“On the 8th day, Man created beer.” On Liberty Avenue in Lawrenceville, a beautiful church with magnificent round stained glass windows would draw anyone’s attention. The building’s facade is unique and breathtaking, but possibly it’s most attention grabbing detail is a small sign carrying the words “The Church Brew Works.” Suddenly you become confused. “Wait, brew like beer?”
And the answer is yes, brew like awesome beer. Originally St. John the Baptist Church, built in 1902, the magnificent building got a major overhaul in 1996 when its doors re-opened as what, in 2012, was named the best Large Brewpub in America at the Great American Beer Festival.
I was lucky enough to catch up with head brewer, Steve Sloan, for a few pints and a behind the scenes tour of this infamous Pittsburgh brewery. To start, I grabbed a Heini’s Hootch, a bourbon barrel aged Strong Ale that took home Gold from the Great American Beer Festival (where they also won two bronze medals and a silver). This high gravity ale is low in bitterness and dangerously smooth. A few sips of the bourbon scented elixir and I was ready to see what was behind the church’s closed doors!
Like many breweries, the system you can see from the restaurant is pristine, polished and pretty, but in the depth of the old attached school house is where the real work happens. This is always my favorite part of a brewery tour because in general, “pretty” is one of the last words I would use to describe beer. This place is full of equipment, bourbon barrels and a nice young man painstakingly hand labeling all the bottle conditioned beers. I will admit, through my giddy fan-girl moments I did have time to get a little creeped out. I mean think about it, the basement of an old school house? Steve assured me he had never seen a ghost… then added that other brewers had.
A very down to Earth guy, Steve put up with me asking about his favorite scary movie (Night of the Living Dead) and what his beer award equivalent of a touchdown dance would be (he would humbly toss the ball back to the ref, reminiscent of Barry Sanders) while pointing me to my next beers. The Wheat Wine is wildly unique and pleasantly sweet while the new Thunder Hop IPA recipe is full of hop forward aroma and deep bitter character.
Even today, after 16 years and countless awards, there are people who still refuse to set foot on the “not-so-holy” ground, some because they disapprove and some simply because they attended the church and find it a little awkward. Despite the objections, everyday Pittsburgher’s find themselves enjoying a heavenly pint (and maybe some Rattlesnake Pierogies) while gazing at the brewing system on the church’s alter. To me, The Church Brew Works is exactly what beer is about, community – a place for people to gather and feel welcome in each other’s company. What’s unholy about that?