Pittsburgh’s Craft Breweries and Taprooms Offer More than Just Great Beer
A brewery boom is drawing everyone from serious beer aficionados to families. With draws such as food trucks, trivia and more, they have become our new neighborhood gathering spots.
It’s a frigid Friday night in January, and Pittsburgh’s newest brewery, Golden Age Brewing Company in Homestead, is beginning to hum. The post-holiday wind-down, sub-freezing temperatures and the spike in COVID-19 cases caused by the omicron variant have kept more people at home than might typically visit; nevertheless, groups gather around the airy space’s long, rectangular tables for conversations and board games. Outside, fire pits rage.
Most everyone is sipping crisp pilsners or malty schwarzbiers, lagers that are the brewery’s specialty and a style of brewing that is one of the most prominent trends in beer right now. These clean, crisp brews are a break from the ultra-hopped and hazy IPAs, high-alcohol imperials and fruit-forward tartshakes that dominated the past five years (and remain popular among many beer lovers).
Golden Age’s in-house kitchen serves a limited menu, but it’s tasty. In addition to outstanding hamburgers, juicy chicken sandwiches and succulent wings, it’s serving what may very well be the best arancini in town. The crispy-crunchy, saffron-spiked risotto balls served on a bed of butternut squash, topped with sage-infused aioli, are an utterly satisfying companion to beer.
The brewery has two more of its beers on tap — kölsch, a light, hybrid beer that begins as an ale and finishes as a lager, and a fresh-sipping Citra American pale ale that’s a callback to a less hop-headed era. Golden Age’s other taps pour beers from Pittsburgh stalwarts, such as Roundabout Brewing and East End Brewing, and a hop-forward New England-style IPA from another well-regarded Pittsburgh newcomer, Old Thunder Brewing in Blawnox.
The idea that a craft brewery would want to sell — or even be allowed to sell — beers from another brewery would have been wild just a few years ago. Heck, a decade ago it wasn’t even possible to drink most breweries’ own beer where it was brewed.
It’s why Golden Age co-owner Peter Kurzweg and his brother Matt initially opened a bar, Independent Brewing Company in Squirrel Hill, in 2014. Back then, it took a bit of effort to explore a variety of locally brewed beers in Pittsburgh.
“You had good beer bars such as Piper’s Pub and Carson Street Deli that predated us who had heavy doses of local beer on tap, but they drew from other sources, too. The idea of putting together an all-local list was kind of laughable at the time because there just wasn’t that much out there. But within a year of our opening, we had a lot of new breweries to choose from and that list just kept growing,” Kurzweg says.
In 2022, there is so much good beer brewed in Pittsburgh that people don’t want to go to one place to get it. Instead, they visit the sources.
With 45 breweries in Allegheny County (at press time) peppering neighborhoods throughout the region, Pittsburgh is riding the wave of a brewery boom. It used to be that these spaces were largely the domain of hop heads and homebrew aficionados, but breweries in Pittsburgh now are our community gathering places and neighborhood pubs.
“A lot of bars are from an older era,” says Bob Batz Jr., longtime beer writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “They’re dark and not welcoming. Most of these breweries were planned in contemporary times, and they’re designed to give people what they wanted. There are places that are spacious. There are places that are dog-friendly. There are places that are kid-friendly.”
The pandemic has caused an ebb-and-flow to the crowds in the taprooms, but it hasn’t stopped people from visiting when they can, and it certainly hasn’t diminished the industry’s growth. The production side of beer brewing in Pittsburgh is thriving due to advancements in the cost and ease of canning and broader distribution availability.
How good are things right now? Only one brewery in Pittsburgh, Couch Brewery in Larimer, closed during the pandemic. Another brewery is already set to move into the space later this year.
Just about everybody, it seems, loves a brewery.
A Short Pour
For decades, Pittsburgh Brewing Company, maker of Iron City and I.C. Light, dominated Pittsburgh’s post-Prohibition market, much in the same way that industrial macrobreweries such as Pabst, Budweiser and Coors built businesses in their respective cities. And the company’s offerings, once an anchor of industry in Lawrenceville, remain popular enough today that the company is preparing for a massive new life. Read More.
As for our craft brewing history? “It was a very slow start here,” says Batz.
