Renewing Vows at the Church of Beer

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

A church!?

My eyes are narrowing into my signature “concerned” look. I’m hungry, why are we going to church?

The exterior of ‘the church’.

Silently, I follow McGyver, the master Concierge, up the steps and through the grand doors. Looking straight down the aisle to the altar, what’s happening up there? A service? A wedding? My eyes refocus. Framed by the celestial blue alter cavern, the giant steel and copper brew kettles separate from the brass and stained glass alter canopy. The people sitting at the altar, in what was once St. John the Baptist Church, are drinking beer in Church Brew Works.

“I would have gone to church if it had been like this,” McGyver told me. “We’re renewing our vows at the Church of Beer.”

It’s the third anniversary of our first load as over-the-road truck drivers, we drove from Carlisle, Pennsylvania to Owensboro, Kentucky, and today is the 20th anniversary since we met — in a bar.

Our trucking travel adventure has shown us many places that we would never have given a second thought too. Indianapolis, Indiana is a great city with 24 miles of bike paths and a restaurant district called Broad Ripple. Columbus, Ohio has one of our favorite restaurants, Barcelona. Now we’re getting to know Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is about two hours south of FedEx Custom Critical’s headquarters in Uniontown, Ohio.

The city that steel built, Pittsburgh, is every truck driver’s nightmare with its 446 bridges, low clearance overpasses, numerous tunnels, narrow streets with penalty poles, light and power poles on the edges of the roadway requiring the extreme buttonhook turn and no grid system as the city winds around three rivers and up and down steep slopes.

The area around the Allegheny and the Monongahela rivers which form the Ohio River before draining into the Mississippi was discovered in 1669 by French explorer Robert de la Salle, in 1787 the first newspaper and university opened, by 1857, Pittsburgh’s 1,000 factories were consuming 22,000,000 bushels of coal yearly. In 1901, the U.S. Steel Corporation was formed, and by 1911 Pittsburgh was the nation’s eighth largest city, producing between a third and a half of the nation’s steel. During World War II, Pittsburgh produced 95 million tons of steel, the pollution from burning coal and steel production created a black smog, which even a century earlier had induced author writer James Parton to dub the city “hell with the lid off”.

Interior of Church Brew Works, original fixtures rejuvenated to create the ideal wedding/vow renewal location.

Pittsburgh hit the skids in the 80s when the steel industry waned. It’s been rebuilt by technology, education,healthcare and the financial industry. From hell-to-heaven in 30 years, it now consistently makes the “most livable city” lists, Forbes in 2010, the Economist this year, and now ours as a potential retirement venue along with Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington.

In the summer, Pittsburgh is a lush green — in winter it’s cold with a lot of snow, requiring a secondary retirement location — there are parks and bike paths. Historic buildings have been reclaimed, buffed and transformed into new uses. Townhouses built in the late 1800s, in the Mary Poppins-London style dot many neighborhoods. Some on steep slopes, provide eye-popping views.

The city has 712 sets of stairs, 24,090 vertical feet (more than San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Portland, Oregon combined) for pedestrians to traverse its many hills. There are hundreds of ‘paper streets’ composed entirely of stairs and many other steep streets with stairs for sidewalks along with two incline railways.

The city has bike and walking trails along its river fronts and hollows, but steep hills and variable weather can make biking challenging. The city is connected to downtown Washington, D.C. (some 245 mi (394 km) away) by a continuous bike/running trail through the Alleghenies and along the Potomac Valley, known as the Great Allegheny Passage and Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath.

The bridges decorate the city like a necklace, many of them lit up at night. Sitting at the river front, munching on eggplant parmesan sandwiches from the Strip District, we had a view of two giant stadiums, football and baseball. Their construction caused a political stink at the time, but Big Corporate Sports won in yet another example of public wealth turned over to private hands, but citizens seem happy with the results. University campuses with a full slate of offerings, educational and cultural, there’s a symphony and a ballet, provide jobs and entertainment.

While it does have an extensive Zipcar network, the trouble with Pittsburgh is that everyone seems to drive everywhere. Public transit appears limited. Buses, yes, but few taxis and we didn’t see any rapid transit, probably difficult with all those bridges.

And Pittsburgh has great food venues which brings us back to Church Brew Works. St. John’s, completed in 1903, has been a brew pub for 15 years.

“The Trappist Monks brewed the first beer,” our barmaid told us when we asked if the conversion was controversial. “Really the church brought us beer.”

St. John’s has been “de-sanctified”, but the interior is largely as it was, many of the original church fixtures were saved, the pews used as seating, stained glass on the windows. The brew kettles and fermenting vessels look surprisingly at home on the alter, the shiny brass and steel reflecting the stained glass. McGyver liked the beer, selecting the Pious Monk Dunkel. The limited menu serves up solid, tasty dishes. It’s the location that counts here.

5 thoughts on “Renewing Vows at the Church of Beer

  1. What a great post. I'd love to explore this city more – maybe not the bicycle paths and all those steps, but definitely the restaurants and great views. I actually love going there, but it's not often.The brewery in the church is interesting – reminds me of The Limelight, a nightclub housed in an old church, located in New York City. It was sort of weird being in there – surrounded by all the stained glass, pews and nave exactly the same as when it was an actual church – while bumping and grinding with hot guys when I was in my early 20's. We are going to have to put this on our list of places to go to – in additiont to Barcelona in Columbus.Oh…and this is my favorite sentence in the entire post…"The bridges decorate the city like a necklace…"

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  2. living just an hour &a half south, i thought i'd sought out all the nuances of pittsburgh, but i guess not! thanks for the info on the brew pub…..and everywhere else, for that matter….brad & i really enjoy your blog.

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  3. Thanks for your note — no sugar-coating, how much snow does Pittsburgh get. We were surprised by how much we enjoyed the city. Marlaina

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