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A fresh approach for the country’s first black beer festival

 

Mike Potter and Day Bracey. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Rhythm Brewing. Black Frog. Sankofa Brewing. Patuxent Brewing.

Simmer down — those aren’t new Pittsburgh breweries you’ve missed. They’ll all be in town on Saturday, though, among the dozen or so black-owned or -operated breweries from around the country that will be highlighted at Fresh Fest Beer Fest, billed as the first black beer festival ever. The locals will be there too, featuring around 25 collaborations made with black brewers, artists and others — all exclusive to the festival.

And let’s get one thing clear — the beer isn’t the best part.

As one of the hosts of the Drinking Partners podcast, Day Bracey has become well known in Pittsburgh’s craft beer scene. And through the past few years, he’s become painfully aware that when he heads to an event or a festival, he is one of a very few — if not the lone — person of color in the room. And Bracey says the problems are obvious: barriers having to do with comfort, access and education.

It’s hard, he says, to know you stand out in any group setting, and that’s what black beer fans face when they show up at a tap room or a fest — a sea of white faces. That’s what Bracey had in mind when he started talking about Fresh Fest with podcast partner Ed Bailey and Mike Potter, founder of the forthcoming Black Brew Culture magazine — a festival to give black craft beer fans a chance meet black brewers, black collaborators and other beer drinkers.

“We can relax a little bit in a space where you’re people who look like you and understand you,” he said this week. “And that’s how you open doors to the industry and the opportunities that are there for everyone.”

And if you have any doubts about enthusiasm for the concept, check this out: since late spring, the number of participating breweries and collaboration beers has more than doubled, forcing the fest to move from its original location — Wigle’s Theadbare Cider House in Spring Garden — to the massive plaza at Nova Place in the North Side.

As of Wednesday, there are still tickets available to this game-changer. And by all means, go for the beer … because it’s going to be spectacular. But once you’re there keep in mind the big thing that Bracey told me — it’s going to be good for everyone to just have a beer together.

The secret is out — Cinderlands is good, and ready to get bigger

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Baseball players rarely hit home runs with their first at-bats. The same goes for breweries.

Here’s a notable local exception: Cinderlands Beer Co.

And Cinderlands managed to pull off a double surprise: not only did co-owners Joanna and Jamie Warden manage to pull off a low-key opening six months ago — there was no hype surrounding the rookie getting ready to open on Butler Street — but once they arrived, they nailed everything — beer and the food coming from the open kitchen beside the bar — right from the start.

Jamie Warden attributes that to the luck they had finding the right chef and the right brewmaster. Chef Joe Kiefer came over from Meat & Potatoes and began turning out creative takes on pub food, like the amazing spent-grain chicharrones and pierogi that already have a reputation as among the best in the city.

Brewer Paul Schneider, who came here from Solemn Oath Brewery in Illinois, might be even more ambitious. He’s already turning out new-school IPAs that stand up to the competition, local and beyond. But he’s also shown a willingness to challenge Cinderlands customers with unusual styles — try the Grizzled Canary grisette, brewed with a Norwegian yeast strain, that’s on right now — and unusual ingredients — Land Ethic tea witbier, brewed with organic white peony tea, or Blazing Crude coffee milk stout, brewed with Ethiopian coffee and orange peel, are good examples. And as the Pittsburgh’s summer warms up, it would be good to mention that Schneider loves turning out refreshing lagers.

He’ll be able to expand that palette further, once Cinderlands opens its second location, in the old Spaghetti Warehouse building on Smallman Street in the Strip District. The Wardens are coy about the details of what they have in mind for the space — remember how quiet they kept the opening of the Lawrenceville pub? — but they are willing to discuss the expanding brewing capacity it will bring. Schneider knows a little more: most of what he brews on Butler Street will be transferred to the bigger facility in the Strip, and the extra capacity will allow him to expand the brewery’s just-started canning program. And Lawrenceville will become, he said, a place that’s “a little more fun” — think sours and wild fermentation.

Given the track record, I have to think the new place will be just as good as the original — so the only surprise will be the opening date.

