I didn’t really know what to expect of my first visit to Pittsburgh. The recesses of my mind still had visions of steel mills and smoke stacks.
I wasn’t heading to the steel city for its architectural character or cultural charm, but rather to join Sid the Younger for a late June weekend of ballgames and craft breweries in a stadium and town we’d never visited. What’s better than a toad trip with your son to root for the Dodgers in a faraway land?
First off, Pittsburgh is surprisingly beautiful, at least at this time of year in the areas we visited. I should have guessed, having driven through the Amish country of Pennsylvania with Beth many years ago. Rolling green hills covered with lush trees overlooked the three rivers that meet near the downtown area a few hundred yards from PNC Park, just down the block from Heinz Field where the Steelers play.
My ever-efficient and loving wife Beth booked our hotel literally right across the street from PNC Park, where restaurants and bars line Federal Way and General Robinson Street. On game days (at least on weekends), Federal Way closes to vehicular traffic in favor of a stage outside the stadium as fans cross the Clemente Bridge to enjoy the music and pre-game festivities. I’ve never seen so many fans wearing caps and jerseys; they were everywhere we went, but especially at the stadium.
The Pirates haven’t played in a World Series since 1979, and they’ve had more bad years than good over the past four decades. Still, the fans are loyal and forgiving. More impressive is how remarkably welcoming they are to out-of-town fans clearly rooting against their team. Unfortunately for us, the Pirate fans had the last word, with the home team winning both games I attended and three of the four weekend games against the Dodgers. No question, Pittsburgh people love their Pirates, Steelers and Penguins.
The sports were only part of the reason for our journey. After our self-guided tour around the statues of Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski and Honus Wagner that surround PNC Park, Sid and I walked along the Alleghany River toward its union with the Ohio and the Monongahela rivers. After lunch at the Jerome Bettis Grill (he wasn’t in, but our waitress gave us a tour of his private lounge filled with memorabilia), we went to explore the city’s craft breweries.
Pittsburgh is a great sports town, but it hasn’t yet caught up in the craft beer arena. Understandably, it’s still an Iron City Beer town (I used to have many of the commemorative championship Steelers and Pirates beer cans in my since-sold can collection). Still, they are trying.
Grist House Brewing is set in an old house-turned-brewery in the middle of a neighborhood outside of town in the city of Millvale. The atmosphere there is welcoming and the setting is charming, even if the beer is just average.
From there we headed to the Lawrenceville area, where there are breweries up and town Butler Street, which runs parallel with the Allegheny. We were able to easily walk from Hop Farm Brewing to the Full Pint taproom and then to Roundabout Brewing.
Our last stop before game time was back in Pittsburgh at Church Brew Works – easily the most impressive brewery structure I’ve ever visited. The brewery has taken over a restored Roman Catholic church originally built in 1902, but is now filled with large silver brewing tanks and picnic benches in an environment that reminded me of the cavernous Hofbrau Haus in Munich.
The breweries were great and the people were more than kind, but the beer was mostly watery, unexciting and lacking the big bold flavors that we’ve become so accustomed to at home. Of course, as Sid the Younger reminded me, unless you’re in California, Oregon, Colorado, Michigan or Vermont, you’ll be lucky to come across great craft beers.
Bad baseball and bad beer, but we had a great time and loved Pittsburgh.