The craft beer movement in the United States was given a foothold with the passage of the Small Brewers Excise Tax Differential in 1976, a law that leveled the fiscal playing field for small brewers. A decade later, Tom and Mary Beth Pastorius launched Penn Brewing when they contracted with Pittsburgh Brewing to brew Penn Pilsner. In 1989, the couple opened Allegheny Brewery & Pub in Troy Hill (they changed the name to Penn Brewery in 1994); it was the first “tied house,” a restaurant operating in conjunction with a brewery, in Pennsylvania since the end of Prohibition, and, even though it has transferred ownership several times, it remains a respected anchor of Pittsburgh’s beer community.
Penn Brewery was the only tied house in the region until Church Brew Works opened in Lawrenceville in 1996. A smattering of now-closed breweries attached to restaurants operated in the following years. It wasn’t until 2004, when Scott Smith opened East End Brewing in Larimer, that the stage would be set for what would become the explosion of brewery culture in Pittsburgh.
Smith, an engineer by trade and at the time an avid homebrewer, didn’t want to open a brewpub — he wanted to brew beer and sell it for distribution at local bars and restaurants, something that seems so commonplace today but was a novel idea in Pittsburgh less than two decades ago.
“I called the [Allegheny] County Health Department and they asked me how many seats I had in our restaurant. I told them there was a chair by my desk and that was about it,” Smith says. “They didn’t know what to do or how to classify us.”
Smith’s Larimer building was classified as light industrial. He started with one beer — Big Hop, an IPA that he says people told him was “too hoppy” at the time but now is so mellow by comparison that, he says, “we call it an American Ale now. If we were to call it an IPA today, it wouldn’t meet the expectations of that style.”
Smith took his first keg of Big Hop to Kelly’s Bar & Lounge in East Liberty on a snowy December night, unsure if anybody would show up to drink it. An hour after tapping the keg, he had to drive back to the brewery to bring another one to the bar, where it has had a dedicated tap ever since.
Bit by bit, Smith, going bar to bar at night, built his business. And then, one day in 2005, he sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board asking about the parameters of self-distribution. They let him know he could sell growlers of his beer on-site. “And that’s what changed everything,” he says.
Smith would place a keg on the sidewalk and use a Sharpie to scribble hours on a paper posted to the door to let people know he was open for retail sales.
Smith and early adopter brewers such as Strange Roots (opened in 2011 as Draii Laag) in Millvale and Roundabout Brewery and Hop Farm Brewing Company, both of which opened in Lawrenceville in 2013, would offer “samples” of their beer for sale at their breweries.
“These places were small. They were more interested in packaging beer than they were selling it to drink on-site,” says Batz.
Sampling, which Smith says was “a little squishy legally,” was more about allowing guests to enjoy a brew while filling growlers than it was about drawing new customers into the space. Craft cocktail culture was all the rage at the time in Pittsburgh. People weren’t yet hanging out at breweries. Slowly, however, laws regulating the sale of beer were relaxing.
In 2014, three significant breweries — Grist House Craft Brewery (Millvale), Hitchhiker Brewing Co. (Mt. Lebanon) and The Brew Gentlemen Brewery (Braddock) — opened with taprooms using a brewpub (GP) license, which allowed for breweries to serve pints on-site as long as they had 30 seats and served “legitimate” meals. Hop Farm began serving beer by the pint at its brewery, too.
In the years that followed, regulations such as the wording colloquially called the “bag of chips law” (which meant that brewers could now sell pints for consumption on-site so long as the space had at least 10 seats and snacks such as the proverbial bag of chips) and other reframing of what you could do with a ‘G’ (brewery) license continued to make it easier for breweries to become hangout spots.
A clarification of an earlier “storage facility” provision, used by Voodoo Brewery (Meadville, 2005) to open a taproom in Homestead in 2015, noted that it was indeed legal to sell beer from two remote locations used to store kegs, paving the way for breweries to operate multiple facilities. Further legislative changes in 2017 meant that breweries could sell beer, wine and spirits from other Pennsylvania producers, too.
Pittsburgh grew from a town with limited choices beyond the industrial brewers to a town with a dedicated and robust craft beer scene. Brewery taprooms now come with a base expectation that the beer sold there will be good.
“You’re not necessarily going to a brewery because you want to try their particular beer or style. I don’t think most people are going to drive across town just to get a specific beer in a way that they used to,” Batz says.
Good Beer, Everywhere
“You can get as deep as you want with brewing. You can get a little science or get deep into a whole lot of science. You can use classic recipes or you can push the limit. It all depends what your interests are and how far you want to take it,” says Lauren Hughes, head brewer of Necromancer Brewing in Ross.
