Beer's Gonna Make Me a Big Star

Sometimes things come together well for these trips. My book was being made into an hour-long documentary by WQLN, the public TV station in Erie, PA. They wanted me to come up to "tape some interviews." I wanted to do some book signings in western PA anyway, and I wanted to get to the Penn Brewery Micro-Fest in Pittsburgh. I called my Dad to see if he was up for driving me around in Pittsburgh once I had too much on board. As always, he was delighted at the idea of a long road trip (we love long-distance driving, he and I), so I made the reservations. 

We took off for Erie around  noon. Things went so well (construction on PA Rt. 322 north of Harrisburg is done now, and MAN, can you fly up to State College) that I re-routed through Bellefonte to stop at Schnitzel's Tavern for a mug of Kostritzer Schwarzbier. Smart move! I love that bar; beer's clean as a whistle, and the bartenders never got infected with the rudious bastardus virus that seems to be going around.

We got into Erie about 7:30, after a fairly leisurely drive across PA Rt. 6. I met up with an Internet pal for the first time, she and her husband came up and met me in the motel bar. I wanted a beer, but all they had was the rankest swill, so the men had Jack Daniels and ice, she had vino. Had a real pleasant talk (no surprise, she's a sweetheart, but he was fun, too), then went back to the room and hit the sack.

Next morning I did an 8:05 telephone interview with the local top 40 morning crew that went pretty well, the male half of the team was a real beer geek and was deeply into the whole idea of knowing way too much about beer: "Lew! Live among us, teach our children!" About three minutes, and I managed to mention my book three times, the TV show twice, and Malt Advocate once. Then they told me they had botched the schedule, and had taped the interview to play the next morning. Eh.

"Lew's pretty much a bullshitter." 

Dad and I went and had a great breakfast at the Academy Dinor (not a typo, they're ALL Dinors in Erie for some reason), then tried to get to Sullivan's pub for the 9:30 taping. It was a rough go, seemed like every other street was closed. It was a real-life "you can't get there from here."

We finally got there at 9:40. That's when I learned that the show was essentially using my book as the script (with publisher's permission) and that I WAS going to be featured in the show. Cool, glad I decided to dress for the occasion. We shot till 12:30, essentially me paraphrasing bits from the book (if you get a chance to see the show, you'll see the bar gradually filling up during my interviews). Then over lunch (and two Railbenders each; Erie Brewing's 6.8% brain-rearranger) we discussed their need for 'an ending, something to get us out of the show.' I went to the Man's Room, and came back with an idea. They liked it, I winged it, they thought it was great, we wrapped in one take, and that's what runs during the credits. It was only later that I wondered how much the six Railbenders had to do with it!

As we left, my dad told me the producer, Tom New, had told him that he thought I was one hell of a guy. Before I even had a chance to swell, he told me he had responded that he always thought I was "pretty much a bullshitter." Thanks, Dad!

We jumped in the Jetta and drove up the lakeside in the gorgeous weather to Fredonia, NY, to visit the brewpub there, Barker Brew Co. (34 W. Main St.) Had the Zigfeild Weiss (a non-Bavarian hefe with a surprising amount of body and character), Lil' Ted's 90 Shilling (thin and a bit bitey, but malty and sweet--just not enough), and Ali Porter (good stuff, classic brewpub porter with a little roast and a little sweet). The beers were made by Joe Rogers on a 3.5 bbl. system with Fuller's yeast and floor-malted base malts. He told me that on a system that small, cost of ingredients just wasn't a factor, so he used the best. Good guy, nice beer (he also told me, unprompted, that he was disappointed with the 90 shilling, the mash hadn't converted fully "and it's kind of thin.").

Back to Erie, stopped at Quaker Steak and Lube, an automotive-themed chain that's growing in western PA and Ohio. Very brand-oriented, I was lucky to get a bottle of Railbender among the mega-taps. Supposedly these guys whupped Buffalo's Anchor Inn (the fabled home of Buffalo wings) in a wing-off. Everyone spoke well of their wings, I passed.

Then I went to Porters, where the Hoppers brewpub used to be, and had a draft Sierra Nevada Stout: perfect. The place was nice, and my bartender was cute and perky: Stephanie. Remember the name.

Then my dad and I had dinner at Oscar's, a multi-tap restaurant. I had draft Penn Maibock (didn't take notes, but it was dryly malty and just a bit full, nice stuff) and a bottle of Lion Stout (woof! Big dark vinous beer!) with my shrimp Cobb salad. At this point... I pretty much crashed. We drove around Presque Isle for the beautiful view, then went back to the motel.

Southbound

The next morning we had a disappointing breakfast at Taki's Breakfast Place, and parked the car to listen to my taped radio interview. It went well, Dad was impressed (maybe now I'm not so much of a BSer?), and we went off to Erie Brewing. They seem to be doing pretty well, putting beer out the door as fast as they can make it, always a good thing. They have a new head brewer, Gary Burleigh, who is a classic biker with the glare and the Mr. Clean look, but he's a great guy, quick with a smile and a wry laugh. Makes damn nice beer, too.

