BEER CLINIC :: Church Brew Works

by Dr. Carol Westbrook on May 27, 2015

It was late March, early springtime, the time of year when many religions celebrate the start of a new year. It was the time for Easter and Passover. I had to face it –it was time to go to Church.

Figure 1I’m referring here to a church-based brewery that I haven’t visited in a long time: The Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh, PA. I know this brewery well, since we used to stop there when my daughter was attending college at Carnegie Mellon University, and we even held her graduation party there in 2009. We haven’t been to Church since then.

Early spring is also a good time for a road trip across the state of Pennsylvania, and we were looking forward to our visit to Pittsburgh. If you’ve never been there, you should go. Nestled between the Allegheny and the Monongahela River, where they join to make the Ohio, it’s a beautiful sight to behold as you (traveling east to west) come down through the mountains and exit the Fort Pitt tunnel. Pittsburgh is the City of Bridges — 446 to be exact. It used to be one of the steel production centers of US, but today all the mills are closed and the city has been cleaned up quite a bit, but it still keeps much of its blue-collar, European immigrant heritage.

unnamedHome to 68 institutions of higher education (39 traditional and 29 for-profit colleges), Pittsburgh is now a young city, with a vibrant arts, music, and restaurant scene. Of course we had to stop for lunch at the Original Hot Dog Shop, or “The O,” arguably one of the best hot dog restaurants in the country. Needless to say, Pittsburgh also has a good craft beer scene, a suitable combination of its European heritage and hipster preferences. The Church Brew Works anchors the craft beer scene.

Many people take exception to the use of a church building for a brewpub, but I feel differently. These old churches were built by the hard work and the money of poor immigrant laborers; they are imposing structures, with beautiful stained glass and statuary. Today so many are being closed and sold, and if there is no buyer they are torn down brick by brick. I watched one such church being demolished last winter, the Holy Trinity Lithuanian Parish in Wilkes Barre.  This church was a local landmark, and now it is an empty lot. I shed a silent tear every time I drive by.

Trinity Lithuanian, Before

Almost After

Almost After


The Church Brew Works is located in a restored Catholic Church, St. John the Baptist, in the now trendy, hipster Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh. St. John’s was closed by the diocese in 1993, and the old building was purchased and renovated to be used as a brewery, which opened in 1996.

unnamedAs you enter the brewpub through the artful facade you are immediately struck by the sense of space, and the congregation seated and enjoying their dinner. The high arches and windows are intact, as is the pipe organ, and the pews have been reused to provide comfortable benches and booths.

Although the Pub is noted for its excellent food, we decided to go with a simple pizza to leave more room for beer. However, we couldn’t resist tasting the appetizer pierogie — a Polish-style, potato-filled dough that is steamed and then lightly sauteed in butter with onions. This is a throwback to the region’s Eastern European heritage, and a perfect pair for beer. We went with a flight of 8 beers with the pierogie, and then picked our favorite for a full pint to pair with our pizza dinner. images

Like many brew pubs, Church offers a wide selection on draft, so there is “something for everyone.” Not every beer rises to the level of greatness, although the overall quality is high and the beers are consistent. Most of the names are based on the religion concepts, e.g. absolution, celestial, pipe organ. It was hard to get information on some of them, and the server, though knowledgeable, was a bit too busy to give us much attention. My tasting notes, and notes from the brewpub’s website, are given at the end of the article.
Figure 7

Celestial Gold, ABV 4%. This is a German Pilsner, perfect for its style. Very light, low in hops, and incredibly drinkable. Great for food; you can drink it like water.

Pipe Organ Pale Ale, 5.2% I’m not a fan of American Pale Ales, and this one was particularly nondescript. Made with Galaxy hops.

Thunderhop IPA, 6.5%, with Chinook and Nugget hops. My favorite beer style, and this one is perfectly done.

Extreme Double IPA — I’m not sure, given the name of this brew, of the ABV– I didn’t write it down, I’m sorry to say, and it’s not featured on the web site. This is a highly hopped beer with a perfect malt balance, at 90 IBU and alcohol at 9% or higher. Very good.

Absolution Ale, 5%, ABV. This is a session IPA, which had an astounding nose; dry hops, great aroma.

Pious Monk Dunkel, ABV 5.5% This beer was true to style, much like its German counterparts, without any distinguishing features. Because of its lightness and low hop level, it’s a good pair with food.

O’Casey’s Irish Stout 4.5% This was their rotating stout, and it was done correctly, with a good color and minimal hops. To me, though, it tasted like a watery Guinness.

Irish Red Ale. I suspect they made two Irish-themed beers for St. Patrick’s day, earlier in the month. I have no comments on this one; is not a beer style that I care for. (Editor’s note: O’Casey’s Irish Stout is, no doubt, named after the founder and President of Church Brew Works, Sean Casey.)

Our two picks to have with dinner? The Celestial Gold Pilsner and Thunderhop IPA. The pizza — marvelous. Dessert? Sad to say we were too full for the last course, but the menu looked fabulous.

For a fun couple of minutes, check out our YBN special “Wash it Down with Scott Martin Brooks” shot at Church Brew Works.

imagesIn addition to her fascinating essays on a variety of topics to be found @ 3 Quarks Daily, also available from Dr. Westbrook: 

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