Necromancer opened in May, selling cans for takeaway. In August, it added a 56-seat taproom decorated with plants hanging over a slick black wall with “Necromancer” scripted on the bottom. The wall is false, a placeholder for when the pandemic is behind us, and people will feel comfortable gathering in large groups again. Behind it is another 9,500 square feet of raw space, an industrial warehouse ready to be transformed into a grand beer hall.
It’s in line with what’s happening all over town, as breweries continue to expand to draw in more customers. On the other side of the rivers, The Brew Gentlemen reopened its Braddock taproom after 21 months of production only (plus a summer beer garden Downtown at Allegheny Overlook) with a shiny new space.
And while some breweries such as Strange Roots, which now operates in Gibsonia and still has a taproom in Millvale, and Abjuration Brewing in McKees Rocks function with particular styles in mind, most, even if their brewers have a passion for certain varieties, offer a wide range of beer designed to deliver something for everyone.
At Dancing Gnome in Sharpsburg, the taproom was already filling up at its Saturday noon opening time on a cold January day. The brewery is best known for its classic, juicy New England-style hazy IPAs, but you can also get pours of a wide range of styles, such as the bitter-smooth, coffee-and-lactose-infused milk stout Sua Da and Hibernal, a malty, piney winter-season IPA, from the 16-tap system in its spacious new taproom, which opened in October.
“There’s a return to classic styles and beer-flavored beer that appeals to a wide audience,” East End’s Smith says, noting that many of his regulars drink the same core classics. But novelty remains, particularly with younger drinkers.
“Most people come in here and ask, ‘What’s new?’ And it turns out it has to be pretty new.”
These days, however, innovation might draw a line of a brewery’s biggest fans to a limited can release, but it will not make you stand out from the crowd.
“Just about everybody is making good liquid,” says Day Bracey, Pittsburgh beer podcaster and co-founder of Barrel & Flow Fest, the nation’s first Black beer festival. “Some folks are hitting out of the park, some folks have niches, but ultimately you can get good liquid from just about any brewery around here. So if you’re going to differentiate yourself, you have to have a culture. You have to have more than just good liquid.”
So What’s the Draw?
“Every brewery has its own vibe. Each has its own idiosyncrasies and styles. That’s the cool part of all of this,” Smith says. “And it seems to fit Pittsburgh, too. We have all these neighborhoods in Pittsburgh and everything is a little bit weird, a little bit quirky. And that’s what I think puts everybody on a level footing of sorts.”
It took Smith a little longer than many of Pittsburgh’s newer brewery owners to recognize that an inviting taproom space might be a draw to get people to hang out for a few pints. His Larimer space was not exactly photogenic at first. “There was barbed wire on the top of the fence, and it was leaning inward to the courtyard. The interior was a bunker, with no daylight coming through at all,” he says.
He made significant changes in his space in 2019 when he partnered with Justin Severino and Hilary Prescott Severino on an in-house eatery called Larder at East End. Part of the deal with the duo, owners of Salty Pork Bits and co-owners of Morcilla, was adding new windows, refurbishing the courtyard and adding new tables throughout. All of it, plus a smattering of table games, helped to turn East End Brewing into a family-friendly destination, as well as one for avid cyclists (We suggest this bike and brew tour along Pittsburgh’s rivers).
Larder closed in 2020 and a year later was replaced with East End Chewing, an in-house pizza shop run by Sheryl Johnston, formerly kitchen manager of the once-beloved vegan restaurant Quiet Storm. She uses pan pizza as a canvas for culinary exploration and makes sure to offer something that you might not typically think of at a brewery — there always is a meat-free pizza as thoughtfully constructed as the one for omnivores.
Food of all kinds is part of the draw nowadays.
“The No. 1 direct message I get on social and by the phone is, ‘What’s your food truck tonight?’” says Aadam Soorma, head of marketing and guest experience at Trace Brewing in Bloomfield.
Many breweries have food trucks roll in on a regular schedule. Taqueria El Pastorcito pulls up to Trace three Wednesdays per month to serve an array of tacos, soups and daily specials. Breweries help these food entrepreneurs build a loyal following; the food can be just as much of a draw for the space as the beer. Pittsburgh Sandwich Society even took up full-time residency as the not-quite-in-house kitchen of Strange Roots in 2021.
“People are showing up, more and more, to breweries expecting there will be a food option,” Soorma says. “We try to diversify who we are booking, because we also see it as a neighborhood service.”
The relationship between brewery and food truck keeps getting better, too — two stalwarts of the brewery circuit (El Pastorcito and stuntpig) are on Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2021 Best New Restaurants list.
