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Extra: Farewell to the Beerman

A commemorative run of Oskar Blues G’Knight imperial IPA, with a label printed in honor of Tony Knipling.

Even now, days later, it’s a difficult thing to write: Tony Knipling died last week.

To say that Tony was a longtime craft beer rep at Vecenie Distributing Co. in Millvale is accurate. And completely inadequate.

He sold his own brands, sure. But nearly everything he did — from being one of the longest members of the Three Rivers Alliance of Serious Homebrewers to the long-running Craft Beer School series with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust — helped sell better beer in the broadest sense. He was one of the first people in town to do it and I don’t think there’s any question that he reached more people with that message than anyone else in town.

After calling hours for Tony and his family on Sunday, a bunch of us met at East End’s taproom in the Strip to have a beer or two and talk about what we would remember most about the Beerman. This is easily the longest video I’ve ever posted here, but the memory of Tony Knipling is absolutely worth the time.

Expanding the cans at East End

It wasn’t that long ago that cans were reserved for macro beer — and treated with scorn by those seeking a better beer experience.

That perception continues to change, nationally and locally. Just take a look around here: Grist House can’t keep cans of Fire on the Hill and Hazedelic Juice Grenade in the coolers. At Dancing Gnome, the weekly can releases almost always sell out on Day One.

And at East End, the monthly canning run to keep Big Hop at distributors and on the shelves has turned into an adventure: Which beer will we can next? It’s varied from standbys like Wheat Hop, Bigger Hop or Green Giant, the citra IPA that was canned again this week, to some newcomers that the folks at the brewery decide deserve some special treatment.

This week, that included two new beers: Partly Clahdy, East End’s dank and juicy New England-style IPA, and Seedless Watermelon Gose, a delicious mix of melon-y brightness and the tart salinity of the style. There’s a third new beer in the mix this week — Cherry Stomp, a Berliner Weisse made with sour cherries — but owner Scott Smith said the temptation to can that one as well was tempered by the fact that the guys from Iron Heart Canning, the Cleveland-based mobile canning company that made its monthly visit this week, had four beers to can already.

Mr. Smith said that as is the case at Grist House and Dancing Gnome, East End’s canning runs tend to sell briskly … and that’s good, especially for the beer. Most of the beers canned at the Larimer brewery are hop-forward, and they benefit from being consumed when they are as fresh as possible, and East End helps that cause by not canning too much: “These aren’t beers that we want to have sitting around for a long time — they’re not built for that,” Mr. Smith said. “I’d rather err on the side of not canning enough than canning too much and letting collect dust on the shelves.”

And besides, as Mr. Smith added: They can always brew more.

Redefining the craft

What is craft beer?

For years, that’s been something of a floating target, with the official Brewers Association definition fluctuating as size and ingredient requirements changed. And recently, there are new challenges; as international corporations buy more craft breweries, it’s becoming harder to discern whether a brewery is independently owned or a division of one of the big guys.

Does it make a difference? In terms of quality, probably not. Wicked Weed, the most recent sale of note — the Asheville, N.C., craft beer darling was snapped up by The High End, the crafty division of Anheuser-Busch InBev — probably won’t do anything to change the quality of Wicked Weed’s beer; in fact, given AB-I’s record of investing in the breweries it buys, the beer could conceivably get even better.

But AB-I has another record that might matter even more: It has been fined, repeatedly, across the country for illegal practices that push smaller breweries from the shelves in retailers and from the taps in bars. The latest set of charges against the giant came earlier this year from the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, which says AB-I gave away equipment — stuff like branded draft towers and refrigerators — worth a collective $1 million to bars and retailers with the stipulation that the gear would be used only for AB-I products. Those charges, combined with a history of aggressive lobbying in support of taxes and distribution laws that hurt small brewers and even limiting the sale of desirable ingredients — note: AB-I owns those South African hop farms — have left many small brewers and consumer with a case of bitter beer face.

Not long after the buyout of Wicked Weed, the Brewers Association — the trade group representing craft brewers — reacted, creating a seal independent breweries could use on their products to indicate that they are independently owned. The seal definitely got the attention of AB-I; it immediately lined up several of its employees from High End breweries for a video rebuttal.

