Pittsburgh’s First Craft Beer Bar

Newcastle Brown. Hoegaarden. Guinness. If you’re reading this magazine, it’s 2018, you’re probably a well-versed beer fan, and these names are old hat. They’re not hard to find on tap at plenty of places around town. These days, they’re even sold in grocery stores and at gas stations.

Sam Smith’s Nut Brown. Lindeman’s Frambroise. Anchor Steam Beer. You may have cut your teeth on some of these beers. They may have been an early step into the big, wide world of non-macro-lager brew. Maybe you’ve moved on to What’s Hot Now and left them in the dust, or maybe one or two still hold a place in your heart.

Every seasoned beer drinker has a “gateway” beer in their memory, one that really opened their eyes to the full spectrum of what the drink has to offer. Experiencing that transition into good beer is like coming out of the Fort Pitt Tunnel and seeing the full panorama sprawling before your eyes — lights, skyline, water, steel. It’s an epiphany.

It wasn’t long ago that Pittsburgh’s eyes were opened to the joys of beer from all over the world, outside of the narrow monoculture that domestic, industrial suds had become in the time after Prohibition. For a generation of beer-loving yinzers, the place that broke the mold and ushered in the modern era was Chiodo’s Tavern. For good beer in Pittsburgh, Chiodo’s was a gateway bar .

Joe, Sam, and Joe

It’s not a leap to parallel Chiodo’s Tavern and the trajectory of Pittsburgh itself. Joe Chiodo and his family emigrated from Italy in 1927, when Joe was just 9. The Chiodos settled in the Steel Valley, and Joe’s father, Pietro, owned a shoe repair shop in Homestead. When Joe returned from serving in World War II, he worked here, until his father bought the building across the corner with the intent to move the shop there. Instead, he gave the building to Joe, who went into business as a publican.

Selling beer in Homestead — site of the world’s then-largest steel-making facility — was a no-brainer. With U.S. Steel employing thousands of millworkers, Chiodo’s had a natural customer base for decades. If the doors were open, the Iron City was flowing. But with the gradual decline of domestic steel following WWII, came the inevitable ebb in bar business. By 1980, the stream of thirsty millworkers had slowed to a trickle.

Enter two key players. Joe hired his cousin Sam off his gig as a forklift driver for Pepsi to help manage the bar. In the early 1980s, Sam was approached by Joe Och, a hospital employee and beer lover with a foresighted suggestion that saved the tavern: sell imports. This was around 1981, six years before Pennsylvania would even boast its first craft brewery. Craft beer would not take hold on a national level until about a decade later. The great frontier was in imported beer, which was then just starting to make its way into Western PA.

The First of Its Kind

It’s clear even before meeting Ed Vidunas that Chiodo’s Tavern means a lot to him. The proprietor of pittsburghbreweries.com, Vidunas is Pittsburgh’s unofficial beer historian. Prior to meeting, he cautioned warmly that discussing Chiodo’s with him might necessitate a long sit.

Settling in to talk at the bar in Piper’s Pub, he sports an authentic Chiodo’s shirt.

“There were other places at the time, but nobody had the selection, and that was because of Sam,” recounts Vidunas. “The greatest business man I ever met without an MBA was Sam Chiodo. Before profit or himself, he put customers first. Whatever was new or unheard of, Sam bought it. It took some years, but when he spoke, people listened. When he went to Lutheran and asked for something, they would get it.”

“Lutheran” was A.M. Lutheran Beer Distributors, a wholesaler/importer based in West Mifflin. Before its sale to Frank B. Fuhrer Wholesaler in 2008, A.M. Lutheran hunted beyond-the-pale ales and lagers from across the world, supplying the tavern with beers from Canada to Belgium, Honduras to India.

And the crowds returned to taste Chiodo’s foreign, flavorful wares. “In early 1982, I walked into Chiodo’s with my buddy Ron Zak,” Vidunas shares. “We came in the front door at 8:00 on a Friday evening, sat at the bar and were greeted by Sam and Marcia, the cook. We were the only four people in the bar the entire time. Within a year, more or less, the tavern went from empty to two deep at the bar.”

All About the Beer

Through the ’80s, Chiodo’s was the place in Pittsburgh to find as many different styles of beer as were available all in one place

“A lot of beer drinkers in the early 80’s had no idea what a porter was, let alone a Kulmbacher.” Vidunas says.

Ed recalls that Mackeson XXX Stout was an eye-opener in his early Chiodo’s days. He reminisces about when Sam brought Berliner Weiss from Germany, years before the domestic revival of the light, tart wheat style.

“He found that it was traditional to add syrup to the beer in the glass, so he went out, bought a raspberry syrup, and gave it to customers at no extra charge. Sam obtained a Rauchbier from Germany. To complement it, he gave customers a few slices of smoked provolone cheese, at no extra charge.”

Chiodo’s hosted the Three Rivers Association of Serious Homebrewers (T.R.A.S.H.) for their monthly meetings. There, homebrewers could taste canonical examples of classic styles previously unavailable, and could get a sense of Paulaner Salvator, Pilsner Urquell, or Fuller’s London Pride before taking a stab at their own clone recipes.

Hart Johnson, bar manager and beer buyer at Piper’s Pub, relates his Chiodo’s moment.

“You could get Duvel on draft, poured into a proper glass, for about half the price of anywhere else at the time.” For a city that had subsisted on Iron City and other fizzy adjunct lagers, the variety was revelatory. Whatever territory was untrod and exotic — be it Labatt’s and Sol or Chimay Grande Reserve and Eggenberger Urbock 23 (a scale-tipper at 11.5% ABV) — Chiodo’s was where you’d find it.

Word Spreads

The tavern’s reputation grew, attracting adventurous drinkers from all walks of life. “It turned into a landmark, the kind of place TV stations would use to film sports stars,” says Peter Machamer.

Now a retired Pitt philosophy professor, Machamer wrote the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s wine column for 15 years, and Chiodo’s became a favorite part of his beat. “They were among the first to make that kind of imprint.” Through the mid-80’s, Machamer covered the annual beer tastings Chiodo’s held for charity. Hosted by Joe Och (who by now was also teaching a beer appreciation course at Pitt), guests were treated to between 12 and 20 blind tastes of beers selected by Sam, often a mix of lagers and ales. The tastings began small, with crowds of around 20, and over years grew by multiples. Guests would converse, favorites were picked, and comments were shared for the reading audience’s benefit.

“One of the best lines, I’ll never forget, is one that couldn’t be printed in a neighborhood paper.” Machamer muses about a fairly well-known female TV news reporter describing a beer as being “like an angel pissing on your tongue”. The celestial beer in question? St. Pauli Girl. It wasn’t just local celebs who felt at home at Chiodo’s. Over the years, the bar was visited by famous faces of all stripes, including actors George Wendt and Jeff Goldblum, homebrewer extraordiaire Charlie Papazian, a number of Pittsburgh sports figures. Legend has it that Prince Charles was due for a stop (though sadly never materialized).

A Tearful Farewell

Joe Chiodo’s health declined, and he passed in August 2007 at age 89. He wasn’t able to sell the tavern, as the building had become something of a liability. The scads of eclectic, eccentric memorabilia (including the infamous clothesline of patron donated bras that hung from the ceiling) were auctioned off when the tavern closed in 2005, and the building was razed shortly thereafter. In Ed Vidunas’ eyes, it was a hard pill to swallow, but ultimately the right thing to do: “I’d rather it be torn down than turned into something it wasn’t.” At the end of what’s now called the Homestead Grays Bridge stands a Walgreen’s on what was once ground zero for Pittsburgh’s beer renaissance.

Peter Machamer remembers Joe Chiodo as a dear friend. “Joe was one of Pittsburgh’s great characters. He was nice to everyone.” Peter was among those whom Joe approached to buy the tavern, obviously to no avail. “I was tempted, but it didn’t seem to fit in too well with a philosophy career. Plus,” jokes Machamer, “I might have ended up an alcoholic.” Those with first-hand memories of Chiodo’s Tavern are aging, and much of the younger generation may have never heard of, much less set foot in, the place. In the time since Chiodo’s opened, other touchstone Pittsburgh beer bars like Sharp Edge, Fat Head’s, and D’s had put their roots down and perpetuated the scene. It’s hard to deny that many owe a debt to the trail blazed by Joe and Sam.

“There were tears in people’s eyes when they closed,” Ed recalls. “There have been lots of places with a lot of beer, but not quite in the same way.”

Many thanks to Joe Chiodo (great nephew of the tavern’s owner) for sharing the original Post Gazette articles; to Buzzy Torek for putting us in touch; to Michele Chiodo Stone (Sam’s granddaughter) for details on the family’s history; and to Ed Vidunas and Peter Machamer for sharing their personal memories.

 

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