FALL GUIDE | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

News+Features » Features

FALL GUIDE

An Oktoberfest Sampling of What's Brewing and What's Gone

by

comment
DRAFT DODGERS
A panel of beer samples four brewpubs

Writer: JUSTIN HOPPER

Ours is the city of “a drinking town with a football problem”; of a pub full of Iron City Beer tattoos and a thousand rip-offs of that ubiquitous logo. Pittsburgh is the town that forgot Duquesne Brewery closed and that often still -- a decade after the microbrew revolution -- scoffs at hoppy micros in favor of an Imp ’n’ Iron shot-and-beer blue-collar machismo.

But this is also a city that loves beer. From Myron Cope-festooned cans of Arrn, to the temples of tap at Chiodo’s, Fat Heads and the Sharp Edge. It’s a city that sometimes seems trapped in its old ways -- one reason many of the young love it so much -- and that sometimes ignores the fact that a lot of the new is right here, right now.

So, in an effort to gauge the personalities, atmospheres, sights, sounds, tastes and smells of the city’s current Pittsburgh-brewed beer scene, we called up a couple of young’uns with their beer-geeky heads in the suds to varying degrees, and took ’em with us on a visit to each of the four brewpubs in town, to sample the froth brewed on site.

DHD (as David Huggins-Daines is generally known) knows about beer by birth: He’s Canadian. While not a tested beer-contest taster yet, DHD has stewarded contests. (“I learned a lot about what horrible beers are.”) An avid home-brewer, DHD is almost as interested in beer as he is in underground heavy metal. Almost.

Despite his experimental-rock record-label pretensions, John Fail is Pittsburgh through and through. A native son, he works at UPMC (like everyone else), and finds ways to procrastinate his home-brewing.

Despite her years working at the now-closed Foundry brewpub, Linzee Clare can down a dozen Irons with the best of ’em.

THE CHURCH BREW WORKS
3525 Liberty Ave., Lawrenceville. 412-688-8200.
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11:30 a.m.-11:45 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sun.
noon-10 p.m.
Beer Prices: Available by the glass ($3) or the pint ($3.75), or in a sampler set of five ($4.25) or six ($4.75) beers. Pitchers are available, as are 64 oz. takeaway growlers. Only Church-brewed beers are available.
Food: Entrees, sandwiches, specialty pizzas, pub grub.
Atmosphere: Just your everyday early-20th-century house of worship turned brewpub chic.
Brewmaster: Bryan Pearson
Beers: Celestial Gold; Pipe Organ Pale Ale; Pious Monk Dunkel; Bell Tower Brown Ale; Penance Porter; Dunkel Weizen; Non-Denominator Doppel Bock

As just about everyone in Pittsburgh knows, the Church Brew Works is housed in the old St. John the Baptist Church in Lawrenceville. The exchange from pews to brews has treated the holy house well -- worship the beer, not the fear -- with a finished-wood theme running from the bar down to the tables. It’s highly recommended to take advantage of the tasty little beer garden before Old Man Winter really closes in, as we did when sampling Bryan Pearson’s finest wares. Notably friendly and competently knowledgeable servers round the experience out.

We sampled each beer the Church had at the time, which included their four standards (a light-colored lager, a dark lager, brown and pale ales) as well as the three then-current specialties (a porter, a hefeweizen and a doppel bock). These change regularly, and you can keep track of what’s pouring at any given time on the brewery’s Web site at
www.churchbrew.com.

Penance Porter
John Fail: Smell it -- can you get that coffee smell? I will predict that this will be my favorite beer here. I’d guess also that this is the strongest beer here -- besides maybe that doppel bock.
David Huggins-Daines: Sometimes porters taste confused to me -- a lot will be really hoppy, really fragrant, like this, but then there’ll be ones that mostly just taste like roasted malt or roasted barley.

Dunkel Weizen
Linzee Clare: I’m getting a taste, a hint, of bananas. I like it.
DHD: That one’s a little hairy. Wheat beers, they’re either going to be like bananas and spice, or they’ll be like Band-Aids and horses -- because of the yeast they use.
JF: I think many of the beers here [at the Church] suffer from being just a little on the watery side -- where you want there to be more flavor, there’s just water. I think this one tastes like the inside of a baseball -- and that’s not good or bad …
DHD: That’s normal with a weizen. But if this wasn’t one, it would be just like, “what the hell?”

