Post-Gazette Blogs

Laurel Highlands Meadery celebrates a year in Irwin

 

I couldn’t tell you when I had my very first taste of mead. But I can definitely tell you who gave me the first taste I enjoyed — that was Matt Falenski, owner of Laurel Highlands Meadery.

I attended the 2011 edition of Erie’s Beer on the Bay festival with Doug Derda, so I could give him a hand with his “Should I Drink That” podcast. My admittedly fuzzy recollection: we hadn’t even finished setting up when Mr. Falenski shows up at our table with cups of his bochet mead — made with roasted honey — and a mind-blowing chocolate mead. These were not the syrupy, sticky-sweet meads I had tasted previously; they were light, not overly sweet and all about flavor, rather than their substantial kick.

Since then, I’ve seen Laurel Highlands meads at Pipers Pub and other places, and enjoyed the growth of the style as Apis booms through its first few years in Carnegie. But until this week, I hadn’t visited the tasting room Mr. Falenski opened a year ago in downtown Irwin.

The warm, inviting space fits; it’s a comfortable place to sample a few tastes of the Laurel Highlands meads, everything from its traditional mead — the closest thing to what I thought mead was, which is to day it wasn’t really close at all — to varieties that are hopped or flavored with ginger, fruit or habanero peppers. If you’re a craft beer drinker, these won’t be unfamiliar to you, especially if you order a taste of Mr. Falenski’s saison mead; it’s made with French saison yeast and orange blossom honey — a sharper flavor than the Pennsylvania wildflower honey used in most of Laurel’s meads, he said — and it tastes remarkably like the farmhouse ales I love.

If you’re not yet familiar with mead, you have a great opportunity on Saturday. That’s when Mr. Falenski celebrates the one-year anniversary of the Laurel Highlands tasting room in Irwin, with live music and a couple long-awaited special releases. Among those: Laurel’s chocolate mead — not the one I tasted in Erie six years ago (the one Mr. Falenski now refers to as “a mess”), but his traditional mead aged with cocoa nibs. The result is not a chocolate drink as much as it is a light, smooth mead with a subtle chocolate flavor.

Like he did when we first met in Erie, Mr. Falenski is still confounding my expectations — for the better.

Post-Gazette coverage of Laurel Highlands Meadery:

Category: Westmoreland County | Tags: ,

Hazy days — and IPAs — at Dancing Gnome

 

Andrew Witchey went to school in Boston for a couple of years. And he learned the basics of brewing from the American Brewers Guild in Vermont.

But neither of those things really explain how Mr. Witchey, the owner and head brewer at Dancing Gnome in Sharpsburg, developed such a talent for brewing the hazy, juicy pale ales we’ve come to know as New England pales.

Mr. Witchey’s love of hops — “We unapologetically brew hop-pronounced styles” is right there on the DG home page — is evident from the moment you first look at the tap list. But understand that you’re not just looking at six or seven Trillium or Alchemist clones; the DG pales all seems to offer a twist after the initial tropical juice-bomb goes off.

An example: the Mister G Australian Pale Ale looks like it fits the New England pale profile: cloudy gold with a soft, white head. It tastes it too, until you notice a crisp shot of bitterness at the finish, thanks to an Australian hop variety called Vic Secret. That’s the kind of thing that makes Mr. Witchey’s beers interesting … and it’s the kind of thing that means his taproom is packed when it’s open.

There is one important thing to keep in mind as we ride the pale ale hype: do not skip whatever darker beer Dancing Gnome has on. I had a glass of Caligo oatmeal stout when I visited last week and it was stunning: a beautiful balance of dark-roasted coffee and sweet chocolate flavors and a perfect, silky mouthfeel. It’s fine to head to Sharpsburg for a taste of something tropical; just don’t miss a glass of Caligo for dessert.

Bonus Beer Me: Saying goodbye to Bocktown

Bocktown Beer and Grill wasn’t the first craft beer bar in Pittsburgh. It was never the biggest, nor did it have the most taps.

