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Five years, dozens of beers — that’s Beer Week

pcbw pipers chalk board

When you reach a five-year milestone, it feels right to take a moment and reflect on the path that got you there. And if you think back to the first Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week — especially if you do so right after completing the fifth — you’ll understand just how far the industry has come in that time.

Were there a dozen Pittsburgh-area craft breweries back then? And will there be three or four times that many by the end of 2016?

As we learned last week, it’s not just the number that should leave an impression. It’s the quality of the beer as well. Just look at this year’s collaboration beers: breweries that haven’t yet opened or got started in the last six months contributed to five of the seven official collaborations, and all were excellent.

Summarizing my beer week is always a tough task. But let’s give it a try.

Favorite events: I made a point to try to get to some new stuff (to me, anyway), and I liked everything I got to. A standout was Oysterfest, the annual party under the Homestead Grays Bridge put on by Blue Dust — and I’m not even a fan of oysters, although the festival’s namesakes drew huge lines all afternoon. The beer choices were unique — don’t pass up a chance to try stuff from Shawnee Craft Brewing as it shows up around here, boys and girls — and there were plenty of food trucks for those who didn’t want oysters. I was also pleasantly surprised by the Summer Craft Brewhaha, a summer seasonal preview held at Altar Bar; the selection was far from predictable and the space worked out better than I expected. I hit some staples as well: the annual Wednesday beer breakfast at Piper’s Pub featured an extra delicious menu this year, perhaps in celebration of its spot on the calendar (April 20, ahem); the Helltown Brewing cask takeover at Piper’s, this year with beef braised in the brewery’s Mischievous Brown Ale as the dinner special; and if I can help it, I will never miss an edition of the Brewers’ Olympics, the event at Grist House that puts a perfect cap on the week.

Favorite beers: Here’s a great sign — the collaboration beers are more consistently good every year. With one slightly embarrassing caveat — that this North Side resident never got a taste of the Mash Paddle vs. Hipster India Red Lager collab from Penn, Spring Hill, War Streets and Allegheny City — I’ll say that the standout among the collaborations was Greenfield Bridge is Falling Down, the deliciously juicy Vermont-style IPA from Spoonwood, Helltown and two newcomers: Helicon and Dancing Gnome. I loved all of the other collaborations, but I have to give specific mention to one more, mostly because I made such a big deal about it in my beer week previews: white stouts — like Prospero, from Rock Bottom, Hitchhiker, Bloom Brew and and Eleventh Hour — work wonderfully, even if one’s brain can’t figure out in advance how a white stout might work. A few others: I really liked 5 Point Black IPA, the collaboration between Carson Street Deli and Rock Bottom; Big Boots Gose, a margarita-esque effort from the women of Pittsburgh’s Pink Boots Society; and as it starts to get warmer, be on the lookout for Grapefruit Chinookee IPA from Full Pint — it was a standout at the summer festival.

Never mind the calendar — we’re ready for spring

hart glowing beer 2

You might think that it would be tough to talk about beers intended for warmer weather while it’s still snowing outside.

And you would be wrong. It’s actually easy.

And really, what’s not to like? A fluffy white ale with splash of bright, zesty ginger? An IPA with a rich, juicy — and let’s go ahead and call it dank — hop flavor?

Or a ridiculously easy-to-drink Austrian grapefruit radler?

The craft beer industry isn’t especially patient — or tied to what the rest of us think of as the seasons — which is why we see pumpkin beer on the shelves in August or why we can celebrate Halloween with our favorite Christmas ale. The industry’s spring season isn’t as well defined, but Hart Johnson, the guy who orders beer for Piper’s Pub on the South Side, says he starts thinking about a move away from heavier beers like stouts, porters or barrel-aged concoctions in February, because that’s when the sales reps that visit the pub start pushing fare that’s appropriate for warmer weather.

The profile of a spring seasonal isn’t as well defined as a malty Oktoberfest or a spiced Christmas beer either, although Mr. Johnson correctly points out there are some common threads; a turn towards lighter, brighter flavors, especially like the ginger in Roundabout’s Maui Wit or the the juicy character of the mosaic hops in The Brew Gentlemen’s Momo pale ale. It won’t be limited to spring, but you’re going to see even more pale ales and IPAs that are pushing citrusy hops — or just straightforward additions of citrus to the beer.

And, especially if we’re talking about German brewing traditions, there are styles, like marzens or maibocks, that show up when the winter weather starts to break.

And that radler? Yes, it’s true that we’re probably skipping over spring and jumping directly to mid-July with that light, fizzy and crisp mix of lager and grapefruit juice. But if you want a glass of sunshine, that’s where you can find it … even when there are still snowflakes in the air.

