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Monday, April 24, 2017

Jammin' in the 'Burgh: Part 1

It was time for a return trip to Pittsburgh. We hadn't dropped by the 'Burgh since our Drinksgiving Trip back in November 2013. A lot had changed since our last visit, and we planned to add another nine or ten new breweries to our ever-expanding list.

After an almost four-hour trek, my brain was begging for beer. Travelling a long distance always makes me thirsty, which perhaps is why we love travelling for our beer rather than cracking open a few bottles at home. The first stop of our long day took place at Fat Head's on Carson Street, Pittsburgh's equivalent of Philly's South Street. Upon entering, we noticed that they were going through a construction phase. I also asked about bottle shop situated upstairs in the loft area, as it looked like it no longer existed. Indeed, it was gone. We found our way to the bar just inside the main entrance.

In typical Pour Travelers fashion, I opted for a 9.4% Imperial IPA as my inaugural beer of the trip. Brewed with Citra, CTZ, Simcoe and Warrior hops, Bonehead Red blended biscuity malty notes with piney and resinous hops. Think sticky and slightly burnt malt and sugars. While not my favorite flavor profile for a DIPA (I was pining for some Hop Juju, but the well was dry), this was still enjoyable and easy to drink for such a hefty brew. Brewslut went with You Dropped the Hops on Me, Baby! This was a peculiar choice for her, as she's typically not a fan of Belgian IPAs, which is exactly what this beer is. Plus it includes Amarillo hops, so that's a double whammy. Still, she enjoyed it, as did I (although it was a tad too sweet for my palate overall). But the beer itself was inspired by the brewery's collective love for 70's funk music (named after the Gap Band's hit, "You Dropped a Bomb on Me").

Taps at Fat Head's from my vantage point.

There were a few others I wanted to try, but Fat Head's doesn't do half pours or single samplers, so we opted for a flight of five offerings, three of which were Fat Head's house beers. The other two were guest taps. Here's the run-down:
  • Jack Straw Pilsner - very good interpretation of a classic Czech pils!
  • Trail Head Pale Ale - brewed with whole flower Simcoe and Citra hops.
  • Black Knight Schwarzbier - excellent take on a classic German dark lager with notes of chocolate and coffee.
  • Windows Up - an IPA hopped with Citra and Mosaic from Alpine Brewing. This was a far cry from the old days of Nelson and Duet, unfortunately.
  • Goedenacht - a strong ale from Draai Laag brewed with apples, orange blossom honey, coriander and Brett. This tasty beer was a sign of good things to come! 
It's no Creepy Baby Head, but still...

Fat Head's does a good job across the board. While it's my opinion that they make some of the best hoppy beers on the East Coast, each of the three beers in our sampler flight was a spot-on representation of its respective style. Food-wise, we both enjoyed a tasty chicken chipotle cheese steak sub with house-made chips for lunch. Fat Head's always features plenty of tasty pub grub and comfort food on the menu, and we've never been disappointed. Although once again I was denied of Hop Juju, there was still plenty of great beer to be had during our visit to Fat Head's.

Since it was Easter weekend, I figured we'd better get to church. Our kind of church, anyway. Not much had changed since our last visit to Church Brew Works, the next stop on our agenda. I've often cited this brewpub as one of the coolest places I'd ever enjoyed a beer. Despite not having set foot inside a church since high school (with the exception of weddings and funerals), I find the architecture of churches quite breathtaking. I've always been a fan of stained glass windows and all of the ornate decor that adorns the house that Jesus built (after all, he was a carpenter). I'm just not generally a fan of what transpires inside. Except, of course, when it means drinking beer. Church and beer... it's a match made in heaven (pun intended)! I always thought the blood of Christ wasn't quite so carbonated. I guess not.

Jokes and blasphemy aside, we entered the building and were greeted with awe-inspiring views of the brewhouse (typically where the minister performs his sermon). Soaking it in, we b-lined to the jagged, winding bar (not that they were busy at this time of day; we just prefer bar seating) and took our seats. I feel they need to add some pews and perhaps make the beer menu mimic the Bible. Hey, why now go the whole nine yards, right? After ordering our first beers, I decided to take a quick stroll and snap some pictures of the surroundings.

The window above the pipe organ inspired Church's logo.

I started with a pint of ThunderCloud, dubbed as a "hazy IPA" brewed with Citra, Mosaic and Nugget hops. I had already had the Thunderhop, their flagship IPA, a few times in the past, and it was enjoyable. While this beer wasn't hazy in the least (see below for a shot with Pleeps), it was pretty damn tasty. It was light and went down easy... almost too easy! The hop combo provided a sweet, fruity base with some tropical notes around the edges.

