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Pittsburgh is more than craft beer

Yinz cannot live by craft beer alone.

Which is a pretty good reason to organize a Pittsburgh Libations Week.

You’ll have to wait for another year for an actual week with actual events, but chances are pretty good that you’ve already heard something about Pittsburgh Libations Week, as Jason Cercone works to get it going.

Mr. Cercone has been involved with the region’s craft beer scene since he founded his Breaking Brews news and marketing service several years back. As he became more involved with the scene, he began noticing connections between the area’s breweries and those involved in other facets of the adult beverage industry. Moreover, he started noticing the quality of what was available: ciders, meads, wine, distilleries and a thriving cocktail culture.

Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week was already several years into its successful run at that point; while Mr. Cercone was an enthusiastic supporter — he’s emceed several PCBW events and hosted others over the years — he thought the rest of the industry deserved some time in the spotlight as well.

If goes as planned, the first Pittsburgh Libations Week will be held a year from now. But Mr. Cercone is starting to fill his calendar with promotional events — some to raise money for his event, some to raise money for charity and all to raise awareness about PLW and the industry behind it — like the Uno tournament coming up at the Wigle Barrelhouse on the North Side Oct. 29.

And as a perfect distillation of Mr. Cercone’s vision, the Uno event will feature cocktails made with local beers and Wigle spirits … because, as he hopes to show, we’re all one big happy family.

A sweet start for Greensburg Craft Beer Week

The first-ever Greensburg Craft Beer Week got off to a good start on Monday … especially for those of us with a sweet tooth.

I started in downtown Greensburg, where Hugo’s Taproom — a cozy neighborhood pub with good-looking food and a great-looking tap list — hosted a beer and chocolate pairing. The beer was provided by Quinn Brewing, which brought along four rich, malt forward selections to compliment the chocolates. And the chocolates gave us a preview of McFeely’s Gourmet Chocolate, a shop that’s set to open a Greensburg location soon.

The pairings all worked well; my favorite was definitely Braddock’s Golden Ale — a soft, approachable beer that Alan Quinn said was the brewery’s “regular beer” — and a dark chocolate-jalapeno bark.

From there, I stopped at Tapped Brick Oven and Pour House, to get a little dinner and to get a taste of Foster Pumpkin Project, a pumpkin beer made by the folks at Tapped and Delmont’s Yellow Bridge Brewing. I also followed up my delicious thin-crust pizza with a #gbgcbw dessert pairing: beers from Fat Head’s and desserts from Sweet Tarte’s Bakerie; my choice was the Goggle Fogger hefeweizen and a slice of bananas Foster cheesecake.

And then I waddled out to my car and drove home.

The dessert pairing and the pumpkin collab will be available at Tapped all week, and there are plenty more events to entice a drive to Greensburg. Take a look at the schedule, and then head east this week … it’s worth the trip.

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.

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.

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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