Football talk revolves around the great teams and the great players. As I've said many times, you know more about football than I do ("you" meaning anyone reading this site, anyone at all – yeah, you too, Mom, thanks for keeping the hit count up this week), but even I have noticed that the names of some cities come up again and again as the greatest: Miami in the 1970s, San Francisco in the 80s, Dallas in the 90s.
It is much the same when beer geeks get talking. Eventually, the talk comes around to the greatest beer cities. It's not a long list, but it is, like football teams, a favorite topic for disagreement. There are perennial favorites: Brussels, London, Portland (Oregon first, but Maine as well), Munich, Boston, Seattle, Chicago, the German trio
of Düsseldorf, Köln, and Bamberg (Bamberg, with a population of only about 90,000, is kind of the beer-town equivalent of Green Bay), and my own hometown of Philadelphia. Great places for beer, and no denying it.
But any football geek worth his salt loves to throw in a team for consideration that the rest of the gang had overlooked – the Bears teams of the early 30s, for instance, with Bronko Nagurski and Red Grange; such legendary men are often forgotten in these steroid-enhanced days. So it is with beer geeks, who love to bring up a beer town from the fringes, present its merits, and – with luck – win grudging acknowledgment, or even better, plan a road trip.
In this spirit, I present for your approval: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
That's right, Iron City. In fact, I'm wearing an Iron City hat as I write this. They call it "Arn" in Da 'Burgh, and they tell you right up front: it's a 'Burgh thing. There are some small towns in America that still have their hometown brewery, but Pittsburgh and Rochester are the only sizeable cities that still have their local suds, and that's a proud thing, and a big thing. Pittsburgh Brewing
sits on the edge of Lawrenceville, across the railroad gorge from Polish Hill, and it's a big brewery (3340 Liberty Ave.). Malt comes to this brewery by railcar, and the twin stainless brewkettles are behemoths.
But what about the beer, Iron City? I drink it whenever I'm in town. It's as good as any mainstream brew in America, and anyone who says different is letting advertising do his tasting instead of his tongue.
That's not all Pittsburgh has – far from it. In fact, right across the street from Pittsburgh Brewing is the Church Brew Works
, a brewpub set up in the old St. John the Baptist RC Church (3525 Liberty Ave.). It's a shocker to walk in and see the brewkettle right up there on the altar. It's not just show, either. The Church wins medals regularly for beers that are malty and smooth – like the Pious Monk Dunkel and Mad Brewer Maibock – and brewer Bryan Pearson can pull off a big, ballsy beer with the best of them.
Across the Allegheny on the North Side is the Park House (403 E. Ohio St.), a barrelhouse bar that is Pittsburgh's oldest, and not far away is Pittsburgh's second-largest brewery, Penn Brewing
, founded back in 1987 (Troy Hill and Vinial Streets). They brew some of the best lager beers in the country right here, and they've got a stack of honestly won GABF medals to prove it. Their flagship is Penn Pilsner, but my usual choice is the rich and smooth Penn Dark. Drinking at Penn is real close to drinking in Germany, with the solid wooden tables, the music, and the great beer.
There's another brewery in town, a one-man production brewery called East End Brewing
(6923 Susquehanna St.). Trust me, you don't want to visit Scott Smith's 'hood unless you're driving an armored car and packing heat, but you can find their Big Hop IPA and Black Strap Stout plenty of places in town; keep an eye out and grab some.
Having four breweries is not going to put a town into contention for Beer City status, not even iconic breweries like Iron City and Penn. Pittsburgh pours it on with a collection of bars that cover a wide range of boozing desires. Get a good map – because this is a damned confusing town for the novice driver – and let's do a quick bar hop.
We can start across the gorge from Pittsburgh Brewing at Gooski's in Polish Hill (3117 Brereton St.). Gooski's is the kind of place anyone can like: solid neighborhood bar with reasonable food and cheap drinks by day, hopping bar with good micro taps and plenty of big Polish blondes at night, and always good bartenders. The jukebox is hot, there are some rough edges to the place – it's a classic upscale dive.