Doppel Bock
LC: It looks strong -- and smells like alcohol.
DHD: It’s very sweet, not bitter, and yeah, very strong -- strong and sweet go together, because to get it stronger, you use more malt, and the more malt you use, the more leftovers you get in it.
JF: That “triple bock” is an invention of Sam Adams -- it’s not even a bock, I think it’s a barley wine. And it tastes like soy sauce -- now, I like beers that taste like soy sauce, but not that one...
DHD: It’s like Olympia, Washington. I went to Olympia, and thought everything in town was expensive and not very good, and that’s the way triple bock is.
LC: I don’t think I like the doppel bock -- it’s too strong. I’d never even drink a whole glass of it.

Celestial Gold
JF: This is their attempt to make a beer that normal people would like -- for when you bring your grandfather here.
LC: “Budweiser! What? You don’t have Budweiser?” When I used to work at the Foundry, no one could believe we didn’t have Bud or IC Light.
JF: I don’t think there’s anything bad about [this beer], it’s just boring -- but I think that’s its point.
DHD: All brewpubs have to have a beer like this, and I think this one’s pretty good actually.

Pipe Organ Pale Ale
LC: This one’s good -- it’s nice and hoppy.
JF: Yeah, it’s hoppy, it’s solid, a good, across-the-middle pale ale that delivers what it’s supposed to.
DHD: It’s hoppy, but it doesn’t hit you over the head with hops when you smell it. The only thing wrong with this is that it’s kind of cloudy. Yeast in suspension can cause that, but that’ll drop out relatively fast; proteins in the grain and things like that can also cause it, and they’ll fall out too, but it’ll take longer. When you’re mashing the grain, converting the starch into sugar, you do another step to break down the proteins and stuff that’s more soluble, and you have to try to get all of it.

Pious Monk Dunkel
LC: This is good -- it almost tastes like the porter, but it’s kind of smoky. If I were going to come in here and get just one beer, I think it’d be this one.

Bell Tower Brown Ale
JF: Again, it’s good, totally solid, but not amazing.
DHD: I used to like brown ales a lot -- when I started home-brewing I wanted to make brown ales a lot. It’s also like scrambled eggs or something; it’s something that you can always make that always comes out right.

VALHALLA
1150 Smallman St., Strip District. 412-434-1440.
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 11-midnight; kitchen open til 10 p.m.
Beer Prices: Available in 10-, 20- and 24-ounce glasses ($3.95, $4.95, $6.25) and in takeaway growlers. Happy hour finds all beers at half price: Mon.-Fri. 5-7 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 10 p.m.-midnight. Only Valhalla-brewed beers are available.
Food: Entrees, appetizers, plus raw bar open Friday and Saturday nights.
Atmosphere: Modernistic Northern European -- the kind of place young professionals might take a date in Oslo.
Brewmaster: Sean McIntyre
Beers: Valkyrie Lager, Pillage Pilsner, Black Forest Dunkel, India Pale Ale, Weizen Bock, West Coast Stout.

Valhalla came on the scene just as Pittsburgh was starting to fall for brewpubs in a big way. It’s location -- not really Downtown, but not quite in the midst of the Strip’s busiest section either -- is kind of a plus: While Valhalla’s often crowded and lively at happy hour, it’s usually not overly packed later on a weekend night, making it an oasis from the club-happy crowds. The décor and general atmosphere reflects that, too -- the overall impression is of a semi-sparse, sophisticated bar rather than a pack-’em-in Strip club.

We tried every beer they had at the time -- sadly, that didn’t include Fail’s favorite Black Forest Dunkel, thanks to its popularity the night before. It did, however, include a lager, pilsner, IPA, weizen bock and stout. The blazing sun seemed incompatible with our beery Nordic pursuits, so we moved from the beautiful second-floor balcony to the first-floor outdoor seating beneath it, which led to some interesting juxtapositions of beer-taste and motorcycle exhaust. Final note to you easy drunks: Watch what size beer you get -- small might be what you consider normal.