East End is grateful for volunteers. We’re grateful for barleywine.

And everyone is grateful for Gratitude. Especially on Gratitude Day.

East End’s mostly-annual release of its Gratitude barleywine started more than a decade ago, as a way for the then-young brewery to thank its customers.

These days, Gratitude release day is a full-fledged Pittsburgh beer holiday, the first day of its kind around here, with the possible exception of the yearly release of Penn’s St. Nikolaus Bock.Customers line up for bottles of the fresh Gratitude, to both drink now and to stow away for a few years. And they also show up to get their hands on vintage bottles that have been stashed away by the brewery for special occasions.

What’s the big deal? Like other barleywines, Gratitude is a big beer, and because of its ingredients and its alcohol, it ages extremely well; after a few years, some of the flavors that are more prominent in the younger versions — especially the hops that are easy to find when Gratitude is fresh — drop away, revealing a complex liquid that often reminds me of a rich brandy. East End owner Scott Smith said his favorite versions of the beer come in two varieties — as fresh as possible or aged four or more years.

But the production that is Gratitude Day doesn’t come without some extra work. When the beer is ready — it is bottle conditioned, on top of spending a lot of extra time in fermentation tanks — a team of volunteers show up at the brewery to label the bottles and dip them in a colored wax — green this year — specific to the vintage.

And this year, there was a new twist: a return to a few of the paper-labeled 750 ml bottles that were a hallmark of Gratitude releases past. That meant that this year’s volunteers got some first-hand experience with the sloppy wheat paste used to make that paper stick.

It’s not all bad, though — they get a pizza lunch for their trouble and, besides the folks who actually work at the brewery, they get the first tastes of the brand-new vintage. And that’s definitely something to be thankful for.

This year’s Gratitude Day is Saturday, March 24, at the brewery in Larimer. Both styles of bottles of the new barleywine will be available, as well as verticals, barrel-aged Gratitude in 16-ounce cans and flights on tap. Details are available here.


Big thanks to my friends at Stewards of Beer for the photos of the volunteers prepping Gratitude bottles.

Talking beer and bourbon with Lew Bryson

Lew Bryson knows Pittsburgh liquids.

He may be a native of the Philly area, but Bryson, who splits his professional time writing about whiskey and beer, has spent a significant amount of time here, attending school at Carnegie Mellon and haunting some of our great old beer bars, like Chiodo’s Tavern in Homestead.

And even though his roots remain in the eastern side of the state, Bryson is here a lot, often enough that he knows what our breweries have to offer and how they stack up against the rest of the country. And he pretty much wrote the book on tasting whiskey (no, really — he wrote the book on tasting whiskey), so he knows what our craft distillers are up to as well.

Bryson was in town recently to share pours of a treat from Marker’s Mark: a Private Select blend he worked on with a few other spirits writers who, collectively, were known as the curmudgeons (seriously — it says so right on the bottle). And while we discussed the process of picking out differently prepared barrel staves that were used to give their bourbon some heft, we also took a little time to discuss the scene in Pittsburgh and how we’re buying and consuming our beer these days.

As promised in the show: find Bryson on Twitter. He’s got a few more bottles of that special Maker’s to share, so pay attention, and you might get a taste for yourself.

Category: Pittsburgh, Region | Tags: , ,

Filling your last-minute gift list … with beer

Sure, Christmas is just a few days away. But if you’re shopping for beer people, you still have plenty of time.

Here — I’ll prove it:

I took a quick trip around town to talk to some of my favorite beer folks to get some suggestions for locally brewed beer that would make great last-minute — or last-second — gifts. The only stipulation: the subjects couldn’t pick a beer they made.

There are pales and IPAs. There are some holiday-season favorites. And there are styles from all over the globe, all brewed right here at home.

Whether you’re shopping for a friend or you’re looking for something special for your holiday weekend, we’re fortunate to have all of these options — and many, many more. Enjoy your holiday weekend, boys and girls … and enjoy it with some Pittsburgh-brewed craft beer.