It's Oktoberfest in Pittsburgh, and brewpub owner Maxine "Max" O'Hara is prepping for a busy month at the Allegheny Brew House. To create the perfect atmosphere for the boozy celebration, Max hires an oompah band. But when one of the members from the band turns up dead, it's up to Max to solve the murder before the festivities are ruined.
Adding to the brewing trouble, Candy, Max's friend, is acting suspicious... Secrets from her past are fermenting under the surface, and Max must uncover the truth to prove her friend's innocence. To make matters worse, Jake's snooty ex-fiancée shows up in town for an art gallery opening, and she'll be nothing but a barrel of trouble for Max.
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I slid onto an old piano stool as Daisy Hart placed the fall centerpiece she'd designed on the distressed wood counter in her flower shop, Beautiful Blooms.
"That looks great," I said. "It's exactly what I had in mind."
"When you said something for Oktoberfest," Daisy said, "I wasn't sure whether to go with autumn, beer, or Germany, so I looked it up and incorporated all of them."
"Well, it's perfect."
Daisy clapped her hands together, making her blond braids sway. Her choice of hairstyle made her look fifteen instead of in her early thirties. "I'm so glad."
It really was perfect. She'd used the traditional Oktoberfest colors of blue and white. The centerpiece sample consisted of cream-colored silk mums and blue asters, and in the center was a miniature German beer stein. I'd ordered fourteen of them-enough to dress up all the tables in my brewpub. In two weeks, the Allegheny Brew House would be hosting its first Oktoberfest weekend.
Daisy came around the counter and took a seat on the other piano stool. "Explain one thing to me, Max. You're having this celebration in September. Shouldn't something called Oktoberfest happen in October?"
It was a common misconception. "The official Oktoberfest in Germany begins in mid-September and lasts for about two weeks. So it ends in October. Besides, Septemberfest doesn't have quite the same ring to it."
Daisy grinned. "No, it doesn't. How come you're wimping out and only having yours for a weekend?"
I laughed. "I'm having enough trouble coordinating everything for just the weekend. Do you know how hard it is to find an oompah band?"
"I never thought of that. But you did find one, right?"
"Yes," I said. "Candy, Kristie, and I are going to hear them play and make the final arrangements tonight. Why don't you come with us?"
"I don't know . . ."
"It'll be fun. A Friday girls' night out." I didn't add that she needed to get out and do something besides work on flower arrangements. She'd gone through a rough patch last spring when the man she'd been in love with had turned out to be someone who didn't care for her at all, and much worse. My insides still turned cold when I thought about what he'd done. Daisy had been devastated when she learned the truth and had even considered closing her shop and moving away. She was gradually becoming more like the old Daisy, but still had a little way to go.
She hesitated a moment, then said, "Maybe I will. It does sound like fun."
We talked for a few more minutes and decided I'd pick her up at eight. I was glad she'd agreed to go with us.
And it would be fun. Candy and Kristie would be sure to bring Daisy out of her self-imposed shell. Candy Sczypinski owned the bakery named Cupcakes N'at, which sat between the brewpub and Beautiful Blooms on Butler Street in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The name of the bakery usually confused visitors to the city, but Candy never seemed to tire of explaining that n'at was really a shortened form of and all that. It was one of the expresssions commonly known as Pittsburghese.
Candy was a Pittsburgher-or Yinzer as natives were sometimes called-through and through. I'd never seen her wear any colors but black and gold, and I always thought she looked like Mrs. Santa Claus in Steelers garb. Despite being in her early seventies, she had more energy than a twenty-year-old.
Kristie Brinkley was the owner and barista at Jump, Jive & Java, the coffee shop across the street. She bore no resemblance to the supermodel, whose first name began with a C. Kristie looked more like Halle Berry, especially since she'd recently sheared off her dreadlocks and now only had a few streaks of purple in her hair. Purple this week anyway. She changed her hair color as often as some people changed their socks. I had a sneaking suspicion that her recent hairstyle change had something to do with the new love interest that she denied having. Candy was on the case, though. If anyone could discover who it was, she could.
