To celebrate my initiation into Fuel and Fuddle's Beer Cult, I made a picture frame out of the labels I peeled from bottles. Photo by Kristy Locklin.

Discounting all the frat party swill I consumed in my late-teens, I drank my first (legal) beer at Fuel and Fuddle in Oakland.

Waiter Brandon Smith served me a Skull Splitter, a wee heavy ale from Orkney Brewery in Scotland. I went from a Milwaukee’s Best beast to a full-blown beer snob in one sip.

Photo by Kristy Locklin.

Two decades later, on St. Patrick’s Day 2021, I was back at the gastropub drinking a Brew Gentlemen Miyabi IPA followed by the obligatory pint of Guinness. Smith, who now owns the joint, poured them himself.

The spot, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, will always be my favorite bar. It is, in essence, my Cheers. In an age when a new eatery seems to appear every day, it’s nice to have a familiar place where I can unwind with a beer after a long day of … writing about beer.

I earned an English degree from Pitt, but I learned valuable life lessons at Fuel and Fuddle.

Every Saturday night in the early 2000s, I got a crash course in outlaw country from singer-songwriter Don Szejk, who belted out tunes from Johnny Cash to Johnny PayCheck. I’ve celebrated birthdays and other major milestones while stuffing my face with Rosemary’s Breasts, the restaurant’s signature chicken sandwich. My BFF Vanessa and I are members of Fuel and Fuddle’s Beer Cult, which requires folks to drink 100 different brews from around the world.

When you finish the hop-filled quest, you get a T-shirt, your name on the wall (our shared plaque reads, “Kristy & Vanessa: Two Drunk Girls’”), bragging rights and a bloated belly. It’s worth the extra weight though, as you’ll take your taste buds on a globe-trotting journey through different beer styles. Plus, it’s safer than air travel during the pandemic — just ask the 20 new cultists who were initiated this year.

Covid’s been rough on the restaurant industry, but Smith and his crew have powered through while supporting Pittsburgh-area breweries. There were three regional suds on tap during my St. Patrick’s Day visit and plenty of local bottles and cans in the coolers.

Photo by Kristy Locklin.

Outdoor seating, which will be in place at least through the summer, along with a free, pop-up miniature golf course on Oakland Avenue, have boosted business, but now Smith and other restaurant owners are facing a new problem: trying to find staff members to keep up with consumer demand.

According to Smith, it’s worth all the hassles, heartbreak and hangovers.

He started working at Fuel and Fuddle when he was 19 years old. In 2014, he purchased it from Mike Hanley and Jerry Dilembo, the guys who now run Burgatory.

“The bar business has changed a lot over the past 25 years, but I think we’ve made good adaptions over time,” says Smith, who turns 40 on March 22. “I grew up in this bar. I wanted to see it live on.”

Me too, buddy. Cheers!

Kristy Locklin is a North Hills-based writer. When she's not busy reporting, she enjoys watching horror movies and exploring Pittsburgh's craft beer scene.