Drink Like Your Great-Great-Great-Grandfather at Arsenal Cider House
‘Mad Men’ nostalgia is played out, so take a trip way back in time to the days of mead and Bluecoats.
Photo by somenametoforget on Flickr
There’s a longstanding ‘Burgh tradition that encourages each generation to drink like their daddy did. Somehow, we feel more natural and in our element with a six-pack of Iron City than we do with a lot of brews; it’s the reason why every born-and-bred local feels at home in a VFW or a Legion Hall, even on a first visit. Sure, we love our microbrews and our fine vintner’s picks and elaborate cocktails, but we’re just as happy with something a little more corner bar.
But if you’re going to go retro, you might as well go all the way. And for truly old-school drinks (one-room-schoolhouse drinks?) your best bet is Arsenal Cider House in Lawrenceville.
The small brewery and storefront, opened by Bill and Michelle Larkin in mid-2010, pays homage to Pittsburgh’s Civil War-era history, including that of the infamous explosion at the House’s namesake, the Allegheny Arsenal. Centuries-old tunes float through the air, mock artifacts add to the atmosphere, and if you time it right, you can watch a documentary or two in the lounge while you sip your cider.
Oh, right, the cider.
For those unfamiliar with hard cider, that wonderful middle ground between beer and wine, this is the place to start. They’ll put together an informal tasting for you when you walk in the door, so you can find your favorite batch, from sweet to bone-dry — or true apple wines, for that matter. There’s also usually a bit of mead (honey wine) on tap. And while admitting a remarkably small sample size, I can tell you it’s the best mead I’ve ever tasted. Hell, everything here is the best of its kind I’ve ever tasted.
There’s true craft that goes into the small-batch output at Arsenal. It’s both a passion project and a career for the Larkins, who left their day jobs (he’s a former accountant and she’s a former pre-school teacher) to open the shop, which takes up the first floor and basement of their Lawrenceville home. You can taste the care that goes into each barrel, especially in nuanced varieties like Oaked Pickets with Bourbon and Vanilla (which I’ve been sipping for the better part of a week, now.)
All the names on the brews — like Murrays Mead, Pickets Bone Dry Apple, and Fosters Fredonia — have ties to local figures that factor into the mid-1800’s history of the region. (Bill hopes to eventually catch up on his research and be able to present an informational card about the namesake with every sale.) It’s not just what you’re quaffing and what it’s called that hearkens back to a bygone way of drinkin’, though. It goes all the way to the presentation. On your first trip, you’ll be sold a “Daily Rations” growler with your name and (fictional) rank — mine proudly reads “Sgt. Sean” — for your pouring or, if it’s late enough, enthused swigging. It’s not how your grandpa drank. It’s how his great-grandpa drank, filling up a bottle to carry back home.
Arsenal doesn’t sell by the glass, but you can open up your growler in-store (they even have complimentary cups). So stop in, taste a few, and have Bill and Michelle fill up your growler. Grab a seat in the parlor — or, when the weather warms, the backyard patio — and trade Civil War stories. Feel free to make them up as you go. After a few glasses, you’ll be channeling the spirits of your ancestors anyway.
(300 39th St, Lawrenceville. Wed-Thu, 4-8 p.m.; Fri, 4-9 p.m.; Sat, Noon-9 p.m.; Sun, Noon-4 p.m. Closed Mon & Tues. arsenalciderhouse.com, 412-260-6968)