We took off and had lunch at Primo Barone's, the currently inactive brewpub in Franklin, PA. Lunch was busy, the food was excellent, but Primo told me his brewer had quit suddenly, and he was unable to find anyone to do the two days a week brewing he needed. Are homebrewers lazy these days? I wished him luck, and promised to spread the word.

Then we went down to Pittsburgh... A LOT went down, including late drinking with the guys from Manayunk, Yards, Nodding Head, Troegs, and Victory: pretty crazy.

Making the Rounds

We got into Pittsburgh around 2:30. Some construction bollixed things up, but we got to Valhalla at 2:40. My dad dropped me off in front and went to orbit for 20 minutes. I went in, found Sean McIntyre, and got stuck right into his rock-solid Triple. Imagine Golden Monkey, not quite as wild, but not quite as light, either: this stuff is dense. Really good, though a lot of geeks were whining about it being "too young" at the Penn Fest the next day. Well, yeah, older woulda been better, but it was already four months old, and it's not like it was GREEN! Anyway, things were good with Sean, he's a great guy, totally unassuming and natural. He told me there was a PA Craft Brewers Guild meeting at 5:30 at Church Brew Works, and didn't think anyone would mind if I crashed it, so I said I'd see him there.

Next stop was Roland's, in The Strip. Roland's has the biggest selection of beer in Pittsburgh, but I've... never actually seen it. Both times I'd been there the second floor, where the big coolers are, was too packed to get into, and I had to satisfy myself sitting at the merely multitap bar downstairs, with the open fish-cookin' kitchen at the end: not a hardship at all--fresh-shucked oysters and clams, steamed clams, crab legs, grilled fish, I made do. But this time upstairs was deserted, and MAN, do they have a lot of beer! I've only seen lists like this at the Brickskellar, KClinger's, and Vineyards (Ottawa). Not just big, but good beer, too, lots of Belgians and exotic micros.

I had a Great Lakes Burning River Pale Ale, and mused on why Great Lakes isn't penetrating Pittsburgh like they had hoped to. I suspect it's because they keep trying to wedge in with their ales, Edmund Fitz Porter and Burning River PA, which is just, well, stupid, looking at the great popularity of Pittsburgh's lager micro/brewpub scene: Penn, Valhalla, and half of Church's output. Yo, duh!

I caught the Dad Taxi up the street to the Foundry, where Aran Madden was just inside the door and as suprised to find me as Sean was. He set me up with a sampler and went off to keg some beer for the fest. Pils was too sweet (which I told him); Copper was a great, very balanced quaffer; Irish Stout was gutsy stuff, dry and light as Guinness but way more flavorful; "Maddening" was an undefinable rush of malty hoppy ester-laced flavors, I noted it as a "wild turbulent flow of every major beer flavor"; Belgian White was a nice full wit with good heft and assertive coriander; and the casked IPA was full of caramel and toffee and British hops, quite pleasant and soothing. I got trapped by an incredible downpour and spent the time drinking more stout and talking to Aran. Another nice young guy who makes good beer, though he takes a lot of crap from Pittsburgh geeks who keep comparing him to his predecesor, Jon Zangwil. Two different styles of brewer, guys.

The rain finally let up, and my dad was parked RIGHT outside the door: way to go, Dad! We tooled up to the Church and I went in to find ... fans. It was bizarre, but more people in Pittsburgh seemed to know who I am than in Philly. I actually had a small Jacksonesque cluster of people around me, asking me about the beers at Church (Bryan Peterson had handed me a Blast Furnace Stout shortly after I arrived) and brewing in Pittsburgh. I was just looped enough to enjoy it, usually it freaks me out a little. So then the Yards guys showed up, and we started drinking Old Ale (VERY smooth and delicious), then Bill Moore walked in, and then Christian Heim came in (he's working at Iron City/Pittsburgh to make some serious dough for his impending wedding, and brewing at Lancaster on the weekends, intends to stay on at Lanc.) and bought me a beer, and then we grabbed a few tables and had the meeting.

We had Bryan (the current prez, I think), Jim and Rich from Manayunk, Bill Moore, Tom and Tuna from Yards (and Dean, their Canadian sidekick, fun guy), Christian, Artie Tafoya from Appalachian, Sean and Aran, and a guy from Red Star I didn't know. A lot of things were talked about, but there are two you'll be interested in. First, it looks like the Guild is finally gathering some momentum and more brewers are joining, including the western staters. Second, they are probably going to start accepting beerlovers as 'associate members.' There will be a variety of benefits, not yet determined, for an annual membership fee. I strongly supported this, I think it's a great idea, and will be good for both sides.

Arm-wrestling with Tuna

We ate some pizza -- jerk chicken (good), pepperoni (damn good), and pierogi (no, really, light onion-spiked mashed potatoes with cheese on top, no sauce, and it was good) -- drank more beer, and then I headed out to pick up my dad and go to dinner. Dad's usually a low-fat, low-salt kind of guy (okay, he's extreme about it, and can out-walk me even with a 30 year handicap), but he shyly asked if we could maybe "go to that German place again?"