Valkyrie Lager
LC: I like that one. It’s crisp and light -- I could drink a whole case of that. No, really!
DHD: This has some aroma and flavor -- it’s more hops than malt, but it kind of tastes like IC Light. It’s clearer than the Church’s [light lager] -- all their beers are clearer than the Church, actually. And it’s got a snap to it.
JF: I think I have some kind of masculine thing against drinking beers this light. I like beers that taste like tar. But if you ran a marathon or rode your bike or something, and wanted something refreshing, this would be perfect. DHD and I rolled into Valhalla once, and we were wearing our T-shirts and we’d been biking and were all sweaty. Everybody there was dressed up in their yuppie clothes and was looking at us -- but we knew more about beer than them, so fuck ’em.

Pillage Pilsner
JF: Pilsner’s what a lot of people grew up drinking -- in, like, the ’60s and ’70s, you couldn’t really get weird ales and things. Most people are used to this.
LC: Look, it’s got the Brussels lace -- didn’t you read the beer book? It’s the “spidery web of bubbles” going up the side of the glass. That’s a good thing -- at least up [at the top of the glass], if it was down at the bottom I think it’d just mean a dirty glass.
DHD: It’s a sign that the brewer knows what he’s doing. This is kind of like Pilsner Urquell or something; it’s got a slightly spicy smell, it’s good.

Weizen Bock
DHD: This is a wheat beer, but stronger, with a higher alcohol content -- and you’ll taste more alcohol.
LC: This one’s kind of banana-y, too. I don’t think I could exactly drink a whole case of this.
DHD: When they have their regular wheat beer here, it’s really banana-y -- bananas and cloves.
JF: It’s really good. It’s sweet, but it’s a bock -- if you don’t like sweet beers, don’t drink ’em!

West Coast Stout
JF: I’m gonna say I really like it, because I like these kinds of beers -- but I can’t imagine drinking lots of it. It’s like a chocolate-covered espresso bean -- it’s chocolaty and coffee-ish.
LC: I agree -- I like it, but I wouldn’t be able to drink more than maybe one.
DHD: The thing I like about this one is: Red Hook used to make a beer that had Starbuck’s coffee in it, and I couldn’t drink it because it had this burning, heartburn taste. This is similar, but without that. I like it.

ROCK BOTTOM BREWERY
171 E. Bridge St., The Waterfront, Homestead. 412-462-2739.
Hours: Sun.-Thu. 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m.
Beer Prices: Available by the pint ($3.50) or in a sampler set of five beers ($5). Takeaway growlers are available. Only Rock Bottom-brewed beers are available.
Food: Entrees, sandwiches, specialty pizzas, appetizers/beer buddies.
Atmosphere: Fake-ex-warehouse (exposed piping, etc.), pool tables and other standard Waterfront-isms.
Brewmaster: Matthew Carroll
Beers: Lumpy Dog Light Lager, Stacks Pale Ale, North Star Amber, High Level Brown, Black Ale, Rocktoberfest

Even the brewpub fad needed someone to come along and franchise it. Rock Bottom is that someone: With 30 locations, it’s fast becoming the brewpub Barnes & Noble, seen in Waterfront-like developments across the country. And maybe that’s a good thing -- when you’ve got to go to Loews for Pirates of the Caribbean, what are you going to drink afterwards (assuming Chiodo’s is, say, closed)? Coors Light?

Besides drinking each of the pub’s beers -- four beers from very light lager to a brown ale, plus the then-current Brewmaster’s Choice, a black ale -- we had a mountain of nachos and a tub of spinach-cheese dip, which exceeded expectations both in fried-to-hell-and-lovin’-it quality and beer-soaking quantity. (The Rocktoberfest beer will be served starting around Sept. 18.) Our server was very friendly (and brutally, job-threateningly honest about her favorite and least favorite beers), and besides the crap music piped in directly over our heads, the fake-pool-hall atmosphere was kinda fun.

Black Ale
JF: I expected to drink this and just say, “wow -- black ale!” But I’d like a porter better than this, it’s missing something. I think it’s missing flavor.
DHD: It’s just like a black lager, except it’s an ale. It’s not sweet at all, it’s dry and a little thin, not what you expect. You just put in dark roasted malt into [brewing ale] to give it the color, and it just gives it a slightly burnt flavor. I like it.
LC: I didn’t like it on first taste, but after having more than a drink of this, I think I like it.

