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B-ing (even more) local at Bocktown

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dilla bar

Since she opened the first Bocktown Beer and Grill in late 2006, Chris Dilla has emphasized local. Locally sources meats, veggies and breads were found up and down the food menu. And when it was possible, locally brewed beer showed up on the tap list and in the coolers that made up the Beer Library.

The trouble was that back then, there were just a handful of Pittsburgh-area breweries … and not many more on the other side of the state.

But now, as Ms. Dilla prepares to celebrate the 10th anniversary of her Beer and Grills, she’s having a much easier time filling those tap lists with beers brewed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania or neighboring states. When I visited this week, the 16 taps at B1, the original location in Robinson, all were pouring Pennsylvania-made beers; at B2, in the Beaver Valley Mall in Monaca, just three taps were occupied by handles from out of state.

And that suits Ms. Dilla just fine. She’s happy to serve beer made by people she knows in breweries that are a short drive away. She likes that the money she’s spending on beer is often staying in the region.

And, best of all, she says that stocking local beer hasn’t meant sacrificing in the name of variety … or quality.

“There’s a great range of styles being produced here, and that makes it easy for us to keep a good variety on tap … and they’re great beers as well,” she said. “The idea of local has always been a big thing for us, so I love that we’re able to do it with the beer we serve.”

Meeting an old friend in Beaver County

charles pour

I met Charles years ago.

But until my recent visit to Hollywood Gardens and Brixton Brewing in Rochester, Beaver County, I hadn’t had an opportunity to get caught up again.

Charles is the name of Brixton’s Belgian-style quadrupel, a complex, delicious monster of a beer. Back in 2011, it was the first beer introduced by Brixton, the house brewery for Hollywood Gardens, and I was so pleased to see him again when I visited.

Sightings of Charles and other Brixton beers had been occasional until October, when owner Frank Elia and brewer Zachery Ruskin really got going on their new 2-barrel brewing system to the degree that Brixton beers began to regularly appear on the tap list at Hollywood Gardens.

What was behind the wait? A little license juggling took up some time, but when Mr. Elia secured a brewpub license he and Mr. Ruskin set up a small system in the basement of the bar and began serving Brixton beers on weekends.

That Hollywood Gardens would be home a 12-tap system and a beer cave featuring bottles in the hundreds — much less to a brewery turning out quality IPAs and Belgian styles — is remarkable in and of itself. The bar was opened on Pinney Street in Rochester by Rocky Elia, Frank’s father, in 1958. Frank Elia took it over in 2009 after his father passed away and remade the place from a shot-and-a-beer bar to one that featured the craft beers he had come to love.

A chance meeting with Mr. Ruskin at the bar — and a few tastes of Mr. Ruskin’s home-brewed beer — got Mr. Elia thinking about making beer to serve in his place and in the spring of 2011, the pair hosted a welcoming party for Charles … and I was immediately smitten. So I was thrilled to see his name on the list when I visited last week. And just as thrilling? The other two Brixton beers on tap last week — a bitter named Matthew and a West Coast IPA named Robbie — were every bit as good.

It’s a small brewing system so for now, trying Brixton beers will require a drive to Beaver County. But for a chance to meet Charles, Matthew or Robbie, it’s worth the trip.

Post-Gazette coverage of Hollywood Gardens and Brixton Brewing:

Just a pizza shop — with big ambitions

me and pizza

This is more than Nick Bogacz had in mind. Even so, he’s happy with the results.

Mr. Bogacz, the owner of Caliente Pizza and Draft Houses in Bloomfield and Hampton, had made a good living working in and running pizza shops; he had recipes that he thought would work and he set out to find a pizza business — take out or delivery only — of his own.

He had been turned down several times before hitting on a promising location on Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield. The catch? The purchase included a liquor license. That went well past the original business plan, but Mr. Bogacz said the numbers worked out … and he took the leap. He also made a fateful business decision — he was going to serve craft beer, as soon as he put in a little research time.

That work paid off. The original Caliente was about six months old when the second annual Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week rolled around, and I recall it kind of exploding into the city’s craft beer consciousness. That was thanks to some shrewd planning on the part of the owner, who made sure he jumped into the beer week efforts with both feet. Those smarts have continued with the opening of the Hampton location, which has been filled with busy suburbanites who wanted to stay caught up with the city’s craft beer scene.

And then there’s the step that goes well beyond what would normally be expected from a pizza shop would — Caliente is making beer. With the help of Matt Moninger — a former brewmaster at Church Brew Works and the currently lead bartender at the Hampton location — Caliente has done beer week collaborations with Church and with East End Brewing; they’ll co-release a collaboration with Draai Laag — a dark sour called The Plague — next weekend and there are plans to brew an IPA with Philadelphia’s Yards Brewing later this year.

I don’t have any reason to doubt Mr. Bogacz when he says he just wanted a pizza shop. But I’m pretty happy that he gave up on those plans three years ago.

Post-Gazette Coverage of Caliente Pizza and Draft House:

Category: Allegheny County | Tags: ,

The (craft beer) holidays have arrived


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.

Searching for session beers

Let’s be clear about one thing right off the top — I’m definitely a big fan of big beer.

But I love little beer too, especially since more breweries are putting an emphasis on making their lower-alcohol offerings as flavorful as possible. It’s a big enough deal that the trend has its own name — session beer, or beers that have low alcohol by volume without sacrificing flavor.

Why do session beers work? There are plenty of instances when cutting back on the amount of alcohol you’re consuming is a good idea, and if beer drinkers can accomplish that without losing the character and flavor that makes craft beer enjoyable, everyone comes out on top.

Just a few years ago, it would have been a little tough to track down a solid, locally produced session beer. That’s not the case today, though; I found two great options at Rock Bottom in Homestead, where brewmaster Brandon McCarthy — that’s him in the photo above — was happy to discuss how session beers gives his customers a chance to sample new flavors and styles without worrying about getting too sloppy during an afternoon shopping trip at the Waterfront.

Session beers have been at the forefront of Scott Smith’s mind pretty much since he opened East End Brewing; after some experimenting, he came up with a nut brown ale recipe that suited its namesake: Fat Gary. Mr. Smith has even established a session beer series of seasonals and one-offs, all with ABVs below 5 percent.

And as patrons of Piper’s Pub can attest, there are always several sessionable options available, a boon to those who are watching a Premier League football match or two.

That’s not even close to all of the options that are available, whether they’re locally produced or showing up at local distributors. So the next time you’re out for dinner, ask about what session beers are available. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at what you’re missing. And what you’re not.

Post-Gazette coverage of session beer: