Pittsburgh’s weather is as unpredictable as Kanye West’s next Twitter post. A typical May Thursday starts out dark and gloomy, transitions into heavy snow showers, and at the tip of a hat will transform into an unbearable, sweltering heat. Today is no exception. Cool temps and light rain set a precedent until noon, and like a light switch flipping on, revealed a perfect summer day.
Not wanting to squander this unexpected, and fortunate change in weather, I knew an afternoon in the Strip District was exactly what the doctor ordered. A quick stint at East End Brewing’s Taproom on 19th Street allowed me to gather much-needed provisions for the next few hours. A short hike up the sidewalk, weaving in and out of the local vendors, taking in the sights and more importantly, the smells, I arrived at my destination.
Tucked away on a side street is a place like no other in Pittsburgh. A mix between Cuba and a garage sale, Leaf and Bean perfectly captures island life, yet is able to remain quintessentially Pittsburgh.
“Island” Jim Robinson wanted to bring the spirit of the Caribbean to Pittsburgh, and in 2003, Leaf and Bean in the strip was born. Amusing cigar and tobacco signs, photographs capturing moments lost in time, and basically anything that wasn’t nailed down line the walls and dangle from the ceiling.
With a clientele as diverse as the paraphernalia hanging on the walls, Leaf and Bean has something for everyone. A visit inside reveals vats of specialty coffee beans, ready to be ground and transformed into something delicious. On a day like today, however, I am not here for the coffee but for the cigars, instead. Leaf and Bean’s walk in humidor is has the right smoke for anyone. I can say without doubt, Leaf and Bean in the strip has one of the most diverse and expansive humidors in Pittsburgh.
A classic, and one normally recommended by staff, my choice of cigar is a Leaf by Oscar Maduro, made in Honduras, and packaged in dried tobacco leaves rather than the usual cellophane. The tobacco color on this stick is reminiscent of a bar of dark chocolate, and the aroma reveals more of the same, with the addition of pepper notes.
To taste, the cigar has a sweet, chocolate flavor, as well as woody, earthy undertones. In my opinion, a full-bodied smoke like this should be paired with a beer as equally dark and complex. I’m talking about the superb Fatter Gary Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Brown Ale from East End Brewing.
Like the Leaf by Oscar, the Gary is a dark brown, almost black in appearance. On the nose, notes of cocoa and vanilla prevail. First tastes reveal caramel, vanilla, and chocolate. For a beer with a 9% abv., it is deceptively smooth, thanks to the bourbon-barrel aging. Normally, an imperial brown ale is not my first choice of beer on an 82-degree day. A session IPA or Gose is more of my style. But, the flavors and aromas of beers like brown ales and stouts and Maduro cigars are so similar that I almost always end up choosing these styles to pair no matter the weather.
As I sit on the sidewalk puffing my cigar, periodically sipping my beer, and reading the newest issue of CraftPittsburgh (shameless plug), I am taken to place far away. Momentarily closing my eyes, letting the sun beat down, the sidewalk in front of Leaf and Bean has been transformed into a sandy beach in the Caribbean or a forgotten alleyway in Havana.
Leaf and Bean is a little strip of paradise.