Lumpy Dog Light Lager
DHD: If the Valkyrie [lager at Valhalla] tasted like IC Light, then this tastes kind of like Natural Light -- I’m very familiar with Natty Light, I drink a lot of it. This doesn’t have any of the aroma or the crispness of the other lighter beers we’ve had today.
JF: It’s hard to try to make a normal beer like this and make it good at the same time.

High Level Brown Ale
DHD: It’s good, very well balanced. This has a fuller flavor, and the hops are more prominent, than in the other brown ale we had.
LC: I like this one, it’s good. I think it’s more flavorful than the Church’s brown ale, or Newcastle. I think that this would be my pick -- if I came back, I’d get this one.
DHD: I used to drink Newcastle Brown Ale, and it’s one reason I wanted to brew brown ales -- in fact, I’d like to be [from Newcastle] in a future life.

Stacks Pale Ale
DHD: This is well balanced, too -- actually, whenever I like a beer, I pull that term out. Even if it’s not well balanced, if I can’t think of anything else to say. It’s hoppier than the one at Valhalla, I think; it’s more bitter than some of the ones we’ve had. I quite like this pale ale, actually.

North Star Amber
JF: It tastes kind of like, well, just like an Amber ale -- any subtleties to the flavors are kind of lost, maybe because of the jalapenos on these nachos, or the other beers we’ve had today. But the chalkboard says it’s a 5.3 percent alcohol content, so this is going to be my pick for this place.

PENN BREWERY
800 Vinial St., North Side. 412-237-9402.
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-midnight (stops selling cases and kegs of beer at 11 p.m.)
Beer Prices: Available by the glass ($2.50) or pint ($3.75), as well as by the six-pack, case and keg, at the Brewery. (Note: The seasonal Oktoberfest beer costs slightly more in all sizes.) Only Penn beers are available.
Food: German entrees.
Atmosphere: Old-country German beer hall, restaurant, and party room, often with appropriate live music (German-loved party music, polka to ragtime).
Brewmaster: Tom Pastorius
Beers: Crew Lager, Penn Gold, Penn Pilsner, Penn Dark, Penn Oktoberfest, Penn Weizen

A Pittsburgh classic, and the perfect place to end up on a beer march, this landmark is housed in the old 19th-century Eberhardt and Ober Brewery on the North Side. While the inside of the Penn Brewery is a great place to while away an evening, the beer garden is ground zero: True, it’s no longer sun-shiny hot anymore, but crisp autumn air is by far the most enjoyable atmosphere for outside beer consumption. And Penn’s beers seem somehow built for that.

We’d all had each Penn beer a hundred times before (in, uh-hum, some cases a thousand), but a fresh take in the beer garden can’t be a bad idea. (The outdoor bar was set up, yet another feather in Penn’s cap.) Besides the standards (Gold, Pilsner and Dark), we tried out the new-ish Crew and the excellent hefeweizen.

Important note: Penn Brewery celebrates Oktoberfest the weekends of Sept. 19-21 and Sept. 26-28, Fri.-Sat. 5 p.m.-midnight, Sun. 4 p.m.-10 p.m., with tons of live entertainment, German food and, of course, beer. For more info, check out the Web site:
www.pennbrew.com.

Oktoberfest
JF: I don’t really like the Oktoberfest as a style of beer in general -- it’s not hoppy enough for me; I want to taste flowers, not malt.
DHD: I don’t think I’d end up drinking a lot of this. It’s malty, low bitterness -- I’m kind of not a fan of the style, either. You can really taste the alcohol in it, and I don’t like tasting the alcohol too much. It goes well with the season, though. If it were a little bit colder outside, the leaves falling.
LC: Yeah -- it does have that kind of feeling. It makes me want to order sausages.

