Pittsburgh’s Iron City Lights
Three Rivers. The Steel Curtain. Heinz ketchup. Pete Flaherty. And now, Da Bus…
But would you think of beer if someone yelled out “Pittsburgh”? We were pleasantly surprised recently when we visited the Iron City on a trip across Pennsylvania.
Da Burgh’s mountainous, winding streets make following two-dimensional maps a challenge. You turn onto what you think is the right street and—all of a sudden—you’re 200 feet above it. But once you get the lay of the land, you’ll find neighborhoods filled with ethnic charm, which means they’re also brimming with tasty food and interesting places to quaff a good brew.
A Carnivore’s Delight
Our first stop was Fat Head’s Saloon (1805 East Carson St.) in the South Side Flats district. You can see and feel this establishment’s character as you walk in. Pittsburgh is a union town, and one of Fat Head’s themes is Local 1807, which also happens to be the street address of one of the buildings. It’s a small place with colorful regulars sitting at the bar and a down-to-earth staff serving them. Brick walls dubbed “Fat Head’s Global” display photos of fans posing in places such as the Alamo, the middle of Iraq, and Hell, MI.
Fat Head’s sports more than 40 taps, with a strong selection of microbrewed beer from around the country. The saloon also had a handpump. Rogue’s Mocha Porter was available the day we visited. (Rogue also brews Fat Head’s house ale.) Here you’ll find the beer menu posted on wooden slats arranged vertically behind the bar.
The food is simple, and the portions are hefty. “Headwiches”—really, really big sandwiches with names like “Artery Clogger” and “Bay of Pigs”—are the specialty of the house. The menu also includes everything from bar snacks to burgers to steaks and ribs.
Pennsylvania’s laws regulating retail beer sales can be frustrating to visitors, since beer is sold in case lots by distributors. Luckily, bars can sell six-packs “to go.” Fat Head’s obliges its customers by keeping an upstairs cooler stocked with a wide selection of bottled beer. An easy-to-spot blackboard lists new arrivals, and growlers to go are also available.
40 Wings and a Pitcher of Yuengling
Before you leave the neighborhood, wander down the street to Smokin’ Joe’s Saloon (2001 East Carson St.). You can tell it’s a keeper by the neon Red Seal Ale sign in the window. The first thing you notice is the long cooler behind the traditional wooden bar. If you can’t find something to tickle your fancy here, you’re not really looking. There are more than 200 different bottled beers including Ommegang Three Philosophers, Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA and Cantillon Forbidden Fruit. The 50 draft choices bespeak a mixture of European and American craft beers, ranging from Lindemans Framboise to Rogue’s Dead Guy Ale.
The selection can excite any beer lover, and the menu is filled with hardy comfort food: hoagies, pierogies and chicken wings. The locals told us that on Thursdays there’s a 40 wings-and-a-pitcher of Yuengling special that packs the place. If you head to the back of this long, narrow building you’ll find a quieter dining area, along with pool tables and dart boards.
The Sharper Edge?
Veteran beer travelers say that asking the locals is the best way to uncover neighborhood gems. We stuck up a conversation with the couple seated next to us at Smokin’ Joes and sure enough, they recommended the Sharp Edge Beer Emporium (9302 South Clair St.; a second location named Sharp Edge Creekside is located at 288 W. Steuben St., Thornburg Bridge). On a well-hidden corner, we found a recently renovated building with something to suit every mood, whether it’s playing video games or darts, or savoring a quiet meal amid all the breweriana.
Sharp Edge’s slogan is “Your Belgian Beer Connection.” Special draft choices are displayed on a chalkboard. The rows of tap handles at the bar include 28 Belgians alone, some of which are seldom found on draft in American bars. We found four nitros, nine imports, and 10 micros on draft, including Victory’s Golden Monkey. Incredibly, the place also carries more than 200 bottled beers, with Belgians dominating the selection.
We found the bar staff friendly and knowledgeable. Soon we found ourselves talking about Sharp Edge’s beer selection, other places to get great brew, and new beers to be on the lookout for. Their policy: “We try to be the first to have it and the first not to have it.” Look out for the “Mystery Draft” specials at $3. Order the pommes frites with three dipping sauces and you’ll momentarily be transported to the Grand’ Place in Brussels.
Pour Me an Ale (And Check the Oil)
Near the University of Pittsburgh, almost in the shadow of the Cathedral of Learning, is the Fuel & Fuddle (212 Oakland Ave.). A blackboard near the entrance offers tongue-in-cheek (or at least we hope it’s meant that way) “Tips for Incoming Freshmen.” (Examples: “1) Drop your 8:00 Class Now. 2) Plagiarism Isn’t Illegal Unless You Get Caught.”)
As its name suggests, this establishment has a gas-station ambience, with the look and feel of a fire station thrown in. The bar is lined with metal plaques honoring the bar’s “cult members,” those who’d reached tasting milestones starting with 100. The beer lineup includes contract-brewed (by Tröegs Brewing of Harrisburg) Fire Brick Brown and Pumphouse Pale Ale. There’s a wide selection of bottles, arranged by style, with a number of Pennsylvania micro products.
Fuel & Fuddle, loosely translated, means “food and drink.” Its house food specialties are wood-fired, thin-crust pizza, big Italian sandwiches (called “hands”) and half-pound burgers. A portion of every sale goes to a local non-profit organization called Pittsburgh Cares.
Beer Traveler’s Benediction
Our final stop we enjoyed in Pittsburgh might stir up memories if you attended Catholic schools during your childhood. The Church Brew Works (3525 Liberty Ave.), located in the desanctified St. John the Baptist Church, is eerie, yet humorous.
As the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh changed—much like other neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, and all large East Coast cities, for that matter—businesses and residents fled to the suburbs. Eventually, the Diocese of Pittsburgh closed many of its schools and churches, and put the properties up for sale. St. John the Baptist stood vacant until the Church Brew Works opened for business on Aug. 1, 1996.
The building renovation paid attention to detail, just as the original construction did early in the last century. Many of the original fixtures have been incorporated into the brewery, and all of the beautiful stained glass remains intact.
As you enter, your attention naturally focuses on the altar and its brightly lit brewing equipment that now occupies a place of honor. The light grabs you like a scene from a Monty Python movie and almost demands genuflection.
The pews have been cut and hand finished to make the seating areas for the dining tables. One confessional now serves as the “pro shop” for merchandise. And if you look closely, you’ll notice a reddish orange hue on the floor. It comes from the original Douglas fir floors that were uncovered during the restoration.
The brews served here will please your palate as much as the unique cuisine. Brewer Byran Pearson has a regular lineup of four beers: Celestial Gold, Pipe Organ Pale Ale, Pious Monk Dunkel, and Blast Furnace Stout, along with a seasonal. Blast Furnace is a toasted oatmeal stout that won a gold medal at the 1999 GABF.
There’s a fine dining menu that includes Kobe beef, chicken pot pies, pasta, and everything in between. Or, if casual food is more to your liking, ask for the pub menu. They serve wings, sandwiches, and pizza. We enjoyed a spinach, artichoke and feta pizza that was outstanding.
Definitely plan a visit to the Church Brew works if you’re in Da Burgh. You’ll leave with good memories of both the beer and the building. And a fresh start for your soul, no matter where you’re headed next.
Paul Ruschmann is a writer, editor and researcher; Maryanne Nasiatka is a writer and photographer. They travel as much as their budget permits, visiting many of the places where great beer is brewed and enjoyed.