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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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Quality and quantity for Beer Week’s sixth year

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We’re all winners during Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week. But these guys — Team Buthiker, from Butler Brew Works and Hitchhiker — won the annual Brewers’ Olympics on Sunday.

My Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week was bracketed by two staples: the Commonwealth Press Beer Barge on the first Friday and the Brewers’ Olympics on the final Sunday.

In between? Whew.

I know the calendar didn’t have as many events as in years past, but this iteration of PCBW seemed to be as busy as ever. How do I know? There were still several days during the week when I faced tough decisions about where I was going to spend my time. I made a point of getting to events I hadn’t attended in the past, and I tried to emphasize events that would get me a glass of new or special beer; that formula worked well, although there were still plenty of events that I wanted to attend but couldn’t.

My favorite events? Let’s take a look:

We’ll start with a stipulation: the beer barge, the breakfast at Piper’s and the Brewers’ Olympics will always be on this list. But beyond those, there was still plenty to like. This was the second year for Beatnik Brewers at Apis, but it was my first; Day Bracy was a great choice to emcee the show, during which brewers read their, uh, most colorful online reviews … and they picked some gems. David Cerminara from Apis teamed up with Rock Bottom’s Meg Evans to start a combo video-game tournament and beer festival, definitely the most creative new event I came across this year. And in a week with plenty of showcases for rare beers, I really enjoyed the Grist House cask event at Carson Street Deli, for its low-key focus on the liquids.

And about those beers. Here is a not-nearly-inclusive list of some that stood out for me:

Apis had a hand in three of my favorite liquids from the week, and one of those wasn’t a beer. The first thing I tasted on the beer barge was a lemon bourbon mead from the Carnegie meadery. I was blown away; fortunately I had a couple other chances later in the week to have a bit more. Apis also had a hand in Nebby Neighbor, an unofficial collaboration IPA with Helltown and Four Seasons, where it was brewed; the word “dank” comes to mind. Finally, I loved the Beard of Bees collab between Apis and Spoonwood enough that I brought home a bottle (and kind of wish I brought home two). In non-Apis news, I thought Dr. Yeastlove (Grist House, Bloom Brew, brewed at Helicon) was my favorite of the official collaborations; a close second would be Double Gose Seven (Eleventh Hour, Reclamation, brewed at East End). Last but not least, a plug for Interactive Exhibit, the collab (East End, Southern Tier, brewed at Hop Farm) brewed to benefit Brew: The Museum of Beer; it was a big, slightly boozy red IPA — and the kind of exhibit I’d visit again and again.

Thanks to everyone who had a hand in the 2017 edition of Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week. Let’s do it again next spring, OK?

#PCBW breakfast and some big beers at Piper’s

Want to find me on the Wednesday of Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week? Don’t bother looking in the office.

It’s not difficult to track me down, though. If you’re looking first thing in the morning, you’ll definitely find me at Piper’s Pub, for the South Side bar’s annual Beer Week breakfast. It started as a Kentucky-themed event, with three-year flights of Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout and an amazing Kentucky hot brown boxty. It then morphed into a breakfast cereal and beer pairing (Hint: Pour some chocolate stout over a bowl of peanut butter Cap’n Crunch. No, really.)

But since then, the day has featured a dual purpose: to highlight the beer acquisition skills of Hart Johnson, the cellarman at Piper’s, and the talents of Mindy Heisler, the executive chef there and at the Pub Chip Shop next door. Each year, Hart lines up some tough-to-find kegs and casks, generally of the beefy beer variety; for example, I had pours of three huge stouts with my breakfast this week, along with a glass of the ultimate breakfast beer, Roundabout’s Mimosa Gose.

And then there is the food, which is excessive in all of the best ways. My breakfast: Piper’s crispy chicken tenders served over a house-made Belgian waffle, with Mindy’s jalapeno maple bacon syrup drizzled over the plate. That’s one of the lightweight dishes, too; I chose it over the Drunken Irishman, a Belgian waffle covered with warm bourbon-roasted banana slices and Nutella.

And then there was the sandwich: a chicken-fried sausage patty and a dippy egg, served in a Just Good Donuts glazed doughnut bun. I am pleased to be able to tell my doctor that I didn’t even consider that one.