Penn Pilsner
JF: Last week, I was at a bar and I got a Penn Pilsner bottle because it was the best beer they had there, and it was horrible. But now, here it is on draft, and it’s good -- it’s like a completely different beer than it is in the bottle.
LC: This tastes, I guess, normal -- maybe it’s living in Pittsburgh, but this just tastes like the standard.
DHD: Color-wise it’s interesting; pilsner’s usually more yellow. Even European pilsner’s are usually really light -- German ones are really pale, as pale as Budweiser, Czech ones are still a little lighter than this.
JF: It’s not nearly as strong as some of the others we’ve had today.

Hefeweizen
DHD: This is an honest-to-goodness weizen -- it’s not a dark one, not a bock or anything. Hefe means yeast, and you can see this is cloudy because the yeast is in suspension. This is the only genuine hefeweizen we’ve had all day -- but it’s a really good one.
JF: I like hefeweizens because they’re very refreshing, it’s a great summer beer, and perfect for -- again -- say, you just went for a bike ride...

Penn Gold
DHD: This is a Bavarian light lager, not light in alcohol, just light in color. There’s a light lager and a dark lager -- hellas and dunkel, which just means light and dark. They’re generic terms: “Do you want a light beer or a dark one.” See, the Germans think just like us. I like this -- I buy six-packs of this here all the time.

Penn Dark
DHD: You can compare this, I guess, with the Church’s dunkel.
JF: I think I’d prefer Penn Dark, though I’m not sure I could give a reason. On draft, that is -- out of a bottle, I don’t like Penn Dark at all. It’s completely different. You wanna go get cocktails after this?

TIME IN A BOTTLE
Beer-market -- keeping beers of yesteryear alive


Writer: CHRIS POTTER

Dick Ober has never tasted the beer produced under his family’s name, and he never will.

Until he was in his 20s, in fact, he never realized that his family was one-half of a key part of Pittsburgh’s brewing history: Eberhardt & Ober Brewing, a North Side brewery whose buildings now serve as the home for the Penn Brewery. When Ober was a boy, he says, his grandfather gave tours of the Pittsburgh Brewing Company -- which bought the E&O label in 1899 and produced beer under its name until the 1950s -- but "I just thought he was a salesman for Iron City." And when he was a child growing up on the North Side, Ober played in Ober Park without ever knowing his ancestors financed its construction.

"It’s an old German family," Ober shrugs. "They don’t talk about the past much."

In that sense, Ober is the black sheep. He grew interested in the family history in his 20s, when his father mentioned the Ober clan’s brewing tradition. Since then, the past has consumed not just the past few years of his retirement, but a sizable portion of his Hopewell Township home as well. He’s set up a private bar in his basement, but it’s so crowded with memorabilia that there’s no room for a refrigerator. The shelves hold back-lit signs advertising Dutch Club beer -- a popular brand marketed under the E&O label -- and vintage cone-top beer cans (so designed because they fit the bottling lines that previously handled glass containers). He keeps old beer labels and business cards under glass, photo albums of business records dating to a time when even an invoice could be a work of art. Some of these things he found in his grandparents’ attic, "but most of it I’ve bought at auctions and flea markets."

Most Pittsburghers aren’t as connected to the city’s beer-making past as Ober, of course, so it’s not surprising that most know even less of its history than he did. In a city that enshrines its history of making steel, few know the history of the thing that made steelmaking bearable: the beer that working people quaffed at day’s end.

But Eberhardt & Ober was just one of dozens of breweries operating at one time or another on the city’s North Side, where many of the city’s German immigrants settled in the 1800s. Ober’s great-great-grandfather came to American from Alsace-Lorraine, a disputed part of land between France and Germany, and became a partner in the Koenig Brewery in 1860s, buying it outright in 1864. It was a family operation until 1899, when the Obers sold their interest to Pittsburgh Brewing Company, the makers of Iron City. But Iron City kept the E&O label running, and it kept the Obers themselves: Many held key positions in the firm, and even today visitors to Iron City’s Lawrenceville plant enter through the "Ober House."

In the decades before Prohibition, in fact, the western Pennsylvania region had scores of breweries, most serving a limited geographic era. "Before refrigeration, beer wouldn’t keep that long, so it was hard to transport," Ober says. (To keep supplies of its own brew at the ready, E&O owned "ice ponds," in which kegs of beer would be sunk in the winter months.) And without competing national products, local brews thrived in places ranging from McKeesport, home of Tube City Brewing, to St. Vincent, where Catholic monks once brewed Monastery Ale.

