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Hitchhiker opens up shop in Sharpsburg

Once Gary Olden and Andy Kwiatkowski found a new home for Hitchhiker Brewing, making the change didn’t take all that long.

It was finding the home that was the tough part.

Olden, the owner, and Kwiatkowski, the head brewer, started looking for a larger space for Hitchhiker since shortly after the Mt. Lebanon brewery opened. The taproom in the original home has served — and will continue to serve — customers well, but the three-barrel brewhouse was stuffed into the basement of the building, forcing the pair to find some creative solutions when it came to storing hops and grains, cleaning and filling kegs … oh, and making beer.

They thought they had a place lined up off East Carson Street in the South Side, but city of Pittsburgh red tape — and what would have been a hefty plumbing bill — meant that space was unsuitable. But the search stretched into a second year before a break came for Hitchhiker; Olden was visiting Sharpsburg to check out another property when he noticed the massive outbuilding that had been the power house for the old Fort Pitt brewery. It turned out that the building was for sale, and by last winter, Olden, Kwiatkowski and a small crew had started work on building a new brewery and tap room.

The brewhouse was done first, and Kwiatkowski brewed his first beer there — an APA called 15th and Canal, for the new brewery’s location in Sharpsburg — in June. The taproom, though, took a bit longer — they put the finishing touches on it just in the last week or two, and opened the doors for a couple test nights this week.

The public space makes an impression right away. The tile work was preserved, as were the beams and skylights that give the room its industrial look. The curved bar is backed by a wall of taps. Twelve of those were pouring Hitchhiker beers when I visited this week; a handful of guest liquids were pouring from the others.

When you visit — the grand opening is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 9 — get a peek in the brewhouse if that door is open. The massive space makes the 15-barrel system seem small. It also means there is plenty of room to grow if there is need; adding more tanks to the space would be easy, and a canning line would fit nicely as well. A few more additions are already in place: two 1,000-gallon foeders — wood vats that will age sour beers — and a wall of smaller barrels for barrel-aged products.

But here’s the best part: the beer. Kwiatkowski doesn’t hesitate to say that Hitchhiker’s products have improved since he started brewing on the new system earlier this summer. And look for higher ABV beers as well; Kwiatkowski said the old system simply didn’t have enough capacity for the grains he needed to build, for example, a double IPA (spoiler alert: there’s one on the way).

If you’re a fan of the cozy Mt. Lebanon taproom, don’t worry — it’s not going anywhere. But if you live on the other side of Pittsburgh’s rivers, you’re in for a treat. And you don’t even have to hitch a ride to get there.

Mindful starts big in the South Hills

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You can’t blame a startup business for taking a conservative approach. Modest beginnings, after all, can lift some pressure and leave room for growth.

Or, you could do what Mindful Brewing Co. did. Go big. And knock it out of the park.

Brewer Nick Jones said the original plan for Mindful was to follow a time-honored blueprint for new craft breweries: Find a place just big enough for the brewhouse, a small tap room and space to park a food truck or two. What Mindful ended up with instead was a two-story palace, with a full restaurant, what would be a first-class bottle shop if it were a standalone business and a brewery that’s been turning out first-class beers since it opened four months ago.

The decision to forgo the more modest plans was driven by the space;  the Library Road property that had been home to the John McGinnis & Co. grocery became available during the search, and although was larger than what the Mindful team had envisioned, it was too good to pass up.

Another accident of timing worked in Mindful’s favor as well. The wife of brewer Marcus Cox had just accepted a job at the University of Pittsburgh and Mr. Cox — twice named Champion Medium Australian Brewer for the beers he made at Thunder Road Brewing near Melbourne, Australia, his hometown — came to Pittsburgh last year in search of a brewing job. “I put in one application, and that was here,” Mr. Cox said.

Mr. Jones had several recipes ready for the big time, including his hugely popular lime-agave wheat, and Mr. Cox brought several of his staples, including what is now Mindful’s Straight Kolsch and Red Brain amber, from Australia. They’ve worked together to scale recipes for their 10-barrel system, and they’re working on new beers, with each other and with outside collaborators.

The brewers and the rest of Mindful’s crew hasn’t had much time to ponder how things have been going since the doors opened in late January … because they’ve been far too busy. But with four months behind them, the guys running the brewery say they now have a sense of what beers are popular — the three aforementioned beers are all in the top four best-sellers — and how much time and tank capacity they can devote to experiments. And they might even be able to make enough to distribute a bit to other craft beer spots in town.

Because, you know, they didn’t start quite big enough.

Post-Gazette coverage of Mindful Brewing Co.:

#PCBW: Barrel-aged surprises from Voodoo Homestead

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It’s one of the best days in craft beer in Western Pennsylvania: when Voodoo releases bottles from its barrel-aging program. The releases are limited; they’re also coveted, which means scoring a share almost feels like a competitive sport.

And that’s what made Saturday’s event at Voodoo’s Homestead tap room so special — if you hadn’t had a chance to taste some of those beers, the barrel-aged tap takeover was your chance. Here is the list, stolen from the Voodoo Homestead Facebook page, that served as the starting point for the day:

Yep, that does say ManBearPig, probably the whale-iest of all of Voodoo’s whalez. If you weren’t there at noon — and I was not — you probably didn’t get a taste of that one. Thanks to a friend, I did get a taste of the Buffalo Trace Black Magick and a couple of other rarities that were added to the list later in the afternoon. I also had a glass of fresh Pork Chop Sandwiches, a delicious IPA that showed up on tap after the initial rush.

How long did the ManBearPig last? Watch the clip to see what Jake has to say about that.

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:

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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.