justin Severino. I was thrilled to see that the menu includes lots of vegetarian options. In speaking with Scott for a bit, I learned that he'd been a vegetarian for many years. He was happy to hear of our pro-veggie endeavors, even though I haven't made the full plunge (I still eat chicken and fish). Call it Ffejetarianism, if you will. We ordered two small plates to share: Smoked Pickled Beets with goat cheese, maple-dijon, sesame, and cilantro; and Falafel with cucumber yogurt and pickled radish. The food was fantastic and served as a nice afternoon snack since we typically skip lunch in lieu of a big breakfast.

Inside East End's Julius St. brewpub.

Up next was the Almost Famous Pickle Beer. I must admit I was a bit skeptical of this one initially. I mean, I've had some cucumber beers in the past, but most were farmhouse-style ales with complex yeast or other ingredients like melon to contrast the cool, green vegetal qualities of cucumbers. But straight up pickles? Hmmmm. The base beer is a tart Gose brewed with over 600 lbs. of cucumbers along with coriander and dill. To quote the beer's description: "It's designed to deliver everything you'd expect from a Primanti Bros. pickle - except maybe the crunch." Turns out this beer was a hit - both with Brewslut and I as well as East End's customer base. Scott said it was "by far" the fastest-selling beer they'd ever released... and that's saying a lot, because East End has been around since 2004! I guess folks from Pittsburgh love their pickles. Whodathunk a pickle beer would become a huge hit? Not this guy! I will say that one of the reasons why I never got super into drinking beer with meals is because often times I'll order a sandwich, which comes with a pickle. Have you ever tried drinking an IPA or a stout while munching on a pickle spear? It's neither fun nor funny. This beer is the perfect accompaniment to a deli sandwich with a side of po-sal and a pickle.

East End's bar.

We ended our visit with full pours of the Peach Gose and Almost Famous, courtesy of Brendan. I reciprocated by sharing a bottle of Apricot Farmette, one of our Splinter Series beers at Troegs. Gotta share the wealth when traveling! After an enjoyable visit to East End, it was time to move on.

Just downstream from East End is a newer place called Couch, which is an apt name for a brewery this cozy. Immediately, the tasting room reminded me of Weasel Boy with its vintage furniture, mish-mash of string lights and little trinkets placed strategically around the space. Even the barstools were vintage and transported me back to the 70s (even though I wasn't old enough to drink back then, obviously). We arrived during Happy Hour, which was a pleasant surprise. Any time we can save a few bucks is certainly appreciated.

Bar area at Couch Brewery.

We kicked off our visit with a pair of (although unbeknownst to us at the time) beers featuring juniper. I opted for Gimlet Pale Ale brewed with juniper berries and lime. While this beer featured some traces of light pine and citrus fruit, the flavor was dominated by gin botanicals. Overall, the flavor was a bit jumbled in my opinion. Brewslut wasn't jazzed with it, either, so I drank the lion's share of this one.

Meanwhile, she went all OG on dat ass with the Snoop D-O-double-G-inspired Gin & Juice IPA, yet another Fresh Fest collaboration with Straight to the League, a comedy-based podcast. This beer also featured hints of juniper and orange and was similar to Gimlet but had a bit more of balanced hop flavor. Neither of us were wowed by our beers, but we were having a nice conversation with the bartender and a local patron, so we decided to split one final beer in attempt to get sucked into the Couch vortex, because I really wanted to love this place.

Pleeps getting cozy at Couch.

First off, what an awesome name for a beer from a brewery called Couch: Ottoman Empire. Score! When I saw the name of the beer, I immediately thought of the round, cushiony feet-propper-upper piece of furniture, not the state that controlled much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia and North Africa between the 14th and early 20th centuries. To be honest, I didn't think that both things were spelled identically. Thanks, Wikipedia! I owe you two bucks. The beer itself - a DIPA hopped with four different (unfortunately unknown) varieties - didn't do a whole lot for my tastebuds. It was kind of citrusy but muted for a big 9.2% ABV beer with 111 IBUs. With that said, it was probably my favorite of the three we sampled while visiting Couch. They get an A for ambiance but a C for beer, I'm afraid. With that said, I'd definitely be interested in swinging by again during our next visit to see what's brewing at Couch.

