For the past five years, a revolution has been brewing—or, rather, fermenting—in an unassuming brick townhouse in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood. In tandem with the ever-increasing number of innovative restaurants and bars taking up residence on nearby Butler Street (see also: Cure), Arsenal Cider House has been number one with a bullet since it opened in 2010.
Its name comes from its location across the street from the former site of the ill-fated Allegheny Arsenal, which blew sky-high in 1862 while producing ammunition for Civil War battles and is memorialized as Pittsburgh’s worst industrial accident. Inside, taps flow with a dozen versions of cider, perry, mead, and other fruit-based wine, and historical ephemera is artfully strewn around the weathered wood- and brick-lined tasting room. Juice is sourced locally from Soergel Orchards in Wexford, where a second Arsenal tasting room and production facility has just been announced.
An enormous chalkboard hanging above the tasting room taps gives the lowdown on what’s available for sampling on that particular day. Because everything’s small-batch, the selection changes frequently and seasonally—which means I’ll have to time my next trip back to Pittsburgh carefully to coincide with their Ramrod Rhubarb. There’s a lot of info on the board, noting the fruit base and sweetness level as well as ABV percentages (careful with some of those double-digit ones!) Fitting with the Civil War-era theme, you’ll spot a few ciders with appropriately historical names, like Arsenal’s flagship cider Fighting Elleck—a classic, delicately carbonated, and not-too-sweet cider that’s an easy introduction to the lineup of creative interpretations.
Arsenal co-owner and head cider maker Bill Larkin’s experimentation also pulls from the larger world of beer and spirits, with ciders spiked with Simcoe hops or bourbon-oaked versions. Because we stopped by in mid-January, we happened upon a bunch of wintry offerings, including a cinnamon-infused cider and a gingered-up cider, but unsurprisingly, I found myself irresistibly drawn the bone-dry options. Not typically a fan of perry, which tends to fall on the simperingly sweet side to my palate, I was blown away (pun intended) by the crisp and refreshingly light Pioneer Pear, and the gently tart Powder Monkey Peach.
Each visitor can sample four varieties before settling on what they’d like to fill their glass with. Larkin’s wife and co-owner, Michelle, was behind the bar on our visit, informatively walking cider newbies through the offerings and encouraging all present to use the four samples to work our way to finding what we like.
Arsenal isn’t bottling (yet), though it’s on tap at a bunch of local spots around Pittsburgh, like my beloved Butterjoint. And after sipping by the glass in the tasting room or in the backyard garden, you can grab a growler to go. Don’t bother bringing your own—you’ve got to use one of Arsenal’s own 1-liter bottles—but they’ll knock $5 off the growler price for refills. When ringing up your growler, the staffers will ask for your name, which they’ll then use to label your bottle with a military title (Sergeant Steve, Major Tessa). After borrowing my sister’s growler to bring some Fighting Elleck back to New Jersey, I realized too late that I had missed a major Pop Culture Reference Opportunity. The next time we stop in, we’re buying a new growler so I can label it with my husband’s name and have them write it out to Lieutenant Dan.
300 39th St., Lawrenceville. 412-260-6968. Tasting room hours vary by day; check the Arsenal site or Facebook page.