As anyone who goes out knows, especially here in the midst of Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week, it's no longer hard to find a good craft beer at local bars and restaurants. Now more places are going big into craft cocktails, even draft cocktails. And wine flows freely, too, as several establishments improve their cellars and service, and some add wines from this region.
At some establishments, drinkers are increasingly finding additional options: hard cider (alcoholic apple juice) and mead (honey wine) and their myriad variations. Some of these libations are being made locally, by outfits such as Arsenal Cider House & Wine Cellar in Lawrenceville.
Opened in June of 2010, Arsenal has been winning fans and retail dispensers of its now-award-winning concoctions. And this weekend, owners Bill and Michelle Larkin put a spotlight on this growing stream of the drinks business by organizing the first Pittsburgh Cider & Mead Festival.
They've invited 17 other cider and mead makers and brands to dispense samples of 45-plus hard ciders and meads from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, April 27, at the former Pittsburgh Brewing Co. in Lawrenceville. Attendees also will get live music and food from neighborhood eateries. Tickets are $50, or $60 at the door, and proceeds will go towards rehabbing historical Arsenal Park.
A cider fest at a former beer brewery -- inside the Ober Brau Hause -- and as part of Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week?
Not such a stretch. The Larkins have been big supporters of, and supported by, the local craft beer industry. Cider and mead makers are finding themselves working along a similar path and serving some of the same customers, who are thirsty for the authentic and local.
Early this year, producers and others around the country formed the United States Association of Cider Makers. And there's an American Mead Makers Association coming together, as well.
The mead makers participating in this weekend's fest are the Laurel Highlands Meadery in Greensburg and Stonekeep Meadery located near Gettysburg.
Otherwise, it'll be mostly cider, from United Kingdom brands such as Strongbow, from new-wave American makers such as New York City's Original Sin and California's Fox Barrel, and other regional outfits such as Rebellion Ciderworks in Slippery Rock, Butler County.
One participating brand is the Boston Beer Co., the big maker of Sam Adams, which has started making and selling assorted ciders under the Angry Orchard label.
That adds some weight -- maybe too much, for some of the little guys -- to this growing trend.
Kristyn Noren, marketing manager for the Long Island, N.Y.-based Hard Cider News, said in an email that her publication expects double-digit growth in cider producers, sales and consumption. It's now "only a small fraction of the alcoholic beverage industry," but, "Cider is attractive to more women drinkers (where beer is not) but is equally attractive to men, cider sells at higher prices next to wine and spirits, and cider has added selling points like being gluten-free, sometimes organic, and often all-natural."
Both ciders and meads can come in a wide variety of flavors, as you can experience at the festival. "We'll have everything from absolute bone-dry to semi-sweet," says Mr. Larkin, whose tastes run towards dry, whereas the masses seem to go for the sweet, as evidenced by the sugar content of the big brands.
On Saturday, there'll also be cider spiced with ginger, one made from Honeycrisp apples, a mead made from Japanese knotweed honey, a ceyser (mead with apples), an oaked cider (normally only served from a bartop cask at Lawrenceville's Tender Bar and Kitchen), even a "snakebite" of Fighting Elleck cider mixed with Rust Belt Brewing's Coke Oven Stout -- and that's just at Arsenal's table.
Fighting Elleck, by the way, just won a silver, and Arsenal won five bronzes, at the recent 2013 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition. (The line between what's a cider and what's a fruit wine is a shifting one, depending on whether you're using the definition of a federal taxing body.)
You should also try the Kaiser Cider, on which Arsenal collaborated with Penn Brewery. Mr. Larkin describes it as a "hard cider with the hop profile of Penn Kaiser Pils" -- certainly an interesting spin-off.
Mr. Larkin had hoped to sell 300 tickets and earlier this week he was more than halfway there. The best way to get them now, and perhaps get an advance taste, is to stop at the Civil-War-era-themed Arsenal Cider at 300 39th Street (arsenalcider.com).
All the proceeds after expenses will go to the Lawrenceville Historical Society to use on Arsenal Park. "What I'd like to do with this year, because it's going to be a small amount, is maybe just concentrate on the cannon," says Mr. Larkin, who plans to hold an even bigger fest next year, which is the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Allegheny Arsenal.
If you can't get to the fest, you can look for Arsenal cider at a wide range of places. "We're in restaurants, we're in beer bars, we're in some dives I guess you could say," says Mr. Larkin. "Our customer base seems to be from just-turned-drinking age all the way to older people."
He's hoping to expose more of them to new tastes at the fest.
Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week also will have a table there to sell T-shirts. Including today, there are officially three more days of Craft Beer Week (though Hough's in Greenfield is keeping it going Sunday when it aims to earn a world record for world's largest beer tasting). Find a full calendar of events at pittsburghcraftbeerweek.com. We've been highlighting events each day on The Forks blog at pgplate.com/forks.
You can share your photos of your adventures by uploading them to the Craft Beer Week album at pgplate.com/beer.libations
Bob Batz Jr.: firstname.lastname@example.org and 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.