The last time we visited Hitchhiker was when we spent a quick weekend in Pittsburgh last July for a Solar Federation gig. Everything we had we enjoyed quite a bit. This time, there was an equal amount of interesting, hopefully delicious beer available for consumption. The one I wanted to drive into my gullet pronto was a beer called Next to Norman, a sour ale with coffee and blueberries. I thought to myself for a moment and tried to recall if I'd ever had a sour beer brewed with coffee. I was pretty sure the anwer was "nope," so even more reason to try this odd concoction. Brewed with oats and conditioned on blueberries and Ethiopian Yigacheffe beans from 19 Coffee Company (a roaster based out of nearby Washington, PA), this beer was complex and delicious.

Brewslut also scored with her selection, Whole Punch: Lemon Meringue Pie. Last time we visited, we tried Whole Punch: Tangerine, which was delicious. This lemon meringue pie version was off-the-charts good. Whole Punch (I love the double entendre, by the way) is the name of a series of milkshake IPAs from Hitchhiker brewed with milk sugar, vanilla and a variety of other adjuncts. They have variations including Fruit Punch, Key Lime, Pineapple Upside Down Cake, and many others. This delicious beer features a base beer with oats and wheat as well as Citra and Amarillo hops. To elicit lemon meringue pie, the beer is conditioned on lemon juice, lemon zest, graham crackers, milk sugar, and vanilla beans. In a word, this beer was outstanding.

Both of these beers were stellar and among the most memorable of the trip. We also grabbed some tasty tacos from the on-site food vendor. Sadly, they had just sold out of the shrimp tacos, so I was forced to downgrade to chicken. Still, these hit the spot and added a bit of fuel to our tanks. Beer notwithstanding, this particular visit was heightened by a group of people we met while trying to find somewhere to sit. The place was packed inside and out, so we eventually made it outside. While I was scanning the perimeter for open seating, I came across this little cutie:

Daisy, my new best buddy!

Daisy is a sweet 11-year-old basset hound we met during our visit. A few of the breweries are dog-friendly, and Hitchhiker happens to be one of them. In getting to know Daisy, we struck up a conversation with her owners and their friends. They were some of the best people we'd ever met at a brewery. After this experience, I think I'm going on record and giving props to Hitchhiker as my favorite brewery in the 'Burgh.

Abjuration, up next on our itinerary, was a fun visit. The brewery is attached to the Parkway Theater, a small and adjoining nightclub, so there is always something fun going on there. Speaking of fun, we had a blast shooting the shit with one of the owners/brewers there, a big bushy-haired guy that kind of reminded me of the singer for Melvins. He even gave us a quick ten-cent tour of the brewing facility. Their philosophy is simple: make good beer for Pittsburgh with a mad scientist approach and penchant for experimentalism. As a matter of fact, the brewery boasted a whole science bent, right down to serving its beers in beakers. The name Abjuration itself is derived from a Latin word "abjurare," which relates to, as Wikipedia states, "the solemn repudiation, abandonment, or renunciation by or upon oath, often the renunciation of citizenship or some other right or privilege." In other words, "to forswear."

Our visit also happened to coincide with the start of comedy open mic night. While I wouldn't say I heckled the guy that was on while we were there, I definitely participated in some banter. I even stumped him by using the phrase "Hot Cosby" after he made a slightly humorous joke about sexual assault. Sorry if that offends anyone, but I have a pretty warped sense of humor. I can laugh about just about anything, which is a trait I view as my defense mechanism against the sick, twisted world in which we currently live. But we're here to have fun, so I'll cut the morose sentiments and get back to beer.

We were pretty impressed with the beers here. They only had three or four beers available, as well as a few guest taps and a local cider. We nixed the amber ale and settled on two house beers. The first was Mayan Mocha Stout, a big thick chewy stout brewed with Maris Otter, milk sugar, oats and a complex blend of amber and dark malts. Conditioned on a laundry list of ingredients including cocoa nibs, Madagascar vanilla beans, cold brewed coffee, cinnamon sticks, chili peppers and nutmeg, this one resembles many Mexican-style mole stouts we've come across in our travels. While the body was perhaps a tad thin, the flavor was balanced and complex, with nothing really overpowering the palate. Cinnamon and peppers are two tricky ingredients to use in brewing, mainly because they are potent and elicit a lot of strong flavor. However, this one was nicely done. 

Brewslut was equally pleased with her Lemon Bar, an IPA hopped exclusively with Citra hops and yet another Fresh Fest collaboration with @blackbeertraveler. A malt bill featuring two-row, oats, cookie malt and honey malt impart a bready cookie-like malt profile. To achieve a lemon-forward flavor, they added actual lemon bars as well as Citra hops to the whirlpool. As if that wasn't enough to elicit a lemony cake (there's that term again!) flavor, they dry-hopped the beer with a massive amount of Citra and more lemon bars. Wait... dry-hopping with lemon bars? OK, if you say so! Mission accomplished, I suppose, because this sucker tasted like a lemon bar with a nice citrusy hop character to boot. Both of these beers were quite enjoyable.

