Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What Might Have Been for St. Joseph's and Ravens Head: Remembering Pittsburgh's Church Brew Works

Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh (left); St. Joseph's in Albany (right)
This might initially seem like a negative post, and in a way it is.  But positives first: Ravens Head Brewing, which had a lengthy dalliance with St. Joseph's Church in the Ten Broeck neighborhood of Albany, has settled on what seems like a great space for their brewery and restaurant--the Cohoes Armory.  So anyone looking forward to tasting Ravens Head's beers in a unique location in the Capital Region can rest easy--we might be able to do so before the end of this year.  And that's a great thing for this area.

But in my typical backwards way of doing things, I want to spend a little time thinking of what could have been, not what actually will be.  And I like to think I have some justification for doing so, in that I lived for a few years in Pittsburgh, where Church Brew Works operates a brewery/restaurant out of a gorgeous old church, and I can speak first hand to just how awesome an experience it was to go there for a meal and a beer.

Here's a disclaimer before I get in too deep: I'm new here, I don't know much about all the politics that govern the Albany area, and I can understand the concerns people had about St. Joseph's being turned into a brewery/restaurant considering what seems like a residential location.

That being said, if Ravens Head could have turned St. Joseph's into anything like what Pittsburgh has in Church Brew Works, we've missed out on something incredible here in Albany.

I can only talk in so many specifics about Church Brew Works; it's been a while now (six or seven years) since I ate/drank there.  I was also pretty ignorant about beer when I first visited, so I can't speak to the quality of what they're brewing.  Beer Advocate ratings tell a story of some decent, but not outstanding, beers at Church Brew Works. 

The interior of Church Brew Works
In other words, the beer isn't the main reason why people are going to Church Brew Works.  Take a look at the reviews for the restaurant/brewery--from the same people giving the beer fairly mediocre ratings.  Everyone raves about the space itself: comments reference the gorgeous architecture and the history of the church, and strongly encourage any visitors to the city to check out Church Brew Works.  In many ways, it's a new landmark in Pittsburgh, among the top restaurants in the city for tourists to visit.  A place like Church Brew Works is not only good for tourism, but also the type of establishment that can help young professionals think highly enough of the city to want to settle there.

I can't recall how I learned of Church Brew Works--maybe just by coincidence, driving down Liberty Ave., or through word of mouth shortly after getting to Pittsburgh for grad school--but a bunch of us new to the city were very eager to check it out.  And sure, I'll admit that maybe some of my fondness for the place is related to my first visit being one of my first outings (dare I call it a date?) with K, my now-fiancee.  No matter; the church housing the brewery/restaurant was memorable enough in its own right, a really great way for a group to spend an evening.

I know some folks might have issues with a place of worship being turned into a place where beer is brewed and drunk, but from my experiences, Church Brew Works was never a haven for debauchery, and it seems like that wasn't the goal for Ravens Head with their new brewery/restaurant, either.  I recall the food at Church Brew Works as having been pretty good and interesting; for instance, they offer traditional and non-traditional takes on a Pittsburgh classic, the pierogi. We shared a plate of snake meat and classic pierogies, which certainly was a unique take on the Polish dough pocket.

From the street, the red brick church towers over Liberty, the large, flower-like stained glass window that makes for Church Brew Works' logo looking down from on high.  It's located in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of the city, and unlike St. Joseph's church in Albany, Church Brew Works is in what might be deemed a mixed-use neighborhood, definitely leaning more on the side of commercial (Liberty is a pretty busy street, especially in that part of town).  There's a parking lot behind the church, some street parking available out front, so some of those major concerns for neighbors of St. Joseph's never were present for Church Brew Works.

The interior of St. Joseph's Church in Albany
Just looking at pictures of the inside of St. Joseph's, I can't help but think of the way Church Brew Works' interior could be used as a tremendous model: holding onto the beautiful history of the building, the pews and stained glass windows still in place, all that great Catholic church ornamentation (St. John the Baptist Church--the original name of the Church Brew Works building--was erected in 1902; St. Joseph's has an even deeper history and is arguably more aesthetically appealing, having been built in 1842).

Of course, the comparison between St. Joseph's and what's now Church Brew Works is best saved for the imagination, as Ravens Head was pushed away from pursuing the church as a location for their new brewery/restaurant.  Who knows what's next for St. Joseph's; maybe not a brewery, but I certainly hope it won't be going the direction of St. Patrick's in Watervliet, which is being torn down to make space for a new Price Chopper.  I can recall the Village Bookshop in Columbus, Ohio, another great re-purposing of a cute old church.  Mental Floss tossed out a few other ideas (some of which I like more than others). And heck, just look down the street from the Cohoes Armory--the town transformed an old church into what's now the public library (mastodont and all!). 

I only hope that the future for St. Joseph's is something in line with what Church Brew Works did with their old church in Pittsburgh--in some way preserving and honoring the history and architecture of the church, finding a new way to make this beautiful space a gathering place for people in a new era--even if there isn't any beer involved.

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