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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.

Bigger means better for Erie’s Lavery Brewing

A quick glance at the Lavery Brewing brew house in downtown Erie doesn’t reveal any obvious problems.

You’ll have an easier time figuring out the issue if you take this approach: When was the last time you saw Lavery beers on the shelves or in your favorite bars here in Pittsburgh?

Chances are it’s been quite a while.

Lavery will start 2018 with a hefty expansion to its brewing capacity and if all goes well, it will have fixed a biggest challenge: it can’t make enough beer.

Jason Lavery, who founded the brewery about eight years ago with his wife Nikki, said the brewery initially had a hard time finding customers in its home market, so it immediately began shipping beer to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and a couple of out-of-state destinations. That worked well, until the locals caught on and demand for Lavery in Erie — especially in its brewpub, which opened a few years ago — began to spike.

Now, Lavery said, the brewery sells nearly every drop in makes in Erie County, which means there’s no Dulachan IPA, Ulster Breakfast Stout or Liopard Oir Farmhouse Ale for the rest of us.

Advice: Either take a road trip to Erie, where Lavery’s beer is readily available — and if you make a stop at the brewery’s pub, you’re going to find some stuff you won’t see anywhere else — or hold on for just a few more months. Lavery said he thinks his beer will start showing up in Pittsburgh again by the start of summer.

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.

Extra: Farewell to the Beerman

A commemorative run of Oskar Blues G’Knight imperial IPA, with a label printed in honor of Tony Knipling.

Even now, days later, it’s a difficult thing to write: Tony Knipling died last week.

To say that Tony was a longtime craft beer rep at Vecenie Distributing Co. in Millvale is accurate. And completely inadequate.

He sold his own brands, sure. But nearly everything he did — from being one of the longest members of the Three Rivers Alliance of Serious Homebrewers to the long-running Craft Beer School series with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust — helped sell better beer in the broadest sense. He was one of the first people in town to do it and I don’t think there’s any question that he reached more people with that message than anyone else in town.

After calling hours for Tony and his family on Sunday, a bunch of us met at East End’s taproom in the Strip to have a beer or two and talk about what we would remember most about the Beerman. This is easily the longest video I’ve ever posted here, but the memory of Tony Knipling is absolutely worth the time.

Expanding the cans at East End

It wasn’t that long ago that cans were reserved for macro beer — and treated with scorn by those seeking a better beer experience.

That perception continues to change, nationally and locally. Just take a look around here: Grist House can’t keep cans of Fire on the Hill and Hazedelic Juice Grenade in the coolers. At Dancing Gnome, the weekly can releases almost always sell out on Day One.

And at East End, the monthly canning run to keep Big Hop at distributors and on the shelves has turned into an adventure: Which beer will we can next? It’s varied from standbys like Wheat Hop, Bigger Hop or Green Giant, the citra IPA that was canned again this week, to some newcomers that the folks at the brewery decide deserve some special treatment.

This week, that included two new beers: Partly Clahdy, East End’s dank and juicy New England-style IPA, and Seedless Watermelon Gose, a delicious mix of melon-y brightness and the tart salinity of the style. There’s a third new beer in the mix this week — Cherry Stomp, a Berliner Weisse made with sour cherries — but owner Scott Smith said the temptation to can that one as well was tempered by the fact that the guys from Iron Heart Canning, the Cleveland-based mobile canning company that made its monthly visit this week, had four beers to can already.

Mr. Smith said that as is the case at Grist House and Dancing Gnome, East End’s canning runs tend to sell briskly … and that’s good, especially for the beer. Most of the beers canned at the Larimer brewery are hop-forward, and they benefit from being consumed when they are as fresh as possible, and East End helps that cause by not canning too much: “These aren’t beers that we want to have sitting around for a long time — they’re not built for that,” Mr. Smith said. “I’d rather err on the side of not canning enough than canning too much and letting collect dust on the shelves.”

And besides, as Mr. Smith added: They can always brew more.