As I passed the bakery on the way back to the brew house, Candy's assistant, Mary Louise, waved to me and I returned her wave. I was tempted to stop in for a treat, but I had a batch of stout in the brew kettle and it was time to get it ready for the fermentation tank. The Allegheny Brew House had been open since May, but I still got a thrill every time I neared the building. Its redbrick exterior with the large windows was exactly how I had pictured it would look when I bought the former office building of the defunct Steel City Brewery. It had been a true labor of love gutting and restoring the building. It hadn't been without its challenges and tragedies, but it was now everything I'd dreamed it would be.
Inside the pub, my staff was preparing for the lunch rush, and delicious aromas emanated from the kitchen. Nicole Clark, my part-time manager, was stacking glasses behind the polished dark oak bar, so I stopped to see her.
"Everything okay?" I asked.
"Yep." She nodded her head toward the brewery. "Need any help in there?"
Nicole was studying for her master's in chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh, and she'd taken a shine to the brewing process. She reminded me a lot of myself, although I'd been more interested in distilling when I earned my degree. That had only changed to brewing when I made a trip to Germany.
"Sure, as long as I'm not taking you from anything else."
The brewery portion of the brew house was to my left. I had a 10-barrel or bbl system, which consisted of a mash tun to mash the malt grain, a brew kettle, and five fermentation tanks. In other words, I could brew approximately three hundred gallons at a time. It sounds like a lot of beer, but a half-barrel or keg holds around fifteen gallons, so that's only twenty kegs.
The aroma of caramel malt was strong, and I breathed in deeply as I went through the swinging door. Nicole was right behind me. She had been assisting me with brewing more and more lately. As much as I liked having the brewery to myself most of the time, I appreciated the help. And it was fun being on the teaching end for a change.
The next step in the process was to pump out the wort, which was the liquid formed from the mashed grain and water. Then we pumped it back into the brew kettle through a nozzle that forced the solids and hops to move into the center so when the tank was drained, the solids stayed. After that, we cooled the liquid quickly, added the yeast, and calculated the initial specific gravity. The initial gravity subtracted from the final gravity at the end of fermentation determined the ABV, or alcohol by volume-a very important number. By that time, it was the lunch hour, so Nicole returned to the pub while I finished transferring the stout to the fermentation tank. I set the temperature on the tank to sixty-eight degrees, where it would ferment for approximately two weeks.
My stomach was screaming for food by then, so I decided to get something to eat before I tackled the cleanup. Cleaning and sterilizing all the equipment took time, and I needed to be properly fortified first. Besides, I hadn't seen Jake yet this morning.
The thought of seeing my chef brought a smile to my face. I'd known Jake Lambert practically all my life. He'd been my brother Mike's best friend-and still was-and I'd had a crush on him for years. When my former chef, Kurt, had been murdered four months ago, Jake had walked back into my life. He'd just retired from playing professional hockey and happened to be a certified chef. One thing led to another and we were now what my mother called "an item."
I crossed the pine plank floor of the pub, stopping briefly to say hello to a few regulars. I liked that we had customers who kept coming back for the food as well as the beer. My stomach growled again as I went through the door to the kitchen. Two cooks plus Jake were in various stages of food preparation.
Jeannie Cross was assembling two grilled chicken salads and smiled when she noticed me. "Heads up, everyone. The boss is on deck."
"Uh-oh," Kevin Bruno said without glancing up from where he was sauting some vegetables while simultaneously grilling burgers. "She must be hungry."
Jake was elbow deep in kneading some kind of dough. He looked up and winked at me. It never failed to make my stomach do that little flip and I felt my cheeks grow warm. "Either that, or she's here to fire your sorry behind," he said.
I laughed. I loved the camaraderie of my employees. They'd become my second family. "Don't worry, Kev. You're safe. As long as I get something to eat, that is."
Jake said, "Jeannie, fix Max one of those new turkey sandwiches we came up with." He held up his flour-covered arms. "I'd do it myself, but I'm a little indisposed."
"Coming right up." Jeannie put the finishing touch on the chicken salads by tossing a handful of French fries on top, which was a Pittsburgh tradition. I wasn't wild about it, but when customers kept asking for the fries, I gave in.
