Hops & The City is an exploration of beer in Pittsburgh by our resident craft beer enthusiast, Angelica Ross. Angelica is pitting beers against each other and honing her taste skills simultaneously while providing you with her unique opinions on the brews in front of her. It’s like Carrie dishing about men and learning about which guy suits her best…except for Angelica, it’s beer. Follow Angelica on Twitter @syntaxxerrorrr
There is a huge problem. I gave up beer for Lent. That means 40 days and 40 nights of…no beer. When you’re trying to train your palate to identify different beer characteristics, it’s a little tricky.
Thankfully, I found a loophole to my non-hopped-or-malted abstention: cider. Like mead, it’s more towards the wine side, but there are still nuances that make this worthy of beer-lover attention.
Arsenal Cider House & Wine Cellar needs no introduction, but let me introduce it anyway. It’s housed in an un-assuming…house…in Lawrenceville. If it weren’t for the sign out front, I would have kept wandering around 39th Street and possibly wandered into someone’s actual home. Stepping inside is like going back in time. I feel like I’m in a colonial-era saloon. Wood planks cover the walls and line the floor. The bar is a wide slab of wood propped up with barrels. As a nod to modern times, they thankfully accept credit cards.
There’s also a nice yard outside which would be perfect on a lovely spring day..if it weren’t for the snow. #OnlyInPittsburgh
I was lucky enough to sample their array of cider and the one mead that is on tap. I’ve had Arsenal’s wares before, but not fresh from the barrel. Let me tell you, to really pick up on the subtle flavors of each cider, you need it fresh from the source. Speaking of fresh from the source, their apples come from Soergel Orchards in Wexford where there is a secondary location if you don’t want to drive into Lawrenceville.
Now, onto the ciders.
This cider is dry like the desert. It’s more like champagne and the perfect thing to toast with at a Lawrenceville hipster wedding (if you’re into that kind of thing). The carbonation in this cider comes from a long fermentation time with champagne yeast. Are you a brunch person? Add a little traditional apple cider, OJ, or peach juice and you’ve got yourself a cocktail. Bubbles are definitely festive and the carbonation would also make for awesome beer bread or cider donuts. You’re welcome.
Oliver’s Oaked with Bourbon and Vanilla – dry
Hello bourbon. Of course, this isn’t dark like a bourbon-barrel-aged beer, but there is such a depth of flavor in this cider that those of you who can appreciate a good barrel-aged beer will enjoy. While I was here, Luke was pouring and he compared this to a chardonnay; I personally wouldn’t make that connection because I didn’t pick up oak, rather bourbon. The result is a smooth cider with a bit of a kick and warmth.
Fighting Elleck – off-dry
Their “house” or flagship cider is just that. An unassuming, “hard cider” cider. It reminds me the most of wine in that it’s slightly dry and you can taste crisp apples. Not that it’s “just” a cider, but it is the most “what you see is what you get” of the bunch. I ended up with a growler of this one because it is hearty and refreshing at the same time; it’s a solid cider that is “your uncle’s beer” of the bunch*.
Archibald’s Ale – semi-sweet
This is adult apple juice. The sweetness in this cider kicks it up to a level of danger – you could drink this on your porch on a perfect summer evening and not realize you’ve had a full growler of 8.5% ABV cider. Because of the sweetness, it would also make a fantastic “mixer.” I can see this paired with Wigle Whiskey’s Landlocked Spiced Rum or Maggie’s Farm Rum (both fantastic award-winning Pittsburgh distilleries, don’tcha know).
Griersons’s Ginger – semi-sweet
This cider is probably my favorite of the bunch. Forty pounds of ginger goes into making this cider and you can definitely tell that it’s there. The ginger hits you first and the spice lingers but the apple cools it down. The ginger also keeps it from being too sweet. If Archibald’s Ale is like adult apple juice, this is adult apple juice on steroids. This would be my summer porch-sittin’ choice. It’s refreshing but different.
Murray’s Mead – semi-sweet
Honey, orange blossoms, and something slightly spicy make this a unique mead and a refreshing choice in the sea of cider. There’s a slight ambrosia feel to this mead that makes it unique – it’s sweet but not overwhelmingly so. Like some of the offerings at Apis Meadery that say “Hello, Dolly, I’m fruity!” the flavor in this is subtle. It’s sweet and citrusy and would make a killer summer sangria. The mead, like the cider, is made at Arsenal and typically on tap in the spring to kick off a new season.
Arsenal Cider House & Wine Cellar is not a brewery or producer of beer, of course, but those of you who appreciate dedication to nuances of flavor and honing a skill would do well to give this a chance. It’s also a fantastic option if you’re off beer for a while.
*What is “Your Uncle’s Beer”? It’s beer that would remind you the most of the “fizzy yellow stuff” without frills that your yinzer uncle will be perfectly happy drinking if you brought it to a party. For example: if Master of the Galaxy from Grist House Brewing would be too crazy for him, start off a budding beer exploration with Wheatin’ For the Weekend – traditional enough to be appealing but crafty enough to be different.