Pleeps meets ThunderCloud

Brewslut opted for something called Almond Joy, which turned out to be a bourbon barrel-aged stout with a big coconut character and hints of chocolate, bourbon and vanilla. At 8.5% ABV, it was pretty light-bodied, although quite smooth and oily. The coconut character struck me as quite authentic. I've had some coconut beers in the past that have displayed a "fake" or chemical-like flavor, but not this one.

Interior of Church Brew Works. Love the stained glass!

For some reason, I always forget about the beer engine. Many places have them, but oftentimes you have to ask if anything is available. The beer menu indicated to "ask your server," so I asked. On this particular occasion, The Church was offering up its Ambrosia, a wheat ale brewed with herbs instead of hops. This cask-conditioned offering also benefited from the addition of apples. I've rarely (perhaps never) encountered a wheat beer on cask at a brewery, so I was game. We opted for a full imperial pint to share. The apple didn't really shine through like I'd expected, but it was a light, refreshing beer nonetheless.

Cherubs rockin' out at Church!

Prior to our trip, Deuane mentioned that Voodoo had opened a brand new taproom in the Homestead area. Needless to say, we had to go. We'd been fans of Voodoo since our first encounter with original owner/brewer Matt Allyn at Philly Beer Week shortly after he started Voodoo. We bonded over the band Primus (one of his beers, Wynona's Big Brown Ale, is a reference to one of the band's songs). So we worked it into the itinerary. Reminiscent of the original taproom in Meadville, this location mirrored the vibe and garage-like atmosphere of its predecessor. I noticed some familiar-sounding beers on the list, including Killapilz (formerly Pilzilla) and Big Black Voodoo Daddy. I knew Brewslut was going to get a pour of the latter. I was right. She did. I went for a limited brewery-only release, a DIPA called I'm a Loner Dottie, a Rebel. This 8.9% ABV bomb was brewed with Citra, Columbus, Simcoe and new 7 C's hops. The latter hop is actually a blend of seven varieties all starting with the letter "C" to produce a distinct tropical fruit character: Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Citra, Cluster, Columbus and Crystal. As for the peculiar name of the beer, I was proud of myself for instantly knowing the movie to which this moniker made reference.

Go ahead, think about it for a few seconds. It'll come to you.

If not, I'll give you another hint. I mentioned to the bartender that "Large Marge sent me" when I ordered the beer. (If you still don't know, I'm not gonna tell you. Google it!)

Inside Voodooo's new Homestead taproom.

By this time, I was getting pretty hungry. I noticed something on the small but interesting food menu: salmon cakes. I was hooked. While they came out a bit mushy, they still tasted great and hit the spot. Plus they were served with a side of bowtie pasta salad. This served as a good mid-day snack while we continued to imbibe on the beer trail. 

Pleeps is down with the Voodoo.

We kind of went out of our way a bit to get to Voodoo, so in the words of James Brown, we "hit it and quit it." Up next on the agenda was Roundabout. The last time we visited, they'd just opened their doors for business a few months prior. The tasting room looked pretty similar, although they built on to it in order to facilitate more seating. But the bar area remained the same. Brewslut recognized the server as well (we believed her to be the wife of the owner/brewer). With only a handful of beers available, I opted for the Cadwallader IPA, which might have been my favorite IPA of the day. Brewed with Nelson Sauvin (already sold when I read this), Galaxy, Mosaic, and Cascade hops, this beauty of an IPA boasted hints of ripe melon and bright citrus fruit, especially pineapple. It was bangin', and I should have gotten a growler of it to take home. Fail!

Cadwallader IPA... you had me at Nelson Sauvin!

While Brewslut visited the restroom, I took a chance and ordered her a pour of the "And Now Pitching" Gose. Turns out I know her pretty well (I should after 27 years), because this was the beer she wanted. She was equally impressed with this offering. I'm glad to see Roundabout still operating and churning out some tasty beers. These two beers are definitely a step or two up from what we had when we originally visited, so kudos to them!

Up next was Grist House, and what a shit show! Remember the old days when Tröegs first opened in Hershey and it was a chaotic as all hell? Well, add the amount of customers we now have on any given Saturday and factor into the equation side street parking, and you can get somewhat of a snapshot of this place on the day we visited. But hey, good for them! These guys seem to be cranking out beer that people want to drink. Can't complain about a place for being popular, right? Plus it was a dog-friendly brewery, which I always enjoy visiting.

Outside at Grist House

Honestly, it only took us about five or ten minutes to get a beer at the bar despite the ordering process being a free-for-all. Grist House seems known for its take on the super-trendy hazy, turbid Northeast IPAs introduced first by breweries such as The Alchemist and later "perfected" (for lack of a better term) by places like Tree House and Trillium. The beer I settled on - Hazedelic Juice Grenade - was one of these types of beers. Great name! Brewslut went with the equally awesome-named Member Berries (fans of South Park will get that reference), a tart ale brewed with blackberries. While it wasn't overly sour or tart, it was enjoyable and the blackberry character was pretty pronounced. I enjoyed my "juice grenade" quite a bit, although Brewslut claimed it "tasted like a Trillium beer," so she wasn't too jazzed about it. She claims many of these types of beers have hop profiles that display notes of onion and cat piss. (For more on this phenomenon, you can go waaaay back into the annals of Pour Travelers history and read more about Brewslut's olfactory anecdotes.) I wanted to stay and try another beer, but it was so crowded and there was no place for me to rest my weary buttocks, so we decided it was time to move on.

After having a taste of Draai Laag (pronounced "dry log") at Fat Head's earlier in the day, we were excited to get to the tasting room. When we arrived, we felt right at home in the relaxed, charming atmosphere of the small space. Sitting down at the small bar, I thought, "This place is right up my alley!"

The Dutch term "Draai Laag" loosely translates to "turncoat."

With eight house brews on tap, the selection was quiet eclectic, offering up a variety of sours, farmhouse ales, and barrel-aged treats. I was more inquisitive than usual, and we were lucky to have a super-friendly and knowledgeable server who answered my questions about "lees" and "wild angels" (their signature yeast strain cultivated through open fermentation during their first year in business) as well as the origins of the name "Draai Laag." I was also surprised to learn that Draai Laag in fact had its own Koelschip (aka "Coolship"). We'd only ever come across one in our travels when we visited Allagash, and it was pretty cool (OK, that one wasn't intentional).

Tap list at Draai Laag.

We would have enjoyed sampling all eight selections, but we made a pretty good dent (considering we had one of these at Fat Head's earlier too). Here's what we tried:
  • Wild Hazy Dry Hopped Prototype #6W - a tart, lemony dry-hopped saison
  • Atomic Pomme - a bourbon barrel-aged American sour ale brewed with apples
  • Öl (pronounced Oil) - strong ale brewed for Draai Laag's 5th anniversary
  • Red Briar - an American wild ale brewed with raspberries
Taps at Draai Laag.

All of these beers were unique and against the grain. They've really carved out a niche for themselves in this market. I doubt you'll ever see an IPA on run of the mill styles like brown, red, or amber ales. The Atomic Pomme was especially memorable, offering an almost apple brandy character. Red Briar featured an authentic tart raspberry flair with a pleasant wild yeast backbone. We were also both pretty smitten with Öl as well. This 11.3% ABV strong ale was aged in Laphroaig Scotch casks, bourbon casks, and 27-year-old rum casks. I believe it was also conditioned on local maple syrup. The result was a viscous concoction of rum candy, dark fruit, molasses and Belgian chocolate. It was very Imperial Stout-ish, but with a Belgian yeast character that played nicely with the dark fruit and barrel wood. Before we left, we also had a thimble of a beer that had replaced the Prototype #6W, which was brewed with mustard seed. I'd never seen that as an ingredient in a beer before, so I was curious. It worked. It had more of a sweet, citrusy character, which was pleasant. I love when breweries experiment with non-traditional ingredients!


Overall, we were both really impressed with the complexity, inventiveness, and presentation of the beers, the service, and the space itself. A brewery like this could easily come across as pretentious; however our experience proved otherwise. While it was definitely an elevated beer experience, it felt casual and not forced in any way. In a nutshell, Draai Laag has their shit together. I will be seeking out more of their beers in the future for sure!

"Do we have to leave?"

We were happy to find that there was a food truck at our next stop, Dancing Gnome. We quickly perused the menu before heading into the taproom, which boasted a variety of wood-fired oven goodness. We settled on a calizone and headed in, but not before one of the pizza guys suggested we try the Jam. Sounded good to me, as I'm always up for a sweet jam session.

Following his advice, I ordered a Jam. This was a soft, hazy NE-inspired IPA brewed with rye and Australian Vic Secret hops. This newer hop variety is similar to the more popular Galaxy, also with origins in the land down under, offering notes of tropical fruit (especially pineapple) and pine. We also opted for a pour of Spy Dolphin, a DIPA with Citra, El Dorado and Idaho 7 hops. There was another DIPA on tap during our visit, but the Pour Travelers were becoming weary and fatigued. It had been a long, productive day, but alas we were tired... too tired to continue to our final destination of the evening, Hop Farm. We decided that we'd open Hop Farm the next day and adjust accordingly. For now, it was time to head to our hotel.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our Pittsburgh jaunt, coming soon. Meanwhile, Pleeps will strike a pose. Until then...

1 comment:

  1. This was a good read and photos. I enjoyed the Pee Wee references. Looking forward to Part 2. Thanks.


The Pour Travelers thank you for reading about our beer travels!