Sadly, we didn't snap any photos while we were there. I suppose we were having too much fun. I wanted to stick around for the next comedian, but we had to move along to the next place. In retrospect, I kind of wish we'd stayed put at Abjuration. Oh well... live and learn.

When in the 412...

Our next stop, which was slated as our final brewery of the day, was 412. The brewery takes its name after Pittsburgh's area code, a trendy that pops up quite frequently in craft beer. We've come across several beers named after area codes, but I think this is the first brewery we visited that was named after the actual area code in which it resides.

When we arrived, I could tell this place hosted a crowd that wasn't our cup of tea. It seemed to be littered with loud, annoying, drunk twenty-somethings. We tried to shrug it off by turning a deaf ear and ordering our beer. After checking out the beer menu, we both settled on the same beer, a milkshake-style IPA brewed with lactose and blood orange, and boasting the cumbersome moniker Orange You Gonna Have Another? After my first sip, this beer didn't strike me as a milkshake IPA at all. The blood orange was definitely present, but it came across as orange juice concentrate. There was no soft lactose mouthfeel, no frothy head, no vanilla accents. No complexity, really. Overall, it was pretty lackluster. After a few sips, I was kind of sad that we would be ending an otherwise great day with this beer.

What do you think, Pleeps?

Meanwhile, the drunk twenty-somethings were beginning to grate on me like a room full of screaming children. Needless to say, my patience began to fade quickly. Add a sub par beer into the equation, and I was ready to run to the hills (no pun intended, Maiden fans). After maybe twenty minutes, I gave Brewslut the "let's get the fuck out of here... chug your beer" face, and she duly complied.

I decided we couldn't end the night on a down note, so we chugged the last bit of our beers and headed back to Hitchhiker. Turns out my geographical faux pas was a blessing in disguise, because we ended up back in the vicinity of Hitchhiker, which was my favorite brewery of the day. In retrospect, I'm totally glad we decided to return for one final beer. Remember that beer karma I'd earned back at Strange Roots? Well, the Beer Gods were about to bequeath me with what would become my favorite beer of the trip.

Back to Hitchhiker, and I'm glad we went back because I was treated to one of the best beers I've ever had. A Different Animal Brewed with Wheat. Dry Hopped with Citra. Notes of lemon juice, passion fruit, crushed apple, and baked bread. I got a nice coconut note in there that was just utterly amazing. This beer was perfect. Perhaps it was the right place at the right time. Whatever it was, this beer is special. I was bowled over with every sip of this masterpiece. Since we arrived so late, they had already called "last call" midway through our beers, so it was obviously a one-and-done stop. 

I must say that this beer was so good that the young loud crowd didn't throw off my mojo or annoy me in the least. To illustrate this even further, there was some young, sexy girl there who thought she was a model. She was posing in the back of the room against one of the walls, and eventually one of her girlfriends came over and started taking pictures of her striking various poses like they were engaged in some Cosmopolitan photo shoot. Now, drunk end-of-the-night Ffej wouldn't typically let her off the hook so easily. She may have gotten some clever yet disparaging remarks from me had I given a shit. But I was so enamoured with my beer that I let it slide. I did have to chuckle when two younger guys who looked like they just rolled in from either a D&D campaign or a local B-level comic book convention were standing on the opposite side of the tasting room making fun of the model chick. I smiled and gave them the thumbs-up. And really, that's the great thing about getting older. If I was in my twenties today, I'd probably kill myself. No offense to all you youngsters out there, but cell phones really are the bane of our existence. Put your phones down and get out there and communicate with people. Don't turn into a brain-dead automaton. Man, I'm so glad I grew up in a world where the Internet and cell phones didn't exist. Not sure how I got off on that tangent, but whatever. OK, it's time to turn the rant switch to the "off" position. You're welcome. 

Stay tuned for Part II, as we continue to work our way around the Steel City and head back homeward. Until next time...

Sunday, August 25, 2019

My First Interview!

When I first started The Pour Travelers blog back in 2011, it was kind of a hodge podge of beer travel stories, local beer news, beer-related observations, and little tidbits I'd come across from time to time. When my friend Brooks Edmund invited me to attend the release of a collaboration beer he helped brew with Columbia Kettle Works (CKW), I checked my schedule and - lo and behold! - I had a free Friday. I promptly marked the date on our calendar.