You bet! Off to the North Side to Max's Allegheny Tavern, one of the oldest bars in Pittsburgh. We each had the goulash dinner with Einlaufsuppe, a kind of matzoh-ball soup. I had a Pittsburgh Brewing Augustiner (Yueng Lager clone) and a Kostritzer (when I see that beer on draft I just can't say no). Great meals, and the two of us got out for under $30 and under 40 minutes on a busy Friday night: impressive. We went to our hotel, a Hawthorne Suites in Green Tree, south of the Point. Checked in and called Tom Kehoe, changed shoes and trekked over to the South Side to meet the Yards boys and Curt Decker and Brandon Greenwood at Pipers Pub.

Here's where things finally got ugly. I took a ride on the Drinkatronic, hitting the Pipers' big whisky selection (I remember having a Scapa and a Middletons Very Rare, but it gets hazy after that) and draft beers (Young's Oatmeal Stout and an Optimator... but like I said, it's hazy), and Kehoe and I had an arm around each other at the bar drinking whisky and bellowing about how great the whisky was at one point... Oh, my. Then his assistant brewer, Tuna, wanted to find "another place" so we went out walking. Well, everyplace was either jam-packed or full of buttholes, so we wound up at a pretty empty place called Johnny's, had a round of HopDevils, and cabbed back to the hotel with this really funny cab driver named Janice. Then we sat up in the Yards suite drinking Yards Old Ale and some Railbender I got in Erie till about 3:30. Tom and Tuna arm-wrestled (Tuna won, believe it or not), and we all argued about why bottled beer doesn't taste as good as draft.

Selling Out

I went to bed, got up at 9:30, had breakfast, and got ready to go to the Penn Fest. No hangover, by the way! In fact, I felt pretty good all day. I dressed warmly for the Fest: jeans, long-sleeved jersey, and ragg socks in my waterproof hunting boots. It was a bit cool, and I've been to this Fest before: it rains. Sure enough, it would, and be breezy, too, and I was laughing at the shivering guys who wore shorts before the night was over.

My dad dropped me off with 44 books at about 11:45. There was a line down the block already. In reliable Tom Pastorius fashion, there was a press badge and a sign waiting for me, and I settled in between Sean McIntyre of Valhalla and the gang from West Virginia Brewing. Troegs, Stoudt's, Yards, and Weyerbacher were nearby, as was the bandstand. First band up was a three-piece Dixieland outfit, really good.

I wandered around when I had the chance during the three sessions, and had some beers: J.T. Whitney's (Wisconsin) rauchbier (pretty smoky, but it wasn't no DeGroen's), Nodding Head's Wee Heavy (what a smoldering bruiser of a beer, possibly the best one there that day) and Berliner Weisse (Brandon put woodruff in it, which I hates, so who knows), West Virginia's Blackwater Stout (good, good dry stout), Penn Dark (no surprises, deeelicious), and lots of Yards ESA and Valhalla Pils (and a couple nips from a growler of that Triple Sean kept under the table).

It did rain, in fact, it poured. But I kept my books dry, and sold about 15 each session. Some were easy sells, some were tough, but man, did they ever buy! Best day I ever had: I sold out. And much to my surprise, who showed up and bought a book? Stephanie, from Porters, in Erie. I was having a beer when I heard a girlish squeal. What? I thought, and looked up, and there she was. She was mad at me for "not telling me who you WERE!" What was I going to tell her? She figured she must have sounded like an idiot talking about beer to me, but I assured her she sounded like she knew what she was talking about, and that's all part of evaluating a place. And, she bought a book. So did the owner of The Bierhaus, just over the hill from Penn, about a block, when I pointed out to him that his bar was in the book. Tom Pastorius told me the next day that the guy had come up to him and showed him the entry in the book: "he was real excited," Tom said. Made me feel good.

The brewers' dinner was great, as always: free-flowing Penn beer, prime rib (with really good horseradish), salad, fresh bread, steamed green beans, baked potato, and strudel for dessert. I broke bread with Bill Moore, Artie Tafoya, and the Yards guys, good conversation, mostly about politics.

When the last session was winding up, and I sold my last book three minutes before the close, I realized I had to find a ride back to the hotel. So I helped Scotty McClung pack up the Victory guys, and strapped into their van. 15 minutes later I was headed for the Nodding Head room to party with the guys from Troegs, Yards, Victory, Ohio Brewing, and Manayunk. Someone brought a case of Old Horizontal, and we started mixing it with everything: Troegs ESB (ESOH), Wee Heavy (Wee Slumbers), and Nodding Head's Whiplash IPA (Old Hopizontal). Great time, and I hit the sack about 2:00. We were all exhausted.

Next day I made it to 8:00 mass, then Dad and I got breakfast, drove around and saw some of the sights. I never get tired of this town. Then we headed to PNC Park, the new baseball stadium, where we met the boys from Penn: Tom "Pooch" Auchter and Eric Heinauer. They took us into the stadium and we started in on Penn Dark. Penn has about 50 taps in the stadium, astonishing, and they're selling a LOT of beer.

We took it easy, and after the game was over and we'd had some pizza, we headed for home. A long drive, but Dad's good company. A beautiful day after the rain, and we made a good run. Can't wait to go back.

Copyright 2003 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: May 23, 2005