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Hitching a ride to Sharpsburg

One thing is for certain — Andy Kwiatkowski won’t be bumping his head on the ceiling at work any longer.

For almost three years, knots on his head have been a occupational hazard for Mr. Kwiatkowski, the head brewer at Mt. Lebanon’s Hitchhiker Brewing Co.; that’s understandable when your brewhouse is stuffed into a basement with a low clearance.

But when Mr. Kwiatkowski and Gary Olden, Hitchhiker’s owner, move into new digs in Sharpsburg later this spring, ceiling clearance won’t be an issue; the new brewhouse will be assembled in what had been the power plant of the old Fort Pitt Brewery complex between South Canal Street and Marys Avenue, and as you can see in the photo of Mr. Olden and Mr. Kwiatkowski, there is plenty of room.

That additional space will be helpful in another way: increased capacity. The Mt. Lebanon location is home to a three-barrel brewing system; in the Sharpsburg space, that gets bumped up to 15 barrels, which will allow Mr. Kwiatkowski to brew enough beer to serve two taprooms and still have plenty left over to sell to other accounts. And once the brewing actually begins, some of the new space will be filled with barrels … and they’ll be filled with sours or other barrel-aged projects that are Mr. Kwiatkowski’s real passion.

And that’s just the behind-the-scenes part of the expansive property. One the taproom is ready you’ll be welcomed by a 35-foot bar and an array of tables. It should be summertime when the space is ready, so Hitchhiker should be able to make good use of the large outdoor space behind the building. And as it does in Mt. Lebanon, there will be a limited food menu, supplemented by occasional food trucks.

The new brewery is a bonus for Sharpsburg, which welcomed Dancing Gnome just last year. Mr. Olden said the borough was welcoming and easy to work with — a nice contrast to previous expansion efforts that ended in frustration with Pittsburgh’s city government.

Sharpsburg knows brewing, of course. And while Hitchhiker won’t be as large as Fort Pitt was in its glory days — it was the largest brewery in the state at its peak in the 1940s — but both Mr. Olden and Mr. Kwiatkowski relish their connection to the borough’s brewing history. “When we set out to look for a space, I didn’t think there were a lot of spaces that still stood from back when brewing was here,” Mr. Kwiatkowski said. “It’s amazing.”

Post-Gazette coverage of Hitchhiker Brewing Company:

Category: Allegheny County | Tags: ,

Pittsburgh beer in Playa del Carmen

I’ve noticed a serious lack of palm trees in the Pittsburgh beer scene.

That’s not the case in Playa del Carmen, a fast-growing city on the coast in Mexico’s Riviera Maya region; in fact, there are several palm trees just outside the front door of Carmen Beer Co., the city’s first craft brewery.

The other cool part? Carmen Beer Co. happens to be owned and operated by a Pittsburgh native. In his travels as a beer judge, Jeffrey Michael was surprised to find a couple years ago that the scene in Mexico was just getting started — somewhere south of 200 craft breweries — while the number back home was ballooning towards 5,000. Those numbers, he said, made sense to someone who was considering starting a brewery, and he found a spot in a strip mall big enough to host a brew house and a good-sized tap room in the front of the house.

It took some work to reach his opening day — importing a brewhouse, tracking down supplies and building out to the unique specifications of a brewery all take time, especially when you’re communicating in two different languages. But once Carmen opened its doors five months ago, it’s gone well, Mr. Michael said; he’s selling all the beer he makes, and he’s already found loyal customers among tourists and locals.

There have been some bumps along the way. Local bars often don’t have draft systems, presenting a challenge for a brewery that doesn’t package. And as is the case in the States, it can be hard for a small brewery to compete with ubiquitous brands like Cornona or Modelo when it comes to establishing a foothold in the region’s hotels and resorts.

But there have been nice surprises as well. In a city where the average high temperature in the dead of winter is 84 degrees, the brawnier styles — a barleywine and an imperial stout were both on when I visited last week — have not only been accepted but are among the most popular styles Carmen produces. And Michael said he’s starting to get inquiries about getting his products into the hands — and glasses — of the region’s tourists.

Here in Pittsburgh, we sometimes avoid crossing rivers, even if there’s good beer on the other side. And yes — getting to Playa del Carmen means crossing many rivers, not to mention a good bit of the Gulf of Mexico. But if you’re in the Riviera Maya, make sure you plan a stop at Carmen Beer Co. for a taste of home on the Caribbean Sea.

Category: International | Tags:

A hazy taste of the tropics, via Vermont

Those aren’t glasses of orange juice. Although the comparison is a bit more apt that you might think.

Those are glasses of Hazedelic Juice Grenade, a newish IPA from Grist House in Millvale. Hazedelic is part of a juicy new wave of IPAs and pales that are turning expectations about the styles on their heads, both here and across the country.

