Brewed in the 'Burgh, the Evolution of Our City's Brewpubs
A long-awaited update to Pennsylvania's beer-selling law prompted change to the region's brewpub scene.
photos by cory morton
In and around Pittsburgh, brewpubs and taprooms are supplementing and in some cases even replacing the corner bar. The destinations, which serve beer brewed only by the company with the name on the sign, draw both locals and loyalists, serve as de facto community centers and help startups to build their brands.
In the past, beer geeks sought out perfectly crafted Belgian lambics or German marzens at import bottle shops or craft-beer bars. They’re still thirsty for beer that resonates deeper than a generic macrobrew, but now they’re looking for those styles made locally.
“When I travel, I seek out the local beer. There are millions of people [who] are like that, and when they visit Pittsburgh, they want to come here,” says Matt Gouwens, owner and head brewer of Hop Farm Brewing Co. in Upper Lawrenceville.
Gouwens opened Hop Farm in September 2013 and started serving beer by the pint in August 2014. There are seven to nine beers on tap, with plans to soon double that number, and the food menu includes salads, vegan stuffed grape leaves and a selection of sausages from nearby Butcher on Butler and DJ’s Butcher Block. He’s sending spent grain to a local beef rancher to help raise cattle destined for his brewpub.
“I love beer, I love growing hops and I love cooking. This space is now a mix of all of those things,” he says.
It used to be that when you wanted to have a pint of beer from a Pennsylvania craft brewery, you had to either seek out a bar that served it, or if you wanted a deeper selection of the brewer’s choices, visit the brewery and take those beers home with you. A few changes in the law, coupled with increasing consumer demand for better local brews, helped to make a case for a new system. With more than 20 licensed breweries opening in the region since 2011, it’s clear the local beer scene is booming.
“The emergence of the local brewery economy must be considered a positive factor in affecting change, whether it influenced the [Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board] or simply [the beer-makers] pushed each other to compete and offer more to the consumer,” says Ted Zeller III, a lawyer with Norris McLaughlin & Marcus, P.A. and counsel to the advocacy group Brewers of Pennsylvania.
Zeller worked to clarify legal muddiness by writing proposed legislation, passed by the state in December 2011, that allowed breweries to sell beer “under such conditions and regulations as the board may enforce, to individuals for consumption on the licensed premises in any container or package of any volume … .” The intention was that brewers now could sell for consumption on or off premises. Because the PLCB didn’t list the conditions or regulations it would enforce under the new law, however, the law just added to the confusion.
“We kept pushing for changes to the PLCB’s interpretation because we wanted to help the smaller brewers who didn’t have the space to have a GP (brewpub) license,” says Zeller, who specializes in liquor law.
Finally, in November 2014 the PLCB issued a clarification — which officially was recognized in May 2015 — that’s colloquially known as the “Bag of Chips” rule. Breweries now can legally sell pints on-site if they offer 10 seats and “at a minimum … potato chips, pretzels and similar foods.”
Scott Smith, the innovative founder of East End Brewing Co., discovered another convenient legal loophole to loosen the taps: Brewers also may sell beer at “storage locations.” Because beer often is stored in easy-to-tap kegs, “You’ll have additional locations popping up where brewers can sell without any production requirements,” Zeller says.
Popular regional breweries already are taking advantage of this law to establish Pittsburgh satellites. Beer lovers once had to trek to Meadville for a taste of Voodoo Brewery, but since the packed-to-the-rafters opening of Voodoo Homestead in January, they now enjoy those same beers closer to home.
And since last year lively crowds have gathered at the Pittsburgh Public Market to drink pints poured from East End’s satellite location’s taps. They’re a major draw — not just for the brewery but also for the market as a whole. Back at the Larimer brewery, Smith says he was a step behind in setting up a brewpub. He’s organizing events such as pub quizzes and vegan bingo nights to catch up. “We want people to stay and have a beer or two,” he says.
Those beer sales encourage more experimentation.
“They can get our regular beers around town and then come to the Mother Ship and the Growler Shop for the one-offs,” Smith says.
For new brewers, tap rooms are a quick way to introduce drinkers to their brand.
In Braddock, 1-year-old The Brew Gentlemen attracts graduate students, college kids and the young and hip. They drink pints of beer while feasting from a parade of food trucks, watching the Super Bowl on a big screen and even attending yoga classes.
What does this mean for the corner bar? If you want to try a beer from more than one brewery, it remains a great place to do so because breweries can sell only their own beer.
Still, “We can have a lot more of our beers here. Plus, part of the romance is they get to meet the people behind the scenes,” says Hop Farm’s Gouwens.
Even with the exponential growth in breweries in Pittsburgh over the last few years, there’s still plenty of room backstage.
“When you’re talking about breweries that are replacing bars that weren’t serving interesting beer, it means we can support a lot of breweries. How many bars do we support? A lot,” says East End’s Scott Smith.
Draai Laag Brewing Co., Millvale
The brewery opened in 2011; the attached Saints and Turncoats Public House initially opened in 2012, closed briefly in early 2013 and reopened.
Draai Laag’s beers mainly are Belgian-style. Yeast strains are wild and complex. Beers are aged on lees (yeast sediment) to add additional flavor. Beers tend to be high in alcohol yet are addictively drinkable and always complex in flavor. Cru, for example, is bright, sour and refreshing. It’s a Wild Fermented Old Ale made with “Wild Angels,” a yeast strain captured during the first year of brewing. The fantastic Red Briar is a Raspberry American Wild Ale fermented with “all kinds of wild critters” (various local yeasts) and raspberries. It’s tart, with lingering fruit tones but not sweet and slightly antiseptic (in a good way). There are six beers on tap.
Limited. Free pretzel snack bags. Black Shepherd Farm serves a small menu on Friday nights. The biergarten will open this summer.
Wood beams, bars and tables. The crowd leans toward a little older and nerdier. It’s a mix of groups, solo drinkers and people from the neighborhood. Billy Joel, U2 and Springsteen are on the sound system; basically, it’s mellow “Dad Rock.” Bartenders are warm, welcoming and knowledgeable.
Every Thursday is “game night,” and there also is a selection of board games to choose from every night of the week. There are occasional art-related events, too.
[501 E. Ohio St., Millvale; 412/821-1762, draailaag.com]
Voodoo Brewing Co., Homestead
This location opened in January; the Meadville brewpub opened in 2007.
Voodoo makes a wide variety of beers, mostly already-established styles (West Coast IPA, Belgian wheat, etc.), some of which veer strong. There are 12 taps. Hoodoo, one of the brewery’s year-round beers, is an American IPA (7.3 percent) with a bright citrus nose and mild but noticeable bitterness. Breakfast of Champions is a limited-availability American Stout (5.2 percent) with deep brown color and a rich malt and coffee nose. It’s quite flavorful for a lower-alcohol beer, with notes of toffee and oatmeal.
There’s no regular food service. People may bring in takeout or have food delivered. Food trucks occasionally visit.
Post-industrial raw space with lots of concrete: concrete floors and a long concrete bar. There are two huge communal tables under super-high ceilings as well as graffiti on the walls and artwork from local artists. There’s even art on the ceiling. Draws some people from the neighborhood but mainly Voodoo fans who don’t want to drive to Meadville.
Dog-friendly (dogs must be kept on a leash). “Can I get your dog a treat?” one bartender asked a couple who’d stopped in for a beer during a dog walk. Monday night is game night.
[205 E. 9th Ave., Homestead; 412/368-8973, voodoobrewery.com]
Hop Farm Brewing Co., Upper Lawrenceville
The brewery opened in September 2013; it began serving beer by the pint in August 2014.
Specializes in hop-forward beers. Hop Farm IPA (6.5 percent) is the flagship beer; it’s a classic American IPA with an assertive, addicting floral-pine aroma and crisp hop flavor. A four-hop (Mandarina, Bavaria, Hull Melon, Lemon Drop) 3.3 percent session beer is full-flavored. New draft lines were just installed, so expect special one-off 20-gallon test batches such as Golden Wasabi and Spruce beer that will be available only at the brewpub. Beers rotate frequently.
The food program rapidly is growing. There are sausages from Butcher on Butler and DJ’s Butcher Block, plus occasional specials including Weisswurst (pork sausage cooked in hefeweizen). The staff is happy to pair beer and sausage. Also offered are a “Hop Farm” salad mix, vegan grape leaves, cheese board and chocolate board. Look for the menu to keep expanding.
Cozy, no-frills, comfortable pub atmosphere. Hop Farm attracts a wide variety of beer drinkers, from older college kids to couples with kids. It’s a big draw for Upper Lawrenceville residents.
Live music. Great starting or ending point for a Lawrenceville brewpub tour that also could include nearby Full Pint, Roundabout Brewery and Arsenal Cider Works. Annual Hoptoberfest features music, food and beer pairings from both Hop Farm and other area breweries and restaurants.
[5601 Butler St., Lawrenceville; 412/408-3248, hopfarmbrewingco.com]
Spoonwood Brewing Co., Bethel Park
The brewery and brewpub opened in late January 2015.
There are up to 12 beers on tap — largely accessible and familiar styles made with care. Elise (7.1 percent) is a drinkable Saison with notes of herbs and pepper. Working Class Hero, a cream ale, is crisp, malty and clean. The low-alcohol (4.7 percent) session beer is a terrific accompaniment to Spoonwood’s pizza.