Today, all that survives of most of these breweries are a handful of cans and merchandising items. Ask Ober whether Dutch Club was a lager or a pilsner, and he smiles. "To tell the truth, I don’t know." What he does have is the merchandise. Hanging from the rafters are countless bottle-openers and church keys, arranged by type and alphabetically, according to the beer label advertised on their handles. There are E&O clocks and thermometers and beer-tap handles -- even a toy "picnic bear," whose automated arms would take a swig from a bottle of Iron City if Ober could get them to work. "Some of this stuff you couldn’t get away with today," says Ober. Indeed, while Coors makes use of twins in its TV ads today, the buxom young women are at least marginally older than the "Hop Twins" -- two tow-headed children used to market the fresh taste of Pittsburgh Brewing products. And few modern ad campaigns would think to use Pilgrims (who weren’t, after all, known for their partying lifestyles) in their ads, either.

Modern customers might, however, respond to early 20th-century claims that beer was a kind of health food -- which "makes rich, red blood" and serves as "the staff of life." (Another ad recommends that bar patrons "Drink E & O Early and Often." It’s not just for breakfast anymore.)

"The prohibition movement was taking place," Ober explains, "so the breweries were trying to position themselves as a healthy product."

It didn’t help. Prohibition wiped out many beer brands; others collapsed as national brands like Anheuser-Busch expanded their distribution after World War II. And communities across Pennsylvania and the country lost a little part of what made them unique.

Still, the Pittsburgh region operates a handful of regional breweries like Iron City and Straub. "Unlike a lot of cities, we still have the regional breweries here," says Bud ("I don’t drink Bud -- I’m just cursed with the name") Hundenski, a member of Pittsburgh’s Olde Frothingslosh chapter of the Beer Can Collectors of America, a group of beer-memorabilia enthusiasts and amateur brewing historians.

Local breweries owe much of their survival to the state’s frequently reviled liquor-control laws, Hundenski says. "Some people call it backward, but with liquor control laws preventing people from buying beer at the grocery stores, that gives regional beers a chance to compete through local distributors." State constraints on advertising have also helped neutralize the advantage of big-dollar competitors, Hundenski surmises. Such protections weren’t enough to protect Pittsburgh’s best-known local breweries: the South Side’s Duquesne Brewery (now the home of an artist’s collective) or Sharpsburg’s Fort Pitt Brewery. But Iron City has survived, and its memorabilia is "still very sought after. People want to maintain their allegiance to the city and to the brand."

But few people think of framing beer labels when the brewery is printing them by the thousands. (Even Ober admits he doesn’t collect all of Iron City’s current crop of cans: "There’s too many of them.") For historians of the everyday, it’s lamentable that so much of the past is lost before we realize its value … but it’s not until we lose it that we start thinking of it at all.

Ober knows first-hand the cost of that regret. His grandfather, the last member of the family to have worked in brewing, died before Ober knew the extent of the family’s role in the industry. "If I’d learned about it a few years earlier..." he says, wistfully.

THE LOST CATACOMBS OF OLD ALLEGHENY
In the 1800s, local brewers created impressive beer vaults -- now mostly hidden -- deep within Troy Hill


Writer: JULIE MICKENS

Lost Lager Lair at Penn Brewery
A Lost Lager Lair at The Penn Brewery

The simple wood-frame and brick houses of gothic Spring Garden, Spring Hill and Troy Hill may not add up to a Bavarian castle, but the neighborhood can claim mythical catacombs and dungeons. According to the North Side’s casual folklore, a virtual netherworld of caves and tunnels worms under Troy Hill. Indeed, the "archaeological evidence" near the reputed mouths of these caverns suggests they’ve provided safe harbor for plenty of furtive teen-age drinking. But, hey, that wouldn’t be so wrong: The best of these were built for beer in the first place, although the old braumeisters probably didn’t have Coors Light in mind.