As we were driving down to Columbia, I thought it might be cool to interview Brooks to get some insight on how the beer and collaboration with CKW came about. I'd never conducted an interview with someone exclusively for the blog, so I suppose this is something that we'll consider for future Pour Travelers blog content if the opportunity arises.

I've said on a few occasions that CKW is one of my favorites of the newer breweries that have popped up throughout Central PA over the last decade. While they certainly aren't a trendy haven for beer geeks traveling near and far for the next hazy Trillium clone, CKW brews a wide spectrum of styles that run the gamut of an easy-drinking, true-to-style German Helles Lager to a tasty holiday ale brewed with blackstrap molasses, fresh cherries, vanilla bean and cinnamon called Grinch Feet. Best of all, they brew them well!

Pleeps in da hizouse!

Once the crowd thinned out, I got to sit down with Brooks and talk a little about his Kirsche Weisse recipe, how the collaboration came about, and - of course - music!

Tell me a little bit about your Kirsch Weiss and how it came to fruition.

So the Kirsche Weisse is a German style beer. It's a Berliner Weisse, which is a tart wheat beer. I enjoy drinking and brewing that style a lot. It's also somewhat inspired by Belgian Kriek in that when they ferment on cherries, they leave in the pits. This gives the beer a great almond, marzipan-like flavor. So I kind of wanted to put that into a Berliner, but it's really hard to find cherry pits. So somehow on the Internet I found a spice called mahlab, which is a Greek spice. Luckily my great grandma is from Greece and my mom shops at a Greek grocer in Baltimore. So I had her go down and see if they had any and they did. It's actually from the pit of a different kind of cherry, and it's used to make something called Easter bread, which gives off that almond like flavor. So, I thought I could substitute the spice for the pits. So I used my base Berliner Weisse that I've made dozens of times, then used a whole bunch of sweet cherry puree and a little bit of the mahlab spice and it came out great, so I entered it into the iron brewer contest.

How did you get involved in the iron brewer competition?

The competition is held by the Lancaster Homebrew Club, Mad Chef, and Columbia Kettle Works. It's a legitimate BJCP competition with the added bonus of two brewer's choice awards in addition to the regular "best in show" award. So you have to win your category and then the guys from Mad Chef and CKW get to pick which beer they'd like to brew at their brewery. Columbia picked mine, so we brewed it.

How involved were you with the actual brewing process at CKW?

They brought me in and I was here the whole day. Chad let me do pretty much what I wanted to do. I didn't really have to ask a lot of questions because he guided me the whole way, but it wasn't too dissimilar from homebrewing, there was just a lot more liquid to move around. But I did the whole brewing process, and once it went to cold side Chad took care of the cherries and spice when they were ready.

Any other upcoming contest in which you'll be entering beers?

I haven't been brewing a lot lately (NOTE: Brooks recently became a dad), but I've been asked to come back to the Mighty Pint competition in Baltimore because I did win that one last year, and they want to do a "Winner's Row" thing this year, so I've been asked to come back, and I think I'm gonna bust out the kettle and brew up some batches for that.

What's one of your favorite styles to brew?

Man, it's really hard to say, but my passion totally lies in the mixed culture, spontaneous fermented stuff, which is super fun to do but takes so much patience.

I'll bet it's hard to do at home!

Yeah. Like the Kirsche Weiss, I can crank out in 3 or 4 weeks. But those mixed culture batches take like 2 or 3 years and it definitely tests your patience, but the output is worth it.

What about your personal favorite beer style?

Man, favorite beer is a tough one. I think I'd have to answer in two parts. If I had a desert island style, it would probably be either Helles or pilsner, but if I had to pick my favorite beer style, it would definite be Gueuze, and the brewery would be Drie Fonteinen. I got to go there a few years ago and it was a mind-blowing experience.

One final question... I've been intrigued by some recent "Beer and Music Pairing" blogs and Internet posts. I know your a huge Dream Theater fan, so if you could pick one Dream Theater album that pairs well with your Kirsche Weisse, which one would it be?

Oooh, let's see... Dream Theater and Kirsche Weisse. Man, this is a tough question! I think I'd have to go with the album Images and Words. There's just something about the imagery of that album with the beating heart on the cover that reminds me of the color of the beer. It's also kind of a very layered and nuanced album, and the beer is like that too. It's tart but there's a nice crispness. Then you have the sweet cherry in there and the spice has a few layers in it. So that's what I'd go with... Images and Words. 

So get down to Columbia Kettle Works and try some Kirsche Weisse. I had two pints last night, and it's a very good beer. At only 3% ABV, it still packs a ton of flavor. Until next time...