Pittsburgh vs. Seattle: A Bottle To the Finish

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 5, 2006

Joe Piccirilli's got his game face on at the historic, old-brick Pittsburgh Brewery Co. The vice chairman raises a sleek aluminum bottle of Iron City beer, Pittsburgh's 145-year-old signature lager. In a tough 'Burgh accent, he says with absolute conviction, "The Still-ers are gonna win."

Some 2,100 miles northwest, across Lake Washington from Seattle, Paul Shipman contemplates a bottle of Redhook ale at his modern, technologically advanced Redhook Brewery. "I think the Seahawks are going to win," Redhook's founder says. "It was in the newspaper out here. There was a headline: 'Seahawks Will Win.' "

They wagered Wednesday. If Shipman loses, he imbibes an Iron City beer in public. If Piccirilli loses, he quaffs a Redhook. But you can bet more than a couple beers are riding on the outcome of today's Big Game.

That XL in Super Bowl XL this year might as well stand for "Extra Large" -- the game supersizes beer sales like no other midwinter holiday, out-chugging even green-around-the-gills St. Patty's Day. (It's not the biggest beer bash of the year; that'd be the Fourth of July.) But there's no crying in beer sales that spiked $150 million during the two weeks surrounding the Super Bowl last year, according to research firm ACNielsen. Think Super Belch.

This helps explain all the brew-haha over a drink that defines the event almost as much as the game does. Blow off the frothy head of the Super Bowl and you're looking deep into a collision of cultures behind the teams and the brews.

Take Iron City, the hops equivalent of Steel Town's tough working class. Same as the Steelers -- smash-mouth, run-it-up-the-gut, no-nonsense. Hey, a few years back, Iron City even put photos of the Steelers on its cans. You may think it's watery swill, but what of it, buddy? It ain't no girlie beer.

"It is what it is," says Piccirilli, who's heard his beer put down before. "There's something to be said that Iron City was a question on 'Jeopardy!' "

Something to be said that it's the ice-cold answer in a lot of fridges across western Pennsylvania, too, Joe. See, the thing about beer is it's an acquired taste. And how one acquires that taste for a particular beer can have a lot to do with where you call home, how far afield you roam, how much money you make -- and, yes, maybe even the football team you tip a glass to during the Super Bowl.

So can we say definitively that the folks who buy 30-packs of Iron City fit the blue-collar, factory-whistle, "Flashdance" mold? Not any more than we can say the Seattle Redhook ale crowd wears pleated khakis and tasseled loafers and gets into heated conversations about the next Windows security patch? But they might.

Lately, Piccirilli's tried to lighten that macho marketing image, go more retro. He writes off as "meant to be funny" one old Iron City TV ad showing guys pounding a rail with 20-pound sledgehammers as foreman "Ray" sticks his gritty face into the camera, points to his biceps and sneers, "Ya don't get these settin' around pettin' kitty cats." The ad ends with a hard-edged voice-over: "Iron City beer -- there's a little iron in all of us."

Just like there's a little micro in Seattleites? The Emerald City is one of the country's top areas for craft beers -- pale ales, bocks, Belgian styles, English ales, wheats, all sorts. Seattle boasts dozens of artisanal microbreweries that are outselling even the national brand beers these days.

"Our beer's claim to fame is that it delivers double the satisfaction per beer," says Shipman, who founded Redhook Brewery in 1981 with Starbucks co-founder Gordon Bowker. (Redhook sells a "double black stout" that boasts of being brewed with Starbucks coffee.) "If you are a very oral person who needs a lot of oral satisfaction, light beers like Iron City are good. But our beer is contemplative. With our beer, you might say, 'I need some time alone to enjoy my beer.' We don't hoot about it. People out here are modest. . . . But we're very serious about our beer."

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