The wave started in New England, apparently with a beer called Heady Topper, brewed by The Alchemist in Waterbury, Vermont. The goal was to make a ridiculously hoppy beer, but not in the way that a brewery like Stone — which can pump up the bitterness in its hoppy beers to brutal levels — does. Instead, Heady presented a mouthful of fruity, tropical hop flavors with nearly no bitterness . A rich, soft mouthfeel. And an opaque, bright, sunny appearance. The brewery’s fans went nuts for the style, which spread around New England — New England IPA is the name that most use to designate a Heady-style beer — and beyond.

It’s far from being the most remarkable thing about these beers, but the haze has become the hallmark of the style. In fact, that’s the subject of some controversy. Consumers have been taught in some cases that haze is a sign that a beer could be infected, brewers who have spent years trying to brew beer that pours crystal clear are now being asked to suddenly reverse course. But those who have been making the style say removing the stuff that’s suspended in the beer would cut down the flavors they’re trying to find.

I don’t have any fear of stuff floating around in my glass — being a fan of hefeweizen cured me of that long ago — and what the proponents say about flavor is exactly right, as far as I’m concerned; the bright, juicy flavors practically burst with each sip. And the hops are front and center, but in a way unlike the IPAs we’re used to.

If you crave these beers like I do, you’re in luck. In Pittsburgh, they’re not hard to find. For the show, I tasted beers from Grist House, Dancing Gnome and Sole Artisan Ales, a gypsy brewery that operates in Eastern Pennsylvania. But there are plenty of other solid-to-spectacular examples of the style all over the region, so they’re not hard to track down.

The other bit of good news: It seems as though they’re not going away anytime soon. Hart Johnson, the cellarman at Piper’s Pub on East Carson Street, says the juicy pales from Dancing Gnome sell on par with Guinness in his British pub … and that’s a sign that the new school is here to stay.

Adventurous ales in the Works in Butler

Is Butler Brew Works worth the four-year wait?

After getting a taste of La Noche Triste, I’d have to say it is.

I don’t know if co-owners Travis Tuttle and Nick Fazzoni feel the same way; I suspect that they’re just happy to get their first six months as a working brewpub under their belts. It’s been a long time coming, after all.

Mr. Fazzoni and Mr. Tuttle started down the road to open Butler Brew Works in 2012, but problems with their downtown Butler property — particularly the building that had been home to the Butler Hot Dog Shop, which had to be razed before any work on the brewery could begin — set them back financially and chronologically.

But it’s best to not dwell on the delays now that Butler Brew Works is open and drawing people from around the region. And it’s not hard to see why. The brick building at Main and Jefferson streets is a striking contrast to the drug stores that occupied the corner for years; inside, reclaimed pallet planks covers one wall and the massive sign from Reiber Block, another building Mr. Tuttle and Mr. Fazzoni had to take down before they started, hangs on another. It manages to be sleek and modern while still feeling warm and inviting at the same time.

Did I mention warm? If that’s what you’re craving, I’d suggest a glass of Machete, the double IPA that nicely masks its 9 percent ABV — until you’ve finished a glass — behind a swirl of piney citrus flavors.

And then there’s La Noche Triste, the milk stout that gets an injection of locally roasted coffee — my sample had the Main Street roast from Butler’s Cummings Coffee and Candy — post fermentation. It is what I want for breakfast; the rich, creamy sweetness of the lactose sugars in the stout swirl with the roasted coffee for a perfect pint. Maybe Butler Brew Works could start serving breakfast as well?

Post-Gazette coverage of Butler Brew Works:

Category: Butler County | Tags:

A good start for Helicon

It’s natural to expect that a brand new brewery might have some growing pains. Going from a homebrewing scale to a 15-barrel brewing system isn’t an easy transition, and that says nothing of all of the other tasks that come with opening and running a beer-making business.

Unless, apparently, you work at Helicon Brewing in Oakdale.

For Chris Brunetti and Andy Weigel, the first brew day on their new system wasn’t ideal — it took more than twice as long as it should, for one thing.

But it’s tough to argue with the result: 001 Pale Ale, a nicely balanced American pale that has become the brewery’s best-seller in its first month in business. Close on its heels: 002 India Pale Ale, a juicy New England style IPA that can make even a cold December afternoon feel like a day in the tropics.

Add to that — among others — a blonde ale, an imperial stout and what is sure to be a long list of Mr. Weigel’s lagers — all good enough to prompt a cult-like following among Pittsburgh’s homebrewing community — and you get the sense that Helicon is going to do just fine.

The brewery’s distinction of being the first in western Allegheny County — it’s just a few minutes’ drive south of the shopping areas in Robinson and North Fayette — will likely help as well, although that wasn’t part of the business plan; that’s just where Mr. Brunetti was able find space. It should work out well in the future, too; the parcel in Oakdale, the site of a former dog food factory, is big enough to accommodate the owner’s plans for a restaurant and other businesses.

And the fact that the Panhandle Trail runs right along the property means there should be a ready-made audience for a cold beer or two in the warmer months.

But don’t wait until then to give Helicon a try. You’d miss out on one of the region’s best new breweries.

Category: Allegheny County | Tags: ,