The 'Burgh Beer Bible
Your guide to the city's best bars, microbreweries, beer caves, cocktails and more.
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Photo by John Altdorfer
Care for a drink? Maybe it’s our working-class heritage. Maybe it’s the preferences of those European nations that sent a bunch of early Pittsburghers to American shores. Or maybe it’s the work of dedicated and innovative brewers, both old and new. But without a doubt, Pittsburgh is a beer town — and it doesn’t look like that’s going to be changing anytime soon.
To sum up the state of hops and brews in the ’Burgh, we visited five of our favorite local breweries. We quizzed veteran bartenders about their favorite beers. We checked in on things at the city’s most recognizable brewing company. And we found quite a few ways for you to expand your horizons.
Pull up a bar stool and let us pour you a cold one. It’s what we do around here.
East End Brewing Co.
If you go way back in beer history, there were no cases, imported bottles or distributors. To enjoy a glass or two at home, you’d simply carry a pail down to the corner bar and fill ’er up.
That practice carries on today with the sale of growlers (large glass bottles that can be filled and refilled at your favorite brewery or watering hole). And while many places offer this service, there may be no source of suds more fully ingrained in that traditional community spirit than East End Brewing Co.
“Our attention has always been local,” says co-owner Scott Smith. “Local is where we came from, and local is where we’ll always be.”
Until this year, that meant a tiny brewery and taproom in Homewood, too small to meet the growing demand for East End’s beers. Now, the brewery is in the final stages of a move to a spacious new home in nearby Larimer. That’ll allow East End to brew more, host more and try more. (And for fans of a different type of brew, Indiana, Pa.-based Commonplace Coffee Co. will be sharing the new space.)
But one thing will carry over: Scott, who works alongside wife and co-owner Julie as well as four full-time employees, fights to keep East End a near-zero-waste business. Spent grain is donated to a local farm for feed. Scrap wood found at the new space was upcycled into the bar. Even empty sacks from grain are stacked and stored so that customers can later claim ’em. (“I don’t have any idea what they use them for,” Scott says. “Maybe there’s a huge underground sack race scene in Pittsburgh.”)
Aside from the brewery’s positive impact on the environment, local focus and frequent charitable endeavors — like the annual, ever-popular Keg Ride, a bicycle-led keg delivery event to benefit BikePGH and other charities — East End promotes community in the simplest way possible: by bringing people together. “We keep having people run into old friends in here,” Scott says. “It has a clubhouse feel.”
We should count ourselves lucky to have Penn Brewery. And not because the business makes it possible to get a great local pilsner at a Pirates game.
A few years ago, it looked like the Troy Hill brewery would be closing its doors permanently. Some misguided investors had outsourced the production of Penn’s signature brews and sold some of the equipment. Much of the brewhouse remained in place — but only because it’s embedded in the concrete floor. The brewery’s welcoming German-based pub and restaurant were shuttered.
Fortunately, on the brink of oblivion, late founder Tom Pastorius, current CEO Sandra Cindrich, 14-year brewmaster Andy Rich and a small team revived the brand … and the brewery. Now, this home to traditional German methods — and German-style precision in the process — is thriving again.
“It didn’t seem quick,” Rich says of the resurgence. “There were a lot of growing pains in getting the word out. But the quality is there — last year, we won two medals at the Great American Beer Fest. We have a smaller brewing team than before, but it's a great one. The beer is top-notch.”
Signature brands like Penn Pilsner, Penn Dark and the much-lauded Penn Weizen are an introduction to a robust and diverse lineup. Allegheny Pale Ale is growing in popularity. The Oktoberfest brew (available now) draws in droves, until the calendar rolls over and St. Nikolaus Bock starts turning heads. And if you see a rare brew like Cool River Kolsch, Penndemonium Mai Bock or the holiday-apropos Nut Roll Ale, order a pint while you can.
And although October is the natural time to crave a big frothy glass and a plate stacked high with various wursts, the restaurant and bar at Penn Brewery are an inviting experience year-round. If you’d like, stop by for a tasting or a party. But the best way to try Penn Brewery is to grab a seat at a picnic table and ask for a beer recommendation or sampler — along with a plate full of sausage and potatoes. An ideal slice of Bavaria with an appropriately ’Burgh twist.
North Country Brewing Co.
Since 2005, North Country Brewing Co. has been making a laundry list of flavorful, robust and tasty beers, available only at its spacious Slippery Rock restaurant. Today, a move to a larger production brewery — with enough space to brew more varieties and quantities of North Country beer — means the team can finally get their products in beer distributors and bottle shops throughout the region.
Good news for craft beer fans. A challenge, though, for other breweries in western Pennsylvania — brews this good could force them to step up their game.