I followed her over to another stainless steel table, where she quickly assembled a sandwich on whole grain bread with roasted turkey slices, a thick slice of cheddar, baby spinach, and topped it with something that looked like a cranberry chutney or relish.
"Here you go, boss." She handed me the plate.
I took a bite. It was an interesting combination of flavors. The cheddar and turkey were familiar. The cranberry chutney was what made the sandwich. I tasted a hint of orange, and there was a little bit of heat to it also.
"Well?" Jeannie said.
"I like it. Especially the cranberries. I like the combination of sweet, tart, and heat." I swallowed the second bite. "I'm not sure about the spinach on here, though."
Jeannie looked smug. "That's what I told Jake."
Jake pushed the dough aside and went to the sink. "I guess I'm outnumbered-unless Kevin is going to back me up."
Kevin raised a hand. "I'm staying out of it. I don't even like cranberries."
I took my lunch to my office and finished the sandwich in record time, then buckled down to do some paperwork and make some calls. There was still a good bit that needed to be done for our Oktoberfest celebration. Jake had already come up with a special menu full of German food for that weekend-three kinds of wurst, schnitzel, sauerkraut, potato pancakes, and German potato salad. I made a note to pick up the menus at the print shop before the end of next week. I made a few phone calls, and after I updated my To Do list, I headed back to the brewery to clean up. A brewer's work is never done.
The fire hall hosting the band I was hiring for our celebration was located just north of the city. Kristie drove, Candy rode shotgun, and Daisy and I white-knuckled it in the back. Kristie should have been a NASCAR driver. Thank goodness it was a short trip. I was tempted to make the Sign of the Cross when she screeched into the last empty parking space in the lot. I heard Daisy blow out air. She must have been holding her breath. Candy, however, didnÕt seem to be fazed one bit by KristieÕs driving. Then again, IÕd been a passenger in CandyÕs car. She drove as if the streets were an obstacle course.
The sound of accordion and horn music drifted across the lot when we got out of the car. "This is going to be so much fun," Candy said. Tonight she wore her best black and gold sequined blouse, black pants, and gold ballet flats. "It's been years since I heard this kind of music. It really takes me back."
"Back where?" I asked. I was constantly trying to get her to spill something about her background.
"To my much younger days." She turned to Daisy. "I'm so glad you decided to come with us."
Daisy smiled. "I am, too."
By this time we were at the door. Two women were seated at a table with a steel cashbox and took our ten-dollar admission fees. There was a large sign welcoming us to their Octoberfest. I decided it wouldn't be polite to point out that they were a little early, or that they'd misspelled it by using a C instead of a K. It gave me a bad feeling about the beer they'd be serving.
The hall was decorated with black, red, and yellow streamers that matched the tiny German flags on every table. Not exactly the traditional Oktoberfest colors. Daisy caught my eye and made a face. I smiled at her and shrugged. At least they had the German part right.
Kristie pointed toward the far side of the hall. "There are some empty seats over there." We followed her across the room and sat at the end of a large banquet table. "I'm buying tonight," she hollered over the din. "What's everyone drinking?"
Daisy only wanted bottled water and Candy said she'd have the same. I offered to help Kristie and we headed to the bar. I was surprised at the assortment of beverages on hand, and especially that they had bottles of Oktoberfest beer from a local brewery. That moved them up a notch in my eyes. Despite the selection, Kristie and I also chose water for now.
It was too noisy in the hall for much conversation-especially with the band playing-so we sat and listened. The Deutschmen were very good, and hearing them play again made me glad I'd decided to hire them. The four musicians played accordion, trumpet, keyboard, and a sousaphone. I had to admit I'd never seen a sousaphone except in a marching band. I thought it an odd choice when a tuba would have worked just as well-or better. Plus it wouldn't have taken up half the stage.
There were only two couples on the dance floor until the band broke out in their version of the "Steeler Polka," which was sung to the tune of the "Pennsylvania Polka." A dozen people jumped to their feet, including Candy. She grabbed my hand. "Come on. You're dancing with me."
I tried to pull my hand back with no luck. "I don't know how to polka. I'm Irish. O'Haras don't polka."