Spring Sips: Pittsburgh's great food scene includes unique brews and spirits
March 5, 2015 12:32 AM
By David Rullo / Freelance Writer
•Pittsburgh enjoys an enviable spot on an impressive number of lists these days – Best Places to Live, Best Places to Retire and Most Affordable Cities, to name a few. Each honor seems to make mention of certain regional specialties like chipped ham, Primanti Brother’s sandwiches and pierogies. Meanwhile, the sophisticated foodie knows the city is home to a bevy of four-star restaurants, craft beer breweries, distilleries, food trucks and more. It’s a veritable food paradise. We simply won’t let anyone, including Austin, San Francisco or New York, get all the food and drink glory.
While the city has a history with such brews as Iron City that are as storied as the Iron Curtain that at one time graced the cans it came in, there’s a new crop of craft beer that has captured the attention of beer aficionados. These breweries are often breathing new life to tired mill towns now experiencing a renaissance, thanks to hipsters and beer enthusiasts, who prefer a local mug to their father’s beer. A prime example of a local microbrewery and taproom is The Brew Gentlemen Beer Company in Braddock. Located not far from where Kevin Sousa’s new restaurant will soon be open. The Brew Gentlemen Beer Company serves up a variety of craft beers, including ales and IPAs.
Co-founder and creative director of the brewery, Asa Foster, says that this spring they will be featuring hoppy, wheaty beers and a modern saison (hopped with American hops, a nontraditional take on a Belgian saison). Foster also feels that while IPAs will continue to be “one of the most popular trends” in beers he feels people are turning away from bitter IPAs and instead seeking out those that feature a spicier blend.
Sassy's Salute Sassafras Whiskey Punch
• 11/2 oz Wigle Organic Sassafras Wheat Whiskey • 2 oz over-steeped Sassafras Tea • 3/4 oz simple syrup • 1/2 oz lemon juice • 2 dashes Wigle Organic Rosemary Lavender Bitters • Very small pinch of salt
Measure and combine all ingredients and shake with ice until well chilled. Strain over fresh ice into a rocks glass; garnish with a lemon slice. To make a “batch” of the punch, change the ounce measurements to cups, and that will render 12 servings.
Spring is a time for lightening the mood – the blooming of flowers, longer sunlight hours, warmer weather, it all seems to call out for lighter fares – cocktails and food are perfect examples of this. All winter we spent time indoors drinking traditional heavy beers and more standard drinks like Manhattans. The new season presents the perfect opportunity to sample drinks that reflect the colors and nature all around us. Teas, punches and fruit drinks are all features of spring menus.
According to Wes Shonk of Wigle Distillery, a Strip District distillery making their own organic whiskey and gin on site, spring is the perfect opportunity to move to light gin drinks like the Aviation, a wonderful combination of gin, lemon juice, maraschino cherry juice and crème de violette. Shonk says these types of drinks, “Are usually a little lighter, dryer and have a nice herbaceous element, which make them perfect for the changing of seasons.”
Punches are also making a comeback, “big time” according to Shonk. The reasons are simple: “Punches are easy to make in individual servings and can be made ahead of time allowing you to enjoy the company of your guests all night.” Pairing a dish like traditional Cajun style Gumbo with a punch like Wigle’s Sassy Salute (see recipe below) makes perfect sense because the dish is flavored with Filé powder, a spice made from sassafras tea.
Spring seems to be the time for drinks containing fruit juices and more sugary mixers. Dave DeSimone, owner of Open Bottle Bistro in Shadyside, makes mention of their OBB French 75 cocktail – made from cognac, gin, simple syrup and sparkling wine with a lemon twist.
These sure to be popular drinks show that a drink doesn’t have to try and knock you out with its alcoholic content. In fact, the best drinks for spring tend to mix several subtle flavors that enhance the taste and subtly of the liquor used in the drink.
Often when we think spring our mind turns to parties on the patio or a warm night out with friends. It may seem that the season is made for cocktails and beers, portable drinks that can be carried, but don’t shy away from wines. Spring is perfect for wines, they are the embodiment of the season in fact, especially vintages that are fruity, accessible and fun. DeSimone, a wine writer and critic as well as local radio host, mentions “juicy red wines and crispy whites, like the Domaine Michelot Bourgogne Pinot Noir from France and the Domus Pinot Grigio from Italy.”
All of the drinks DeSimone mentioned can be sample at The Open Bottle Bistro and “pair nicely with a dish like Chorizo Salteado,” made from thin slices of cured Spanish Chorizo sausage pan seared with raisins, pine nuts and wilted spinach.
One trend that continues to gain popularity is consuming foods and drinks that source locally. This idea can be seen from food trucks to the microbreweries and small batch distilleries that call Pittsburgh home. Those big name companies that ship their bottles from states away and are made with fruit and grains that can’t be traced to a local source continue to lose ground as our tastes as consumers grow. Ask any Pittsburgher where they’re from and they’ll name a neighborhood or street rather than the city. It is a source of pride that their drinks come from some of the same neighborhoods.
Spring cocktails and food reflect the season. We spent the winter wrapped in layers enjoying what we grew and canned or bottled over the summer and winter while seeking out opportunities to be warmed from the inside by strong alcoholic drinks. Spring is about celebrating fruits and the growing season. So, while you’re planning your next food event think local, fruity and light. Better yet, try one of the local restaurants, microbreweries or distilleries – spring is also about not having to do the dishes!
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