Ray's Marlin Beach Bar & Grill is a bit classier but seriously quirky (5121 Butler St.). The taps are few but interesting – Ray's is the first place I had Kostritzer Maibock, a beer I'm jonesing on right now – there's a great bottle selection, and a delicious Cubano-Miami menu. The people here are more edgy, tattooed and pierced, but everyone is welcome.
If you want a serious selection of Belgian beers, you have to go over to my old neighborhood, Shadyside. The place is The Sharp Edge (302 S. St. Clair St.), and that's where you'll find Pennsylvania's best selection of Belgian taps outside of Philadelphia in a determinedly down-home bar (get the potato pancakes if you don't believe me). I'd nominate Sharp Edge for best beer bar with lowest geek ratio anywhere; these are just folks who like the beer Jeff Walewski puts on tap, no pretense.
When I first went to D's Sixpax & Dogz in Regent Square (1118 S. Braddock Ave.), I wanted to rush home and open Lew's Sixpax & Cheezsteax. This place is just a short bar with a short menu of hot dogs, smoked sausages and fries, about 15 items in total. But the wall behind the barstools is all coolers full of singles, there are six more constantly rotating taps of really great beers, and the back room is The Beer Cave, a beer geek's wet dream. D's has over 800 beers available and keeps them well-rotated for freshness. I love this place, and they just doubled their size: more to love.
Pittsburgh has gotten kinda fat over the years – not that I can hold that against it – and its borders hang over the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers like lovehandles over a belt. The South Side is where the nightlife is hopping on Carson Street, and right in the middle of it is Fat Head's (1805 E. Carson) and Piper's Pub (1828 E. Carson). Fat Head's has what is probably the best tap selection in town and the heart-stopping Headwiches – a selection of sandwiches the size of a child's head, usually topped with cheese or fried eggs. Piper's is across the street and sports a kick-ass selection of single malt Scotch, Irish whiskey, and draft beer – I just have to love a place that has a dedicated tapline for Spaten doublebock.
The North Side? Yeah, there's beer up there, and good eating, at Max's Allegheny Tavern (537 Suismon St.). It features German food and beer in an old-school bustling taproom where you're likely to see drinkers, businessmen and families all cheek by jowl, fressing to beat the band: liver dumpling soup, goulash, hassenpfeffer and all dat jazz. My dad's on a low-fat, ultra-low-salt diet, and he's been fanatical about it for fifteen years, but when we go to Pittsburgh, he's just gotta go to Max's.
We have to stop someplace, so why not at Mariani's Pleasure Bar (4729 Liberty Ave.)? I used to go here when I was a penniless grad student back in the 80s, and stoke up on great, cheap Italian food and red wine. It's still great and ... okay, it's reasonable. But they've tuned up the beer offerings, and have something for everyone now. Grab a table in the corner, tuck in a napkin, start sucking down pasta and beer, and you tell me dat dis ain't a GREAT beer town! You want some more meatballs? Maybe a cappuccino? Can I get you something?
Once we're done drinking, like at closing time (2 a.m. in the Keystone State), we make the true 'Burgh last stop: Primanti Brothers, for a sandwich. You get two big chunks of Italian bread, cheese, your filling – kolbassi, fried bologna, roast beef, fried egg – and coleslaw and fries, which are shoved right in the sandwich. Wait till you're in the original Primanti's in the Strip and you see some petite little chick stumble in after a long night of clubbing, who sits down and works her jaw around a kolbassi and extra cheese ... a sight to behold. (There are four Primanti Bros. in Pittsburgh and two more in the stadiums. Just ask someone; they're friendly folks.)
Then we get up Sunday by noon, get on the black and gold, and head over to watch them Stillers! You tell me that ain't a beer town, fella. One of the greats.