PCBW: No shortage of stuff to do

Aboard the Commonwealth Press Beer Barge, 2014.

Need some help sifting through the massive list of events, official and otherwise, going on during Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week?

Believe me — I understand.

But you might start by taking a look at this short clip where some of our favorite Beer Week folks discuss the events they absolutely don’t want to miss:

True, the Commonwealth Press Beer Barge is sold out — the tickets were gone in seconds again this year — but there are still tix available for the Brewers’ Olympics at Grist House. And ShuBrew’s Zach Shumaker is right when he says the annual Meet the Brewers event at Rivertowne North Shore is a low-key way to meet and talk with the folks who brew our beer; Zach is also correct when he says more people should take advantage of this opportunity.

I should also make sure you see this clip of Meg Evans, head brewer at Rock Bottom in Homestead, talking about her video game tournament and beer festival coming up later in the week:

The full preview show was running long, so I couldn’t include Meg’s comments there. But a craft beer-fueled video game bash sounds like a blast, so you guys get the above tip as a bonus.

Chances are good you’ll see me at both of these events … and at plenty of others until the week winds down at Grist House next Sunday afternoon. See yinz out there.

For beer, it’s the best week of the year

Even with a slightly pared-down schedule, the prospect of mapping out Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week activities seems daunting.

But I’m going to give it a shot anyway.

The sixth edition of the region’s craft beer showcase gets started Friday with the Commonwealth Press Beer Barge, a floating festival that sold out in seconds again this year, and wraps up with the third edition of the Brewers’ Olympics, the contest held at Grist House. I’ll be at both of those (and as of this moment, you can still get tickets to the Grist House event).

The rest of the week isn’t so tidy, at least not for me. Organizers had a goal of looking for quality events rather than hitting a specific number; they did that successfully, but there are still plenty of instances when it could be tough to choose between two or three good ones going on at the same time. But at the most basic level, beer week is about two things: events and beers, so let’s break it down that way.

A highlight every year is the collaboration beers brewed by teams from multiple breweries. There are a bunch this year, but in a new wrinkle, they all have two things in common: each beer had to contain honey malt and 007 hops, an experimental variety from Idaho. That was a nudge away from the norm, and the teams reacted appropriately. The geekiest of beer geeks will know what a grisette is (and if you don’t, make sure to track down the Men at Works collab from Church Brew Works and Butler Brew Works). But do you know what a sahti is? I didn’t, Turns out it’s a delicious ancient style with roots in Finland; the Buzzerker, from Rivertowne and King View Mead, reminded me of a slightly herbal barleywine. But as you run down the list of collabs — I got to taste most of them at a preview event last week — you won’t find a bad one in the bunch, and that’s a testament to the brewing talent we have in town.

And those are just the official collabs. As you poke around during the week, you’ll find others. I’ll make a special trip to Caliente in hopes of getting a taste of Won’t You Be My Neighbor IPA, a collab with Helltown. And on Saturday, I plan on stopping by Spoonwood for a taste of barrel-aged Beard of Bees, a collab with Apis Mead and Winery.

If you’re more of the hands-on type, you should get out to South Park on Saturday morning; that’s where members of Three Rivers Underground Brewers will host a homebrewing class and demo for the second year in a row. The classroom portion of the event comes with a fee (it’s worth it, boys and girls — these are some of the best brewers in town); after noon, though, you’re welcome to stop by and watch as these folks brew and answer your questions. There is also plenty of homebrewed beer there to sample.

Leave it to Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery to up the creativity on their new offering for 2017. The same folks who brought you Brewtal, last fall’s beer and heavy metal fest, have dreamed up PCBW’s first video game tournament and craft beer combo festival, to benefit Variety Pittsburgh. Contestants will play Super Mario Cart or Mortal Kombat 2 on big screens, non-contestants can drop quarters on some old-school games that will be wheeled in for the event … and everyone can enjoy a lineup of local beers.

That doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface, but it’s a start. You can also find me having breakfast at Piper’s Pub on Wednesday and dinner with my friends from Grist House there on Thursday. And I think I’ll venture up to Cranberry on Tuesday to get my first look at Pig Iron Public House … and a taste of a comic book beer.

What will you be up to during beer week? Let me know with the tag #PGBeerMe and I’ll see you out there.

Post-Gazette coverage of Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week 2017: