Craig LaBan invites you to help crown Philly's favorite beer

Beer is tasted at 2016 Brewvitational. On May 11, the public will be invited to the Brewvitational for the first time at the Reading Terminal Market.

You've always wanted to be a beer judge. I know this because my mailbox practically explodes each spring with thirsty notes from jealous readers volunteering "for next year" after coverage of the Inquirer's annual Brewvitational competition for local beers has run.

Well, Thursday is your big chance. After seven years of a private competition that has continuously expanded to parallel the region's burgeoning craft-brewing scene, our little backroom Brewvi has grown up to become a big and joyous public celebration of the region's beer riches at the Reading Terminal Market. Let me introduce you to our first Taste of the Brewvitational.

There will be beers from 37 breweries and discounted food specials from more than 25 of the market's vendors, so it's definitely going to be a fun time. But listen up. You wanted to be a beer judge, right? This is serious business. Not your typical drink-till-you-drop beerapalooza. The public will be tasked with a big responsibility: to sip, consider, and compare two-ounce pours of the contenders (as many times as necessary), and then vote to name Philly's greatest flagship beer.

Yes, our panel of expert judges will still get their say in a private blind tasting earlier in the day, assessing the region's best new beers and a special focused category (this year: lager styles). You'll have a chance  to taste some of those, too. For the first time, those winners will be announced live that evening and presented with their coveted Tiffany-crystal Brewvi champ steins. But that's only the beginning, and this is where the public comes in.

We've created a significant new third category this year for popular vote: Philly flagship beers. These are the signature year-round classics that have become synonymous with our biggest brewing stars: Victory Golden Monkey, Sly Fox Pikeland Pils, Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA, Yards Philly Pale Ale, Tired Hands HopHands, and Weyerbacher Merry Monks, just to name a few. You probably already think you know your favorite. But sampling a case or two on your back porch is one thing. Drinking a Tröegs Perpetual IPA alongside IPAs from Vault, River Horse, Iron Hill, and Free Will (Kragle, anyone?) might make you think twice. You might find a new love for Forest & Main's Solaire, Flying Fish's Farmhouse Summer Ale, or Lancaster's Double Chocolate Milk Stout. Or discover what some of our newest breweries -- Slack Tide, Crime & Punishment, Techne, Second District -- have to offer.

I can't think of a more appropriate stage to showcase our wealth of local beer craft than Reading Terminal, the historic market that's still the ultimate crossroads for Philly food-culture pride. And many of the market's best vendors will be serving event-friendly bites ranging about $3-$8, from DiNic's (mini-pork sandwiches), to Spataro's (mini-cheesesteaks) to Wursthaus Schmitz, Valley Shepherd, Fox & Son Fancy Corndogs, and Molly Malloy's (stepping it up with lollipop lamb chops and fig gastrique), so we'll all be well fed to give us strength and ballast for the challenge ahead. Believe me: Tasting dozens of beers in one evening and deciding the single best is harder than it sounds. But yeah, it's also a blast. Whoever wins our inaugural Philly Flagship award will have a prestigious crown to wear for 2017. But this will be just the beginning, I hope, of a great new annual tradition.  

Taste of the Brewvitational at Reading Terminal Market, 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday. Tickets: $45 in advance or $60 at the door. Visit philly.com/brewvitaste to register.

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