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Going whole hog for Groundhog Day

smiley gobblers knob

Groundhog Day is a big deal around here.

How big? Think about it: with two beers being brewed to commemorate the 2016 edition of the day, there’s only one holiday — Christmas — that gets more attention from the brewers around here.

In the case of Straub in St. Mary’s, putting out a beer with a groundhog on the label has been a regular thing for years. Four years ago, though, its Groundhog Altbier represented a shift in the brewery’s very foundation. It was the first beer the brewery had produced since before Prohibition that wasn’t made with adjuncts … and it was the start of a shift towards a craft beer lineup that now includes about a dozen styles, mostly German.

The altbier serves as the brewery’s winter seasonal, and it’s perfectly suited for it. There is a little heft to the beer, rich and a touch sweet up front; that’s backed up with a balancing bitterness to finish. It’s delicious, and it would be perfect for drinking on Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney … if such things were still allowed up there on Groundhog Day.

But you won’t have to drive to Punxy to meet the town’s most famous resident on Saturday, Jan. 23. You’ll just have to get to Penn Brewing on the North Side, to meet Punxsutawney Phil and to get a taste of Penn’s Punxsutawney Philsner, a beer made to commemorate the visit.

The Philsner tastes a bit like Penn Gold — OK, it tastes a lot like Penn Gold — but that’s not a bad thing; the Munich Helles is slightly biscuity, slightly spicy and perfectly balanced, and if Phil ever gets tired of the elixir he’s fed every few years to keep him going — this will be his 130th prognostication — I have to think he’d be happy with a glass of the Philsner.

And regardless of which beer we’re talking about, so will you.

Thankful for local beer on the table

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Thanksgiving is just two weeks away and if you’re planning a full Thanksgiving dinner, you’ve got some decisions to make: How to cook the turkey? Sweet potatoes to go with the mashed? How many pies will be needed for dessert?

Oh, right — and what are we drinking?

Here’s a suggestion. Why don’t you skip the overly chilled bottle of chardonnay and track down a locally made beer to go with your bird?

Making the choice to serve beer isn’t hard; picking a specific beer or two, though, could feel a bit overwhelming. In the immediate area alone, there are dozens of breweries, each making multiple styles that would complement your feast. What’s the right choice to make?

Relax. This isn’t as complicated as it sounds. First off, it would be tough to come up with a wrong choice; personal preference counts for a lot in this case. But if you’re still struggling, let Meg Evans, Jake Voelker, Scott Smith, Steve Ilnicki, Michael Murphy and Andy Kwiatkowski — all pros at local craft beer businesses — give you a hand.

I asked each one for recommendations for a beer they brew or pour that would work well with a traditional Thanksgiving meal; I got responses ranging from a saison to a combination of spiced pumpkin beer and a sturdy stout. Why the picks? It might be a broad pairing with most of the dishes that will show up on your table; it might also be a notion that a hefty oatmeal stout would stand up to a smoked turkey breast.

(We asked our pros for another pick, one that they’re not responsible for making or selling; I’ll post those in a bonus video on the Beer Me Facebook page early next week.)

A bunch of choices. All available locally. I hope you can find a couple that would work on your Thanksgiving table.

The (craft beer) holidays have arrived

dilla

Don’t pay any attention to what the calendar says; the holidays are here.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. After all, we’ve been seeing pumpkin beer — the recently crowned staple of autumn craft beer drinking — in stores and at distributors for weeks.

But if you work in the business, what we’ll call Holiday Beer Creep gets started even earlier. Want to make sure your bar has its fair share of pumpkin beer this year? You’re placing orders in June and July. Don’t want your customers to be shut out of Troegs Mad Elf or Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale in December? You’ve got Christmas beer on your mind in August.

The autumn and winter seasons bring distinctive, spicy profiles to the coolers of your favorite bottle shops. In the fall, that means beer that’s part of a larger trend for pumpkin-flavored everything; if it tastes like pumpkin pie, it’s probably going to make customers happy.

(Note: This doesn’t include Oktoberfest beers, those malty German lagers meant to accompany the folk festival that started in Munich in 1810. Before you get too caught up in the pumpkin craze, be sure to give a couple of fest beers a try.)

The winter flavor profiles aren’t as confined, but a bunch are similar: clove, ginger, cinnamon, honey, and maybe with a kicked-up ABV to help keep us warm.

The more jaded among us tend to give a sideways glance at the fall and winter seasonals and, especially, how they seem to stretch the start of their seasons earlier and earlier. But as Chris Dilla, owner of Bocktown Beer and Grill restaurants in Robinson and Monaca who is pictured above, told me this week, there are new ones to try every season — and it would be a shame to miss them.