Man has been brewing beer roughly since the dawn of civilization. And surely there's satisfaction in upholding a craft that is millennia old. But Brant Dubovick, head brewer at the Church Brew Works, also likes playing with tradition.
When the Lawrenceville establishment hired Dubovick in 2005, it was already a success: an award-winning microbrewery and popular restaurant launched in 1996 in the grand old former St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. Dubovick was a home-brewer from Long Island who had followed that passion out of a career in project management to a job at the Lancaster (Pa.) Brewing Co.
Church Brew Works strikingly juxtaposes traditional architecture and contemporary gastronomy: Its big copper-jacketed brew kettle and stainless-steel tanks stand arrayed like groomsmen high on the church's former altar. About Dubovick himself there's nothing provocative: Easygoing and barrel-chested at age 36, the Penn Hills resident looks at home reporting for work in cargo shorts and a dark-blue Church Brew Works T-shirt. Still, he has made some changes in the year since he moved up from assistant brewer, replacing departed head brewer Bryan Pearson.
The microbrewery's flagship remains a smooth and malty Munich-style dunkel called "Pious Monk." Other standbys include a British special bitter (Pipe Organ Pale Ale) and a North German-style pilsener (Celestial Gold). The lowest-seller, meanwhile, had been a dark, sweet oatmeal stout. Dubovick's innovations included opening the Blast Furnace Stout slot on its roster to a rotating cast of specialty brews.
Beer is basically milled grain, mashed with hot water, fermented with yeast, and flavored with hops (the dried flower that gives beer its bitterness). Much of the creativity enters at the flavoring stage, when a brewer can augment the traditional hops with things like hazelnut. The flavors are typically imparted by way of a teabag-like pouch steeped in the beer. This year, Dubovick has crafted a Mexican mole stout, with chocolate and chili pepper (the latter grown on site). Some of his stouts have a seasonal flair, like this year's Ichabod's Revenge, a pumpkin stout flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, allspice and mace. There's a back-to-the-future tinge here: Pumpkin beer dates to colonial times. But Dubovick's best-selling stout so far has been decidedly nouvelle: The teabags for that one were filled with 75 pounds of unsweetened coconut flakes.
Another recent seasonal beer suggests the lengths craft brewers will go for a novel taste. Dubovick's Four Grain Harvest Ale included malts from England and Germany, plus American rye, wheat and oats and two indigenous American hops shipped in from the Pacific Northwest.
And maybe because Dubovick himself likes a hoppy beer -- "I'm a British ale guy," he says -- Church Brew Works has just started bottling Thunder Hop IPA, its first American ale in bottles.
Off-site bottle sales, too, have become an increasingly important market for the brewery, which this year will produce more than 2,200 31-gallon barrels of beer. In the past year, the Church has doubled its capacity for making beer to bottle. Although specialty items like an imperial stout -- aged one year in a wooden bourbon barrel -- remain available only at the bar, about 60 percent of the brewery's sales now take place elsewhere, including the 40 or so Allegheny County beer distributors and the nine bottle shops that carry its product.
With a willingness to experiment that sets them apart from big corporate brewers, microbrewers hark to the craft tradition: Even amid digital thermometers, Dubovick adds many ingredients to the tanks himself, dumping sackfuls of grain by hand. It takes one seven-hour workday to go from raw ingredients to a full fermentation tank; another week (for ales) or two (for lagers) to complete fermentation; and a few weeks more for conditioning.
But then, when your brewery's products have won a dozen festival medals since 1998, continuing such a tradition is a pleasing enough prospect. As long as yeast dutifully converts grain sugars into alcohol, only so much tinkering is required. It's a process whose pungent aroma not everyone appreciates. But as for Dubovick, "I think it smells great," he says. "It smells like baking bread."