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(Credit: Northforker file photo)

The craft beer scene in Pittsburgh has greatly improved over the years, so says our Lenn Thompson. (Credit: Northforker file photo)
The craft beer scene in Pittsburgh has greatly improved over the years, so says our Lenn Thompson. (Credit: Northforker file photo)

I was born, raised and educated in western Pennsylvania. It’s changed a lot since I moved away in 2000, but despite the high-tech and medical industries there, it still has a decidedly traditional and blue-collar feel. Hearty food. Plentiful drink. We put french fries on top of salads and on top of our sandwiches back home. Yes, french fries as topping or condiment!

When I moved to Long Island more than a decade ago, the Pittsburgh-area beer scene was pretty boring. The landscape was dominated by what was, in my opinion, macrobrewed garbage. Even the local beers — stuff like Iron City, Rolling Rock and Yuengling — weren’t very good. I mostly drank microbrews (this was back when we called them that) from other places, with a few German-style beers made at Penn Brewery. Penn Pilsner was a favorite. This was also before I became a bit of a hop head.

Long Island — in both aesthetic and beer — was completely different when I arrived. I discovered Southampton Publick House and Blue Point Brewery. These were well-made, flavorful beers from breweries not afraid of experimentation. In the decade-plus I’ve lived here, craft beer (that’s what we call it now) has more than exploded. Beer isn’t my normal beat and I honestly can’t keep up with all the new, tiny and not-so-tiny breweries that continue to pop up all over the island.

I knew that craft beer was huge across the country — and the world, really — but I honestly didn’t have high hopes when my family and I visited my parents and sister back home last week for the first time in five years or so. A friend from high school had tipped me off to a fairly new beer-focused restaurant in my hometown (a concept that would have been completely foreign when I lived there) that I decided to check out.

With only a few exceptions, the tap list at Pig Iron Public House is devoted completely to beers brewed either in Pennsylvania or in neighboring states like Ohio, Maryland and New Jersey. I tasted 15 or so beers over the course of two visits (they sell five-ounce tasters of everything). These were the breweries and beers that impressed me most. You probably won’t find these locally, but some will no doubt work their way into the New York City beer scene over time.

Søle Artisan Ales is a gypsy brewing operation (meaning they brew their beers at another brewery) based in Emmaus, Pa., just south of Allentown. I tasted four different Søle beers — all IPA styles — and thought they were all delicious. The decidedly bitter “So High” American IPA offers a return to actual bitterness in IPA, while the “Super Silk” IPA brings a bit of softness thanks to the inclusion of some oats. My favorite of all was the “Eureka Nerd,” which balanced all of the fruity juiciness of my favorite New England-style IPAs with just a bit of bitterness on the finish.

Grist House Craft Brewery is in Millvale, Pa., just outside Pittsburgh, and its New England-style IPA “Hazedelic Juice Grenade” was terrific. Again, it balanced all those fruity notes with the most delicate bitter streak on the finish. With its lighter body and 6.2 percent alcohol by volume, it’s the kind of IPA I’d drink a lot of while tailgating for a Steelers game.

The last brewery I want to mention is Rhinegeist Brewery in Cincinnati, Ohio. Though not as over-the-top delicious as the Søle or Grist House, the quality of its diverse lineup is worth noting. The “Truth” IPA was good, but the “Cidergeist Bubbles,” an off-dry cider made with peach and cranberries, was my favorite.

If my former little corner of suburbia outside Pittsburgh can be home to such a great beer bar with such great local beers, anywhere can. It’s a great time to be a beer lover.

Lenn Thompson bio