But there aren’t many other places in town that have done as much for local craft brewers, especially the guys who are just starting out. There would’t be many places that have done more to make craft beer accessible for those giving them a try for the first time.

And I don’t think there is anyone who has done as much to help me get to know craft beer and the people who have built our incredible community here.

Difficulties with her lease led Chris Dilla to announce the closure of the original Bocktown. But my hope is that it won’t be long before she’s back in the business in one way or another.

It looks like you have through the end of the month to grab one last beer at Bocktown and give Chris your best wishes. Make sure you don’t miss that chance.

Adventurous ales in the Works in Butler

Is Butler Brew Works worth the four-year wait?

After getting a taste of La Noche Triste, I’d have to say it is.

I don’t know if co-owners Travis Tuttle and Nick Fazzoni feel the same way; I suspect that they’re just happy to get their first six months as a working brewpub under their belts. It’s been a long time coming, after all.

Mr. Fazzoni and Mr. Tuttle started down the road to open Butler Brew Works in 2012, but problems with their downtown Butler property — particularly the building that had been home to the Butler Hot Dog Shop, which had to be razed before any work on the brewery could begin — set them back financially and chronologically.

But it’s best to not dwell on the delays now that Butler Brew Works is open and drawing people from around the region. And it’s not hard to see why. The brick building at Main and Jefferson streets is a striking contrast to the drug stores that occupied the corner for years; inside, reclaimed pallet planks covers one wall and the massive sign from Reiber Block, another building Mr. Tuttle and Mr. Fazzoni had to take down before they started, hangs on another. It manages to be sleek and modern while still feeling warm and inviting at the same time.

Did I mention warm? If that’s what you’re craving, I’d suggest a glass of Machete, the double IPA that nicely masks its 9 percent ABV — until you’ve finished a glass — behind a swirl of piney citrus flavors.

And then there’s La Noche Triste, the milk stout that gets an injection of locally roasted coffee — my sample had the Main Street roast from Butler’s Cummings Coffee and Candy — post fermentation. It is what I want for breakfast; the rich, creamy sweetness of the lactose sugars in the stout swirl with the roasted coffee for a perfect pint. Maybe Butler Brew Works could start serving breakfast as well?

Post-Gazette coverage of Butler Brew Works:

Category: Butler County | Tags:

Beer is always in Bloom in West Newton

When he opened up Bloom Brew more than two years ago, Jeffrey Bloom didn’t have much space. His brand new brewery, after all, was tucked into the back corner of the of the West Newton Fire Department’s building.

That didn’t stop him from filling the spot with ambition. And kegs … enough to keep 24 taps flowing nearly all the time.

But the smaller scale of the brewery and the insanely ambitious number of taps actually work hand in hand, as does Mr. Bloom’s obsession with aging beer in wood barrels. An example: When the tap room was open this week, Mr. Bloom handed tasters of a new mango sour to several customers, clarifying that this version — the first to go on tap — was his least favorite of the six — SIX — varieties he brewed while tinkering with the recipe.

Six takes on one new beer? That’ll help keep those 24 taps from running dry, and it’ll give craft beer lovers in his neck of Westmoreland County a chance to follow along with the experiments.

While those sours and stouts sit in barrels, others are lagering. In the meantime, a steady stream of ales, which don’t require the same amount of production time, rotate in and out with the fussier beers … and there is always plenty of beer to choose from.

There are plenty of opportunities to help out the community, something that’s been a priority for Mr. Bloom. One beer, 82 Hot Head Red, benefits the borough’s fire department (with whom he shares a home; another, Brewce’s Ryed, benefits the local trail association (the Great Allegheny Passage runs by the brewery on the opposite shore of the Youghiogheny River); a third, Snewton IPA, benefits the downtown local development group.

Excellent causes, yes. But you could also just go for the beer … all 24 taps of it.