Quite a few breweries have in-house kitchens, too. There were early adopters such as Spoonwood Brewing Company (opened in 2015), where the menu, which includes wood-fired pizza and smoked meats, is lengthier than most restaurants around town. The plans for Cinderlands Warehouse, the multi-million-dollar refurbishment of the old Spaghetti Warehouse space in the Strip District (a 2019 opening that marked a new era in Pittsburgh beer), included building a massive kitchen on the ground floor and an ambitious, restaurant-style menu. Cinderlands’ original space in Lawrenceville, renamed Cinderlands Foederhouse, now serves as a space for some of the best experimental hamburger builds in town.
Some breweries, such as Two Frays in Garfield and Old Thunder Brewing, encourage guests to support neighborhood restaurants by allowing outside food in the taproom. Two Frays even goes as far as to list nearby establishments on its website. The brewery works to connect with its neighborhood in other ways, too, such as collaborating with the down-the-block nonprofit Assemble — a community space for arts and technology — on a refreshingly tart sour ale conditioned on blueberries and pomegranates. Artist Brenna Thummler’s unicorn-robot Assemble mascot is featured on the magenta cans, and the brewery hung photographs from Garfield native Veronica Green for the bottle release party.
Indeed, breweries around town are now hubs for all kinds of activities.
There are trivia nights, including Geeks Who Drink trivia Thursdays at Eleventh Hour Brewing Company in Lawrenceville and BuzzWorthy Trivia on Wednesdays at Cinderlands’ Wexford outpost. Live music abounds in Pittsburgh breweries, too. At Hop Farm, the desire to offer space for entertainment helped prompt the brewery to triple the size of its Lawrenceville location in October with a new warehouse extension, which serves as a public and private events space and hosts evenings such as Thursday music sessions featuring local and touring artists. Comedy nights are becoming a part of the entertainment rotation in taprooms, too. And for those looking to unwind, Mindful Brewing Company, East End and Trace are among the Pittsburgh breweries that offer yoga classes.
Who these spaces are run by and designed for is undergoing a renovation, too.
Opening the Taproom
Breweries such as Trace, which opened in 2020, are making overt strides to increase inclusivity. A rainbow flag flies prominently in its taproom and events such as drag nights and brunches bring in a crowd that might not have thought about going to a brewery just a few years ago.
Most importantly, Trace offers a six-month paid vocational training program targeted to women, people of color and LGBTQIA+ people — no high school or college diploma required — designed to open doors in the beer industry.
“The hardest thing is finding a way to break into the industry. It’s tough to begin with, and if you’re not a white dude it’s really tough. So having a way for folks to get training to make them an ideal candidate is awesome,” says Hughes of Necromancer Brewing.
Right now, Hughes is the only female head brewer in Pittsburgh. She worked for Sun King Brewery in Indianapolis while finishing her degree in music. A job as the manager of artistic operations for Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra brought her to Pittsburgh; she was there for a few years when her wife suggested she get back into brewing because she thought she’d be happier.
At Necromancer, she’s brewing beers such as Borrowed Time: a crisp, fruity Saison; Give Me a Second: an aromatic, hazy, double IPA; Blindfold: a toasty, luxurious, black-wheat beer; and Soggy Bottom: a hoppy, boozy, pastry stout brewed with blueberry, cinnamon and milk sugar.
The profound gender disparity is something Hughes actively is working to change, serving as a mentor to brewers such as Nina Santiago, an alumna of Trace’s vocational program and now assistant brewer at Necromancer. Hughes also serves on the Pittsburgh Brewery and Tap Room Diversity Council, a small group of beer and brewery professionals dedicated to expanding access to historically underrepresented communities in the professional beer space. She’s partnered with organizations such as Brave Noise, a collaborative brewing project focused on advocacy for inclusive environments in the beer world, and helped lead She Knows Beer, a brewery diversity council project that highlights women working in craft beer.
“With the formation of the diversity council and inspiration from people like Day Bracey, we’re starting to be seen. Black people, brown people, gay people all love beer, too,” says Soorma. “What I’m sensing is that we’re at the precipice where it isn’t as awkward a moment when you walk in as a person of color and say you love wild-fermented beers, you love sours and you can just have a person-to-person beer-focused conversation.”
There’s activity to expand the reach of brewery spaces to Pittsburgh’s Black community, too.
Bracey and then-partner Mike Potter organized the first Black beer festival in the country, Fresh Fest (since rebranded as Barrel & Flow), in 2018. It was an instant hit spotlighting the need for inclusivity in the beer space, both in terms of who is brewing beer and who is working in all the sectors surrounding brewing.
