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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."

Objective opinion, please? Beerologist Pete Reid, editor and publisher of Modern Brewery Age, a trade publication for the brewing industry, says: "Iron City is a nice, traditional American lager that historically was a bit meatier than the national competition. Redhook is a robust, fruity ale broadly in the English style with fuller flavor. They're apples and oranges in the beer world."

If the Super Bowl can also be seen as a kind of Beverage Bowl, the two distinct beer traditions confront each other with echoes of those "Tastes great! Less filling!" shouting-match commercials. The micros, says Matthew P. McAllister, an associate professor of media studies at Pennsylvania State University who has analyzed Super Bowl pop culture, are "a lot more expensive, a lot more fancy, a lot more sweet in flavor." And the cheap lagers are "considered crass."

Not to true brewski believers like Mark Weimer, who has lived in Pittsburgh all of his 23 years and who would no sooner give up on the city or the Steelers than quit on basic beer. Calling Iron City a "decent and inexpensive beer," he says: "No respectable city is complete without its signature beer. Perfect after a hard day's work."

The two divergent beer styles tell a tale of two cities. Starbucks vs. 50-cent cuppa joe. But trashing another guy's football team or turning your nose up on his brand of beer, well, that's like fightin' words. And on chat lines and sports radio talk shows, the cultural pejoratives have been flowing -- primarily from the Pittsburgh tap. One online poster referred to Seattleites as "pantywaists who cry like babies because they ran out of double-shot espressos."

From laid-back and polite Seattle, hardly an I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I peep.

"I wasn't as big of a fan of the Seahawks until I started hearing all the smack talk coming from Pittsburgh," says John Gallone, a photographer who lived in Pittsburgh for 30 years and grew up a Steelers fan before moving to Seattle and developing a taste for $7 grande lattes.

Gallone's positioned to see the differences dispassionately: Seattle is fit, hip, young, smart and on the rise while Pittsburgh is old, stuck in tradition and suffering a post-industrial decline, he says. So take that, Pittsburgh! "The character of each city comes out as cliches and stereotypes," he says, "but in reality, you do have that dichotomy and it is old versus new."

If beer consumption were any indicator of the game's outcome, Steelers would have the edge. Even though it's a smaller market in population, Pittsburgh consumes more beer: 25.7 million cases a year to Seattle's 22.6 million, according to marketing research sales statistics from the Adams Beverage Group.

And should Seattle lose? "In that unlikely event, the people from Seattle will be happy for the people of Pittsburgh," says Redhook's Shipman. "They would say it is important for the people of Pittsburgh to win because they don't have any other inner life."

Unsportsmanlike conduct!

Pittsburgh's ball. "The feeling here is why can't we be playing someone who actually approaches the passion we have in Pittsburgh?" says Joe Miksch, co-editor of Pittsburgh Dish, an online chronicle of the 'Burgh.

Sounds like this may be a good game.

But what's the line on Iron City? In December, Pittsburgh Brewery filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In debt to Pittsburgh Water and Sewer, up to its eyes in pension debt, the iconic beer is also fighting national marketed beers and the microbrew revolution that have put most of its kind out of business.

Since hearing of Pittsburgh Brewery's troubles, Miksch's been ordering Iron City. "My liver's taking one for the team," he says.

Shipman raises his glass to the competition: "The breweries we had like that out here are gone now; they've been turned into condominiums. A brewery like Iron City survives largely on human will power together with a civic pride. . . . People from Pennsylvania, I don't know what the hell it is about them, but they are a unique bunch. Especially when it comes to beer."

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