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Hitching a ride to Sharpsburg

One thing is for certain — Andy Kwiatkowski won’t be bumping his head on the ceiling at work any longer.

For almost three years, knots on his head have been a occupational hazard for Mr. Kwiatkowski, the head brewer at Mt. Lebanon’s Hitchhiker Brewing Co.; that’s understandable when your brewhouse is stuffed into a basement with a low clearance.

But when Mr. Kwiatkowski and Gary Olden, Hitchhiker’s owner, move into new digs in Sharpsburg later this spring, ceiling clearance won’t be an issue; the new brewhouse will be assembled in what had been the power plant of the old Fort Pitt Brewery complex between South Canal Street and Marys Avenue, and as you can see in the photo of Mr. Olden and Mr. Kwiatkowski, there is plenty of room.

That additional space will be helpful in another way: increased capacity. The Mt. Lebanon location is home to a three-barrel brewing system; in the Sharpsburg space, that gets bumped up to 15 barrels, which will allow Mr. Kwiatkowski to brew enough beer to serve two taprooms and still have plenty left over to sell to other accounts. And once the brewing actually begins, some of the new space will be filled with barrels … and they’ll be filled with sours or other barrel-aged projects that are Mr. Kwiatkowski’s real passion.

And that’s just the behind-the-scenes part of the expansive property. One the taproom is ready you’ll be welcomed by a 35-foot bar and an array of tables. It should be summertime when the space is ready, so Hitchhiker should be able to make good use of the large outdoor space behind the building. And as it does in Mt. Lebanon, there will be a limited food menu, supplemented by occasional food trucks.

The new brewery is a bonus for Sharpsburg, which welcomed Dancing Gnome just last year. Mr. Olden said the borough was welcoming and easy to work with — a nice contrast to previous expansion efforts that ended in frustration with Pittsburgh’s city government.

Sharpsburg knows brewing, of course. And while Hitchhiker won’t be as large as Fort Pitt was in its glory days — it was the largest brewery in the state at its peak in the 1940s — but both Mr. Olden and Mr. Kwiatkowski relish their connection to the borough’s brewing history. “When we set out to look for a space, I didn’t think there were a lot of spaces that still stood from back when brewing was here,” Mr. Kwiatkowski said. “It’s amazing.”

Post-Gazette coverage of Hitchhiker Brewing Company:

Category: Allegheny County | Tags: ,

Pittsburgh beer in Playa del Carmen

I’ve noticed a serious lack of palm trees in the Pittsburgh beer scene.

That’s not the case in Playa del Carmen, a fast-growing city on the coast in Mexico’s Riviera Maya region; in fact, there are several palm trees just outside the front door of Carmen Beer Co., the city’s first craft brewery.

The other cool part? Carmen Beer Co. happens to be owned and operated by a Pittsburgh native. In his travels as a beer judge, Jeffrey Michael was surprised to find a couple years ago that the scene in Mexico was just getting started — somewhere south of 200 craft breweries — while the number back home was ballooning towards 5,000. Those numbers, he said, made sense to someone who was considering starting a brewery, and he found a spot in a strip mall big enough to host a brew house and a good-sized tap room in the front of the house.

It took some work to reach his opening day — importing a brewhouse, tracking down supplies and building out to the unique specifications of a brewery all take time, especially when you’re communicating in two different languages. But once Carmen opened its doors five months ago, it’s gone well, Mr. Michael said; he’s selling all the beer he makes, and he’s already found loyal customers among tourists and locals.

There have been some bumps along the way. Local bars often don’t have draft systems, presenting a challenge for a brewery that doesn’t package. And as is the case in the States, it can be hard for a small brewery to compete with ubiquitous brands like Cornona or Modelo when it comes to establishing a foothold in the region’s hotels and resorts.

But there have been nice surprises as well. In a city where the average high temperature in the dead of winter is 84 degrees, the brawnier styles — a barleywine and an imperial stout were both on when I visited last week — have not only been accepted but are among the most popular styles Carmen produces. And Michael said he’s starting to get inquiries about getting his products into the hands — and glasses — of the region’s tourists.

Here in Pittsburgh, we sometimes avoid crossing rivers, even if there’s good beer on the other side. And yes — getting to Playa del Carmen means crossing many rivers, not to mention a good bit of the Gulf of Mexico. But if you’re in the Riviera Maya, make sure you plan a stop at Carmen Beer Co. for a taste of home on the Caribbean Sea.

Category: International | Tags:

A hazy taste of the tropics, via Vermont

Those aren’t glasses of orange juice. Although the comparison is a bit more apt that you might think.

Those are glasses of Hazedelic Juice Grenade, a newish IPA from Grist House in Millvale. Hazedelic is part of a juicy new wave of IPAs and pales that are turning expectations about the styles on their heads, both here and across the country.

The wave started in New England, apparently with a beer called Heady Topper, brewed by The Alchemist in Waterbury, Vermont. The goal was to make a ridiculously hoppy beer, but not in the way that a brewery like Stone — which can pump up the bitterness in its hoppy beers to brutal levels — does. Instead, Heady presented a mouthful of fruity, tropical hop flavors with nearly no bitterness . A rich, soft mouthfeel. And an opaque, bright, sunny appearance. The brewery’s fans went nuts for the style, which spread around New England — New England IPA is the name that most use to designate a Heady-style beer — and beyond.

It’s far from being the most remarkable thing about these beers, but the haze has become the hallmark of the style. In fact, that’s the subject of some controversy. Consumers have been taught in some cases that haze is a sign that a beer could be infected, brewers who have spent years trying to brew beer that pours crystal clear are now being asked to suddenly reverse course. But those who have been making the style say removing the stuff that’s suspended in the beer would cut down the flavors they’re trying to find.

I don’t have any fear of stuff floating around in my glass — being a fan of hefeweizen cured me of that long ago — and what the proponents say about flavor is exactly right, as far as I’m concerned; the bright, juicy flavors practically burst with each sip. And the hops are front and center, but in a way unlike the IPAs we’re used to.

If you crave these beers like I do, you’re in luck. In Pittsburgh, they’re not hard to find. For the show, I tasted beers from Grist House, Dancing Gnome and Sole Artisan Ales, a gypsy brewery that operates in Eastern Pennsylvania. But there are plenty of other solid-to-spectacular examples of the style all over the region, so they’re not hard to track down.

The other bit of good news: It seems as though they’re not going away anytime soon. Hart Johnson, the cellarman at Piper’s Pub on East Carson Street, says the juicy pales from Dancing Gnome sell on par with Guinness in his British pub … and that’s a sign that the new school is here to stay.

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.