It is one of the great ironies of the now-gargantuan brewfest that has become Philly Beer Week: The bigger it gets, the less it is about Philadelphia's own beers.
Indeed, as the festival floods local taprooms with visiting brewers from San Diego to Belgium, some hometown beer guys like Bill Barton of the Philadelphia Brewing Co. gnash their teeth as they temporarily lose tap handles, and drinkers' attention, while the hops-light is shining brightest.
"They should call it Beer Week in Philly, instead, because it's not about the locals," grumbles Barton. "If you're from around the corner [people] just aren't that interested."
Beer Week executive director Don Russell disagrees, insisting that the local breweries are active participants, and that the festivities boost beer awareness for the rest of the year. In fact, Russell is among those who have long argued that Philadelphia is "America's greatest beer-drinking city" in part because of its embrace of an international range of beers, as well as those from Kensington.
Still, we decided it was time - before that extra tidal wave of out-of-town ale hits when Beer Fest opens Friday - to give the region's homegrown beers a closer look.
And thus was born the first Philadelphia Inquirer Local Brew-vitational, a comprehensive tasting of the fresh flavors being crafted by the local beer scene right now. Which were the most exciting new creations, and who has the hottest hand at the kettle? What are the big trends? And, has our beer scene defined its own unique identity?
These were just a few of the questions going into the Brew-vitational, which asked craft brewers throughout the region, from Harrisburg to Milton, Del., to submit their latest efforts (issued in the last six months) to a panel of seven judges for consideration.
We blind-tasted 28 beers from 18 breweries, and decided on a half dozen favorites, and some convincing, and surprising, answers. The variety alone was impressive to the judges, whose final choices for the "Top Six-Pack" ranged from a light-bodied German-style kölsch (Stoudts Karnival Kölsch) to a remarkably balanced and drinkable brown ale (ABA from Earth Bread + Brewery), a tart and funky Biere de Garde farmhouse ale from McKenzie Brew House, and three heavy hitters: a hoppy barley wine from Tröegs (Flying Mouflan) that weighed in at 9.3 percent alcohol, a rich and chocolatey imperial stout from Gen. Lafayette Inn (The Grim Reaper), and a powerful yet elegant double IPA from Flying Fish (Exit 16) made with wild rice.
"Brewers in the Philadelphia area are extremely versatile - they're technically strong enough to do a variety of styles and do them well," said brewer Steve Frazier, an out-of-market expert from the Brewer's Art in Baltimore who helped anchor the tasting panel. "It's not as if there's one standout style here like the West Coast's IPA. Philadelphia is coming to be known for the fact that they do a lot of things well."
That was borne out by the panel's clear-cut winner for our Beer of the Year, a nearly unanimous choice that turned out to be a hand-labeled 750-ml brown bottle containing an obscure style of beer: McKenzie's fantastic amber "Biere de Garde."
Inspired by the rustic farmhouse ales of northern France along the Belgian border, this quirky but ethereally balanced cola-colored brew was at once lightly sour and yeasty, earthy but well-rounded, with a hint of dark and fruity sweetness. McKenzie's young brewer, Ryan Michaels, 31, had made masterful use of a trendy but difficult ingredient - brettanomyces yeast, a funk-boosting wild card that can make a beer dynamic, or quickly get out of hand in a barnyard kind of way. (Brett was added only to the bottled version up for sale this month, not the biere de garde currently on draft at the brewpubs.)
"Nicely done, with enough malt to balance the 'horse blanket' " brett taste, wrote Frazier in his notes.
"Maple!" said Inquirer columnist Rick Nichols, another judge, putting his finger on the beer's deeply woodsy sweet spot, stoked by the beer's slow and caramelizing boil of French malts and candy sugar.
While biere de garde may still be obscure, it sits on the edge of the rising wave of farmhouse ales. Its tarter cousin, saison, was among the most popular summer styles represented at the tasting. These brews pointed to a major emerging trend, said judge Melissa Monosoff, the master sommelier from Savona, who saw the more nuanced flavors of Belgian styles, farmhouse ales, and sour brett beers stepping forward, while overhopped beers are "taking a backseat."
To be sure, there were still some massive brews on the table, including several Double IPAs. But virtually none were the sort of taste-bud-ripping hop bombs that characterized the extreme beers of years past.
The best of the tasting's heavy-hitting brews were as much about balance as power. The Grim Reaper was a perfect example of that. So was the Flying Mouflan - "a make-sure-your-car-is-parked-for-the-night kinda beer," wrote judge Suzanne Woods, the "Beer Lass" blogger and local Sly Fox rep. (She was not allowed to vote on Sly Fox's IPA.) Ditto for the Imperial Pilsner from Dogfish Head, My Antonia, a surprisingly elegant classic lager (albeit a high-octane one) from Delaware's guru of offbeat extreme ales.
This was especially true, however, of Flying Fish's Exit 16, in which brewer Casey Hughes used three kinds of rice to deceptively lighten the body and color of a beer that still maintained stunning richness and complexity. Panelist Jason Harris, a certified national beer judge and owner of Keystone Homebrew Supply, fought hard to have it included as the No. 13 wild card in the finalist round.
Upon retasting, the other judges agreed, naming it the second most exciting beer of the Brew-vitational.
"I want to meet this brewer and talk to him about how he made this!" enthused Frazier.
That shouldn't be hard. Once Philly Beer Week has packed up its many out-of-town taps and gone, these guys, and their exciting brews, will be around.
Where the Beers Were Brewed
Dock Street Brewing Co.
701 S. 50th St.
Dogfish Head Craft Brewery
#6 Cannery Village Center
Milton, Del. 19968
Earth Bread + Brewery
7136 Germantown Ave.
Flying Fish Brewing Co.
1940 Olney Ave.
Cherry Hill, N.J. 08003-2016
Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant
30 E. State St.
Media, Pa. 19063
General Lafayette Inn Brewery
646 Germantown Pike
Lafayette Hill, Pa. 19444-1641
Manayunk Brewery and Restaurant
4120 Main St.
McKenzie Brew House
451 Wilmington-West Chester
Glen Mills, Pa. 19342
Nodding Head Brewery and Restaurant
1516 Sansom St., second floor
Philadelphia Brewing Co.
2439 Amber St.
River Horse Brewing Co.
80 Lambert Lane
Lambertville, N.J. 08530-1920
312 N. Lewis Rd.
Lewis Road Plaza
Royersford, Pa. 19468
Spring House Brewing Co.
2519 Main St.
Conestoga, Pa. 17516
Stoudts Brewing Co.
2800 N. Reading Rd.
(Pa. Route 272)
Adamstown, Pa. 19501
Tröegs Brewing Co.
800 Paxton St.
Harrisburg, Pa. 17104-1652
Victory Brewing Co.
420 Acorn Lane
Downingtown, Pa. 19335-3040
Yards Brewing Co.
901 N. Delaware Ave.
Weyerbacher Brewing Co.
905-G Line St.
Easton, Pa. 18042
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at email@example.com or 215-854-2682.
Interns Jessica Lista, Nick Auerbach, and Kevin Ciemniecki assisted with the beer-tasting competition.