The 'Burgh Beer Bible
Your guide to the city's best bars, microbreweries, beer caves, cocktails and more.
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Serious beer fans have their favorites — but what does the bartender fancy? We talked to barkeeps in nine esteemed ’Burgh pour houses to see what brews they prefer.
Greg Hough works as the general manager for his brother Matt, who owns Hough’s Bar & Restaurant in Greenfield. They want everybody to learn to love the brewing process — which is possible, now that customers can use the do-it-yourself kettles at Hough's Copper Kettle Brewing Co. to create a beer of their own. But when it comes to picking favorites, Greg has a hard time.
“Reissdorf Kölsch is a good choice,” he says. “It’s a German ale that’s just like a pilsner. It’s what people expect beer to taste like.” He’s also a fan of the Eurotrash Pilz, brewed by Southern Tier in New York.
“It has an awesome name — and it tastes great.”
“I would say the Victory Prima Pils,” says Kelli Linn, bar manager at The Hop House, an up-and-coming beer haven with locations in Green Tree and the North Hills. “It’s a popular seller. As a bartender, you go by what people order.” Linn says that Prima Pils, brewed in Downington, Pa., normally appeals to aficionados. “The everyday person wouldn’t think to ask for it.”
Light with a kick — that’s the pale-ale shtick. “Dales has come a long way,” says Keith Smallwood, bartender at South Side’s O.T.B. Bicycle Café. “It’s such a staple. It’s got a decent bite to it — but it’s not too hoppy. It’s a good starter and a good ender to a night.” Brewed by Oskar Blues Brewery in Colorado, Dales Pale Ale is a strange brew indeed — a craft beer that comes in a can. O.T.B. sells cases of the stuff.
“I’d say Sculpin,” says Bryan Muha, bartender at Piper’s Pub, just a few blocks down Carson from O.T.B. “It’s very citrusy; it’s higher in alcohol. It’s definitely a sipping kind of beer.” Sculpin, brewed by Ballast Point in California, is an India Pale Ale (IPA) — a refined genre of true pale ale. (The two categories are routinely lumped together.) Muha suggests Sculpin to “anybody who’s an IPA fan.”
Pittsburgh overflows with Yuengling drafts, so it’s easy to get stuck on the same copper-colored pint. But Dash Kaplan, celebrated bartender at the original Robinson Township location of Bocktown Beer and Grill, recommends the Brooklyn Lager. “[It’s] a Vienna-style lager that’s not only a solid drink for pros, but also a good starting point for those who want to get into craft beer,” Kaplan says. “Although Brooklyn Lager is not extremely hoppy, the process of dry-hopping gives this lager a pleasant, floral aroma and taste. If I had to pick one beer to drink for the rest of my life, Brooklyn Lager would be among the top candidates.”
“Dead Guy is a good introduction to craft beer,” Greg Hough muses. “It won’t scare you, but it offers a lot of flavor and aroma.” Dead Guy, brewed by Rogues Ales in Newport, Ore., isn’t exactly a lager — but it looks and tastes like one, and people love it.
Pittsburgh experiences four full seasons, so seasonal brews are particularly hard to sort out. But if pressed, barkeeps can offer picks for summer and autumn.
“Blueberry Blonde Wheat Ale, from Saranac,” declares Kelli Linn. The Utica-based brewery has developed a reputation for variety, creative flavors and a certain back-to-nature sensibility — the name "Saranac" comes from the Iriquois word for "cluster of stars". Quite appropriate, then, for summer sipping.
“Southern Tier Pumking,” says Paul Guarino just as confidently. Guarino mans the bar at Shadyside’s beloved Harris Grill, where seasonal beers are a big hit. Like other Halloween-time beers, Pumking boasts a manic fanbase. “I don’t know the sales numbers, but we get phone calls for it all through September and October.”
If the leaves are turning and you’re not sure what kind of pumpkin to favor, Bocktown is particularly enthusiastic. The business holds an annual “Pumpkinfest” tasting event each September.
For a small Lowlands country, Belgium has a whopping reputation for brewing. So when your place is called Point Brugge, and you specialize in Belgian brews and victuals, it’s difficult to pick just one exceptional Flemish label. But Jesse Seager, owner of the Point Breeze bar and restaurant, vouches for the Duvel Belgian Golden Ale. “There’s enough of an alcohol punch that it’s strong, but it’s drinkable enough to be a session beer,” Seager attests. “It’s a classic everyday Belgian ale.”
“Delirium Tremens,” says Drew Miskowiec, a bartender at Sharp Edge Beer Emporium in Friendship. But again, it’s hard to choose when your establishment has hundreds of selections — Sharp Edge is another world-class authority on Belgians. He cites Delirium for its raging popularity. “Delirium is really big in the American market — there’s a lot of hype. It’s got a yeasty, bready flavor.” He also suggests the Karmeliet Triple and Kasteel Triple, which he personally prefers. “They tend to be a little more boozy,” he says. The Karmeliet, in particular, is “a little smoother.”
Not many people would seek out a “green apple” beer, but Jesse Seager swears by Éphémère, produced by Quebec’s Unibroue. “It’s very light and effervescent, but balanced out by a sharp tartness,” he says. “It’s very crisp, highly carbonized, and it’s not syrupy.”
Over at O.T.B., Smallwood’s vote goes for the Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy, which has hints of lemonade. “It’s light, not too bold and it doesn’t sit heavy,” Smallwood says. Sarah Shaffer tends bar at Shadyside’s Bites and Brews, where she recommends the Flying Dog In Heat Wheat. “They’re coy,” Shaffer says of the Maryland brewery.
“The sexual innuendos run deep with that company. But it’s very well-balanced. Sometimes you get too much wheat or too much fruit. A lot of cheap beers stick to your palate. But this one is clean.”
Conspiratorially, Shallenberger also suggests local newcomer I.C. Light Mango, mixed with any kind of flavored vodka. “It’s delicious.”
White & Wheat
White and wheat beers are a difficult nomenclature, as they tend to get grouped into other categories. There’s weissbeer, witbier and hefeweizen, to name a few. Most Americans simply think of a glass of Blue Moon with an orange wedge — but when push comes to shove, Sarah Shaffer recommends the Fatty Boombalatty, from Furthermore. “It’s a farmhouse session ale,” she explains. “It’s also more obscure. I love going to a bar and seeing a beer that most people don’t have.”
Shallenberger also likes to celebrate American craft brewers, whom she considers brilliant rivals to the European meisters. Drew Miskowiec respectfully differs.
“I prefer the German Hefeweizen to the Belgian Wittes,” he says. “It has a better body. A Witte tends to be a little thinner.” Like many experts, he also suggests Oberon, brewed by Bell’s in Kalamazoo, Mich. “It’s a nice, traditional Belgian.”
When beer gets dark, Bryan Muha goes for Fuller’s London Porter. “It was the beer that made me fall in love with porters,” he says. “I love the origins, the history. But I’m a big porter fan, so it’s tough to choose.”
Fuller’s has a particularly aggressive following among actual Britons and American anglophiles who like to relive their times in London. Muha’s only gripe with Fuller’s is a recurring import squabble. “Whenever we can get it,” he says, “we do.”
Back at Sharp Edge, Miskowiec is a fan of hardcore imperial stouts. “I like Lion Stout from Sri Lanka,” he says. At roughly 8 percent alcohol, this imperial isn’t for everybody. “It’s a heavy hitter, but it doesn’t have a lot of bite,” he says. “A lot of people say they don’t like dark beer, but dark is not a flavor. It finishes almost chocolatey.”