Owners Bob and Jodie McCafferty converted the historic building (originally an early-1800s tavern and once the Slippery Rock morgue) by hand in the early part of the last decade. They had time to get things right; for several years, they were embroiled in a long campaign for their very existence (Slippery Rock had been relatively dry since prohibition). When the town saw how dedicated the McCaffertys, a pair of Butler County natives, were to their new project, though, opinions started to change.
Today, not only is North Country a magnet for beer lovers and foodies from far-flung counties, but it’s also one of Slippery Rock’s biggest employers. Between the bar, restaurant and new endeavors like the brewery and a soon-to-open bakery across the street, what was once a family business now has more than 75 full-time employees.
North Country’s dedication to local people, farms and suppliers isn’t merely a point of local pride — it’s a hands-down guarantee of a huge, filling, rich meal with a couple of great beers on the side. The expansive menu is sure to leave a sated smile on the face of even the pickiest of eaters — order the unforgettable Backwoods Country Dip to start. It’ll only get better from there.
And while there are some stalwarts in the rotating list of brews on tap, like Station 33 Firehouse Red (named in honor of nearby fire departments, which receive 5 percent of sales), the best way to pick a beer at North Country is to order a tasting rack or two for the table. You’ll get a decent-sized pour of your brews of choice; sip until you find something that you need more of. It won’t take long to find a new favorite.
Church Brew Works
When the final brick was laid at Lawrenceville’s St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church in 1903, it’s a safe bet that none of the assembled faithful could’ve guessed how the place would look a century later.
And if you had told them, you might have shocked some old-fashioned sensibilities.
Ninety-three years after the first services at St. John’s, the de-sanctified sanctuary was converted into the Church Brew Works, one of the city’s most unique spots for beer and grub. Stained-glass windows and engraved Latin remain. There’s just a brewery on the altar and liquor in the confessional.
Church Brew Works makes ales and stouts to satisfy any craft beer junkie. But if you’re trying to get a more milquetoast drinker to expand their palate, this is a great place to start. Sample a Celestial Gold, a cool and delightful pilsner, or a Pipe Organ Pale Ale, a balanced entry point for anyone unfamiliar with the world of hops; even a dyed-in-the-wool Miller Lite fan won’t be able to turn down either choice.
“Some people think that craft beers have to be in your face,” says brewery manager Steve Sloan. “We do a lot of lagers, which is something that not a lot of breweries will try.”
And they do them well. Church Brew varieties speak for themselves and sell well in taps and cases. But the charm of the place is tri-fold — the location is compelling, the beer is great and the restaurant is a hidden gem. Known for a daily rotating pierogie feature (containing everything from potatoes and onions to rattlesnake and bison), the food alone lures guests.
“Our owner, Sean Casey, is supportive and hires the right people,” Sloan says. It shows in everything from the brews to the decor. Many would say that Pittsburghers already put beer up on an altar — at Church Brew Works, they just take that literally.
Full Pint Brewing
One of the signature offerings from Full Pint is All In Amber. It’s a balanced and refreshing beer — perfect to take you through the night — yet it boasts enough character and flavor to leave an impression. More than that, it’s the Full Pint philosophy in a bottle.
All In, the young brewery’s first effort, was a collaboration between the roster of brewers — all of them pitched in, to spell it out. The beer is a symbol of commitment; the Full Pint team is a group of passionate beer fans who arrived at an empty North Versailles warehouse determined to make a great product.
Less than three years after that first brew came out of the tank, Full Pint beers are available in nearly every county in Pennsylvania — and an expansion into Ohio and Florida was completed this fall. Locally, Full Pint favorites like White Lightning, a summer-ready (but always tasty) witbier, and Chinookie, a hoppy-but-not-too-bitter pale ale, are easy to find on discerning draft lists. And variety cases (a steal at about $30) are flying off of shelves.
The collaborative nature of Full Pint’s process has a lot to do with the company’s quick success. “We argue back and forth — and decide how to make the best beers we can,” says co-owner and brewer Barrett Goddard. The founding owners — Goddard, fellow brewer/owners Sean Hallisey, Jake Kristophel and more-business-focused co-owner Mark Kegg — have remained dedicated to the brewery, even as Full Pint’s success has brought a few more enthusiastic co-owners into the fold.
The brewers at Full Pint never pass up an opportunity to talk beer. If you visit, you’ll likely find a few of them hanging around, pouring a draft for a loyal customer. Order a pint and grab a table in the simple, open-air taproom as the rolling hills of North Versailles spread out before you. Within minutes, you’ll have tried two or three new concoctions and received what amounts to a free master class on hops and grains. And you’ll leave making plans to return soon.