“There aren’t a lot of places in America where a lot of Black craft beer drinkers congregate. I thought that was a Pittsburgh issue, but it’s really a national issue. You can go to Philadelphia, New York, D.C. and Los Angeles and you still weren’t going to see craft breweries filled to the brim with Black people,” Bracey says.
To that end, he reached out to Black artists, community leaders and musicians in Pittsburgh to collaborate with the region’s craft brewers; the festival also featured 10 Black-owned breweries from across the country. As a result, 2019 brought national and international attention and a significant increase in sponsorship dollars, allowing Bracey to better pay artists and brewers for their work.
Barrel & Flow’s 2020 event was held virtually and 2021 took place between waves of the coronavirus. With a vaccine mandate in place, Bracey says it was the most successful festival to date in expanding the reach and opportunity for Black beer professionals and craft beer lovers.
“A lot of what this festival is, is showing what the reality of diversity and inclusivity looks like in action. It’s no longer theoretical. It’s not, ‘If you do this, it can be this.’ It’s, ‘We did this,’” he says.
Barrel & Flow already has announced it will bring a weekend of beer, art and community to a new location in the Strip District this August.
Bracey says that the reach of the festival is beginning to extend into who is being booked for entertainment in brewery taprooms and which artists brewers are working with for canning labels.
“Who is going to be there? Who is performing? Is there a connection to my community? That was lacking pre-pandemic in Pittsburgh. I think that’s something you can’t overlook. And if you do, it’s going to be a loss in your potential revenue,” he says.
Bracey adds that the increased exposure has offered opportunities for local artists to collaborate with breweries in other ways. “What the festival helps to do is redirect energies. The Black artist community in Pittsburgh is now dialed into working with breweries as an opportunity. And in doing so, the breweries now have dope artists on their rotation. The artists have a new avenue for their art,” he says.
Having artists on rotation is increasingly important because more and more Pittsburgh breweries are expanding their reach with ambitious canning projects, and those cans need labels.
Breweries “have a community gathering spot side, but they also are little beer factories. And the beer factory part was especially important during the pandemic since community gatherings have been up and down and sometimes fraught with peril,” says Batz.
One of the most important leaps forward has been the relative ease and access to canning lines.
“People want cans. When they go to a brewery you want to take something home. Growlers don’t last. And with cans you have the labels, too. It’s visual, it’s tasty, it’s something you can share with your friends. Cans are king,” Hughes says.
There are now several mobile canning operations around town, and many breweries have added canning lines to the array of equipment in their brewhouses. These lines range from the relatively compact assemblage found at Necromancer to the shiny, state-of-the-art counter-pressure canning line that Smith added to East End Brewing last year, the single most significant investment he’s made in the brewery since it opened in 2004.
Cans have minimal exposure to oxygen, so they offer a significantly longer storage capacity than growlers, and they are more portable. On top of that, canning allows Pittsburgh breweries to expand their footprints by selling six-packs, and even individual cans, across town.
Pittsburgh’s brewing shows no sign of slowing down.
“There are still new breweries popping up all over, which is great,” says Hughes. “If Pittsburgh wants to be considered [a destination] beer town, we need to have more breweries. It’s nice to be able to have more new places to try.”
It’s likely that as many as 10 new breweries will open in Allegheny County in 2022. Tortured Souls Brewing Co. is set to replace Larimer’s Couch Brewery. Coven Brewing will move into the Roundabout Brewing space in Lawrenceville when owners Steve and Dyana Sloan move on (Roundabout’s Chateau beer garden will continue to run this season); co-owner Caiti Sullivan will be Pittsburgh’s second woman head brewer when Coven opens this spring. Velium Fermentation is in the works to return locally brewed beer — as well as kombucha and activities such as arcade games — to the South Side.
Established breweries are set to expand in 2022. The most notable development on the horizon is Grist House Craft Brewery’s massive project at the former Nike Missile site in Collier. The site houses a Cold-War-era 55,000-square-foot building on one of the highest hilltops in the county. When open, it will serve as a production facility, retail store and massive taproom, as well as offer plenty of outdoor space for festivals, food trucks and fire pits.
And Smith’s East End Brewing Company is set to open a second taproom later this year in Mt. Lebanon. It will feature a full kitchen and outdoor seating, though brewing operations will remain in Larimer.
If someone had told Smith when he started that there would be 45 breweries in Allegheny County, he says his reaction would have been, “Yeah, sure, right. Maybe when I’m dead. But now, it shows no signs of stopping.”