Despite Spoonwood’s website pronouncement that it is “not a restaurant, but we have food,” the food program here is the most developed of the newly opened brewpubs. There are small plates of housemade hummus, pretzel bites and nachos, plus a solid selection of sandwiches, tacos and burgers. There are six combinations — plus a “make-your-own” option — available from the wood-fired pizza oven.
Design is industrial-chic: exposed ductwork, metal beams and fixtures, concrete floors and tables. Customers at Spoonwood form a composite picture of the near-Pittsburgh suburbs: a sports team meeting for after-practice drinks, a group of young professionals hanging after work, a husband and wife having a evening out with their son after his hockey practice. Service is warm, crisp and professional, though there is less direct interaction with the brewers here than at other brewpubs.
New outdoor seating and activity area this summer.
[5981 Baptist Road, Bethel Park; 412/833-0333, spoonwoodbrewing.com]
East End Brewing Co., Larimer
East End opened in 2004; the Pittsburgh Public Market location opened in 2010 (though it didn’t offer beer by the glass until 2014); and the brewpub opened in November 2014.
East End Brewing Co. has been at this for a long time, and its diverse selection of beer reflects that experience. The company brews more than 30 styles of beer per year: four year-rounds, six seasonals and a host of recurring and/or one-off brews. Big Hop IPA (5.8 percent) is the signature beer; it gets a boost of fresh hops every fall as the wildly popular Big Hop Harvest Ale (6.4 percent). Snow Melt Winter Ale (7.0 percent) is a rich, malty cold-weather brew that helps Pittsburghers to battle through the chilly months of November through early April.
The Pittsburgh Public Market satellite location is surrounded by local food vendors, and there are countless other places to grab a bite in the Strip District. Food trucks visit the Mother Ship location on Fridays and Saturdays.
The Mother Ship has a super-comfortable coffeehouse vibe, which is to be expected because it shares the space with the Commonplace Coffee roaster. The only drawback is that it is a bit dark inside; the cinderblock building is windowless. The Public Market location is bright and airy, with garage-door windows that open to Penn Avenue during the warmer months.
The Mother Ship is a pickup location for the Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance CSA. There are two pinball machines and lots of merchandise at the Mother Ship, too. Organized bike rides, volunteer events and pub trivia nights all are part of the East End mix.
[147 Julius St., Larimer; 412/537-2337, eastendbrewing.com]
The Brew Gentlemen Beer Co., Braddock
This spot opened in May 2014.
The Brew Gentlemen offers five year-round styles and a handful of seasonal releases; there’s also the “Prototype Series,” a selection of experimental brews sold only at the taproom. White Sky (5.6 percent) is a Chai Wheat with a warm, spicy nose and a crisp finish. General Braddock’s IPA (6.8 percent) is a deceptively potent East Coast-style IPA with pine and citrus notes. Selections rotate in the taproom, and information about what’s on tap is updated in real time online.
Food trucks are scheduled regularly: Wednesday is PGH Taco Truck, Thursday is a rotating selection, Friday is Blowfish BBQ and Saturday is Gyros N’at. Sunday brunch recently was added. Occasional food-truck roundups bring together several area trucks and pop-up dinners featuring local chefs.
Contemporary, comfortable and of-the-moment design complete with lots of wood finishes and exposed brick. The crowd tends to be young, lively and ready to have a good time. It’s a great space to have fun.
Events galore, including bottle release parties, yoga classes, holiday parties and sporting-event screenings.
[512 Braddock Ave., Braddock; 412/871-5075, brewgentlemen.com]
Four Seasons Brewing Co. & Pub, Latrobe
The brewery opened in September 2013; the brewpub opened in November 2014.
A dozen beers are on tap at Four Seasons, largely made in familiar, drinkable styles. Most brews are in the 4-6 percent alcohol-by-volume range, which makes this an ideal place to sit and enjoy a few. Dark Side of the Pint (6 percent) is an oatmeal stout with roasty malt and coffee notes and a slightly bitter finish. Kickin It Kölsch (5.9 percent) is slightly sweet, low-hopped and very drinkable. Big Bang (8.9 percent) is a double IPA with powerful hop overtones, a citrus nose and a powerful finish.
There’s a limited everyday food menu (chips and salsa, bratwurst, cheese tray), plus catering from local businesses on most weekends. Joio’s, famous for its love-it-or-hate-it sweet pizzas, is a short walk up the street.
Four Seasons is housed in a brick-and-concrete building in a slightly off-the-beaten-path industrial park in Latrobe. The industrial feel carries inside, with the open brewery area separated from the taproom by a metal railing. There’s a long, L-shaped polished wood bar, plus seating at round and square tables. Some of the walls display work by local artists.
Four Seasons regularly schedules live music performances.
[745 Lloyd Avenue Ext., Latrobe; 724/520-4111, fsbrewing.com]