If these adolescents had lived just a few generations earlier, in fact, the entire north bank of the Allegheny River -- from the base of Troy Hill to Millvale -- could’ve been a progressive drinking party of local brews. According to histories contained in cultural-resource reports prepared for the proposed Route 28 expansion project by Christine Davis Associates and by Anna Andrzejewski and Nancy Holst, the brewery era on the Allegheny gained momentum in the 1840s, when the introduction of German-style lagers sparked a big change in Pittsburgh’s swilling habits, and new, bigger breweries were built to keep up with the new beer’s popularity.

Although old-style English brews (such as ales and porters) had been manufactured in Western Pennsylvania since colonial times, the new lagers required cooler temperatures for production. For this, Troy Hill and the upstream Allegheny bluffs provided abundant fresh water, while "beer vaults" could be built into the hillsides for cold storage.

Besides the former Eberhardt & Ober Brewery -- originally founded in 1848, now the Penn Brewery -- remnants of at least three other breweries exist along the river. Together with the E&O buildings, two of those were found eligible in 1996 for a North Side Breweries Historic District: the Baeuerlein Brewery on Evergreen Avenue in Millvale and the American Brewing Company complex at what’s now the Millvale Industrial Park. Though both probably had underground beer vaults at one time, none are evident today.

According to Tom Pastorius, who owns the Pennsylvania Brewing Company with his wife Mary Beth, the mysterious beer-caves stories are mostly folklore. "‘This whole hillside is honey-combed with tunnels ...’ Nah. It’s not a prison where they’re trying to dig their way out." Contrary to popular imagination, none of the dug-out "caves" actually connect with one another.

Pastorius says the E&O grounds came with seven beer vaults. "When we bought it [in the 1980s], there were a couple caves with openings and clouds of bats would fly out at night. They were scaring the diners. Early on, before the caves were closed, we found a rat two feet long." The two vaults with openings onto the biergarten have since been sealed off, one at the opening and another about 20 feet deep.

Most of E&O beer vaults are about 20 feet high by 25 feet wide, Pastorius says, noting that the original brewers "never supported them. They were just carved out of clay; when you go in them, you sometimes see a pile of dirt on the floor" that’s fallen from the ceiling. Inside one of the vaults they found wooden tanks larger than the entrance, meaning that the tanks were actually built underground. (Because the main structure is built into the hillside, the Penn Brewery also has vaults on the upper stories -- their maintenance man has made his office in one of them.)

This is very nice … but it’d be so much cooler to find one of the lost beer vaults. According to manufacturing census records from 1860, there were eight breweries in these heavily German neighborhoods, and Pastorius says there were five other breweries besides Eberhardt & Ober on Vinial Street.

Although some smaller cold storage chambers from a former Croatian social hall were evident two doors up from Penn Brewery behind a vacant lot, the rest of Vinial is houses, including some recently built townhomes. Yet another beer vault -- "you can’t miss it" -- was supposed to be visible from a bend on Spring Garden Avenue. Indeed, a list of breweries included in the Pittsburgh Brewing Company merger of 1899 includes the Hippley & Son Enterprise Brewery at 314 Spring Garden. (Apparently the new and improved Pittsburgh Brewing didn’t see much use for the Hippleys, and shut down their enterprise right after the sale.) Though several old row-house foundations are visible, there was no detectable beckon of a beer vault’s cool, musty breath.

At last, on East Ohio Street near the St. Nicholas Church, the search was rewarded: "Well, you found it!" says Bill Lieberth, owner of Allegheny Auto Body. "Did somebody send you?" Lieberth’s body shop occupies part of the old Sebastian Haid Brewery, which was probably completed in 1856. "There it is there! Do you see it?" he says, pointing to a faint arch along his whitewashed back wall.

He pulls away a flattened cardboard box: The entrance to the tunnel is four loosely puttied cinderblocks stuck into the wall and chinked with damp newspapers. In preparation for the proposed Route 28 expansion project, Lieberth hired a researcher in 2001 to complete a history of the property, which included an expedition into the beer vault itself. He pulls out a color Xerox of a photo taken from inside the vault. "We measured it. It’s 120 feet deep," he says incredulously, estimating the height at about 11 feet and the width at 16 feet. Except for a keystone placed at the top, the ceiling is solid, carved-out sandstone.

"You can see the pickmarks," Lieberth says. "They don’t build like that anymore. Once you get inside, it’s like going back in time."

Add a comment