The organizers of Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week — I speak with Brian Meyer, above, president of the Pittsburgh Craft Beer Alliance, in this week’s show — have followed suit, issuing a statement saying they would apply the Brewers Association standards when determining which breweries can participate in official PCBW events. In short: if you’re an independent craft brewer, you’re in; if you’re owned by one of the big boys, you’re not.

So what should a consumer do? We’re all free to apply whatever criteria we like when we’re making decisions about what we purchase and what we don’t, and there certainly plenty of folks who continue to say “If you like it, drink it,” without regard for ownership. My two cents: Ownership matters, as does the motives of those owners. I will miss drinking Wicked Weed’s beer, once I finish the last couple of pre-buyout bottles I have stashed. But in the meantime, there are plenty of independent craft breweries — including more than I can keep up with right here in our backyard — to keep us from getting too thirsty.

Happy about Fury Brewing

What is there to be angry about? Only the name.

Besides that, though, there is no reason to be upset about the start of Fury Brewing in North Huntingdon. The space is cool and accessible, there is pizza and the beer is good across the board.

Fury is the result of a two-year push by four partners — Ryan Slicker (that’s him above), Tom Jenkins, Stephen Hoffer and Ernie Slicker — that culminated in late March, when the brewery opened in a strip mall along Route 30. Since then, a steady stream of rotating beers — from Carson Street Kolsch to Stealth American stout — have showed in Fury’s taps and at a couple other nearby tap spots.

Ryan Slicker, Fury’s head brewer, began as a homebrewer, racking up awards in local competitions. With those in his back pocket, he began talking with Hoffer and Jenkins about how a startup brewery might work. The plan was to offer a diverse lineup of beers — the partners aren’t all hopheads, for example, so expect to see plenty of malt-forward beers — the delicious Ale-ementary English brown ale is a great example — on the tap list.

That’s not to say hopheads won’t be happy. Sid’s 1K IPA has been popular enough that Slicker had to take it off the list while a fresh batch percolates in the fermenter. And be sure to pay attention to the Hoff SMaSH single-hop pale ale series; when I visited, there was a Centennial version and one made with Moteuka, a hop from New Zealand that imparts a bright, juicy start and a crisp, dry finish. I love that kind of experimentation, and this series — named in honor of partner Hoffer — shows a lot of promise.

One beer that’s not on? Slicker’s award-winning German pilsner, because Fury doesn’t yet have the capability to cold ferment lagers. Slicker said that’s coming soon … and in the meantime, his kolsch — the Carson Street variety and a new one that will be on shortly — fills the lighter side of the bill nicely.

Despite the name and the fiery-looking dude in the logo, there is nothing infuriating — or even mildly irritating — about Fury Brewing … with the possible exception of that missing pils. But that’ll be fixed soon enough, and in the meantime, Fury is a great reason to hit the road to North Huntingdon for a beer.

Learning to love lagers

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I’m willing to bet that your first taste of beer was a lager.

I’m also willing to bet that when you think of lagers now, you’re still thinking about that first taste of fizzy yellow beer.

Maybe it’s time to think again.

To many of us, lagers aren’t as sexy as the ale side of the family — they’re not the beefy, barrel-aged stouts or golden-orange IPAs that we stand in line for on release day.

Yes, they’re generally cleaner than their cousins, and the flavors can be more subtle. But dismissing lagers just because they are lagers is the wrong way to go.

Like hops? Find a German pilsner, like Penn’s Kaiser Pils or Sly Fox’s Pikeland Pils; you’ll love the sharp, spicy hop bitterness. Appreciate the complexity of a darker beer? A doppelbock, with a mix of roasted and caramel malts — and a little alcohol heft — will satisfy that urge. And if you’re looking for out-there flavors, a rauchbier — smoked malts give it its barbecue flavor will scratch that itch.

And, as 90-degree weather approaches, the best thing about lagers might be this: It’s hard to top a clean, cold lager on a hot day.

And here’s the good part: There are a bunch of well-done lagers to be had right here in the Pittsburgh area, from the old — Penn’s original German styles are still among the best out there — to the new — a couple visits to Helicon in Oakdale will help you understand brewer Andy Weigel’s love of lagers. And as I discovered when I visited Hart Johnson at Piper’s Pub to tape this show, there are a bunch more.

I’m ready for you, summer, just as soon as I stock my beer fridge with the best lagers Pittsburgh has to offer.

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