Know a guy named Peter? It’s time to buy that man a beer — or two — after a pair of tart ales coincidentally named in his honor took two of the top prizes at this year’s Brewvitational, the Inquirer’s annual competition for local beer.
They were both barrel-aged sour ales artfully brewed with a funky blend of wild yeasts, but with significantly different backstories to their names. For La Cabra‘s brewer and co-owner Dan Popernack, the beautifully complex Flemish red called Peter — which took the Brewvi’s top score as “best new beer” — was an homage to his Italian ancestors and his regard for the apostles. The wild fruit ale from Tröegs known as Dear Peter, meanwhile, was proof that brewing magic can come from agricultural disaster. The Hershey brewery salvaged 7,000-plus pounds of hail-damaged nectarines from Peters Orchards in Adams County in 2016 to become, after more than a year in barrels, one of the more divisive finalists on the Brewvi’s tasting table, where 16 expert judges from different corners of the local beer world spent an afternoon blind-sipping through 75 entries in a vast range of styles.
For some, like me, Dear Peter’s whip-crack tartness was startling enough to make my eyes swivel and question its balance. And I like sour beers. For Dear Peter’s most passionate advocates, however, “the peachy thing” was so good one judge scribbled five heart emojis in the margins of her tasting sheet.
“Perfect peach nostalgia,” commented panelist Amy Hartranft, general manager of Prohibition Taproom. Her enthusiasm led the charge that pushed Dear Peter to third place out of 43 entries in the “new beer” category.
The winner of the Brewvi’s special category for canned beer, a remarkably refreshing and complex “session sour” called SeaQuench from Dogfish Head, inspired similarly enthusiastic responses: “This must be the work of the devil,” proclaimed judge Rich Pawlak, a veteran food and drink writer who said the unusual brew — the mash-up blend of a kölsch, a salty gose, and a tart Berliner-Weisse — was “the first sour beer I ever liked.”
Such spirited reactions are always the sign of a great Brewvitational. And this ninth edition of the competition, featuring entries from 43 local breweries in two categories, was easily one the best in terms of overall quality over a wide variety of styles beyond those winning sours, from malty doppelbocks to exotic Belgian-style saisons, from crisp pilsners to the usual hop blitz of IPAs. Of course, those IPAs arrived in a multitude of variations. Hazy unfiltered New England-style IPAs were among the hottest trends. Examples of “Milkshake” IPAs brewed with lactose for extra body have also started to multiply (after Tired Hands became the first local to make it). IPAs also came brewed with a seemingly random grab bag of add-ins, with chili peppers, coffee, chocolate, blood orange, mango, herbs, and some unnatural flavors that brought this scolding from the panel: Just because a brewer has a creative idea doesn’t mean they should brew it.
“No! Please no!” wrote Ben Kishbhaugh of Big Hill Cider after sipping the ill-advised Milkshake IPA flavored with blue raspberry water ice. “What the hell?” wrote the equally dismayed Pawlak, who ensured this aberration never made it past the preliminaries to the final round.
The Brewvitational this year put special focus on the canned beer phenomenon that has become one of the craft-beer industry’s biggest trends, with a steady rise nationally to more than 30 percent of all packaged craft beer now being canned, according to the Brewers Association trade group. This year’s canned division of the competition drew 32 entries. And a local company, Magpie Beverage Solutions, demonstrated its mobile canning line used for small breweries at the evening festival for the public, Taste of the Brewvitational, which capped the day’s events at Reading Terminal Market, with a maibock from judge Carol Stoudt’s Adamstown brewery, Stoudts, canned on site for eventgoers.
The panel’s special guest out-of-town brewer, Ryan Dunnavant, the quality control director for canning pioneer Oskar Blues and its CANarchy brewing facility in Brevard, N.C., was particularly impressed with the canned entrees: “I’m no stranger to the vast array of beer styles being produced these days, but it was remarkable to have so many lined up next to each other in the same panel. The culture of craft beer in a can was on full display, and the Brewvi lineups were a microcosm of that. I left Philly feeling inspired!”
There were plenty of IPAs among the cans, as expected, including a fantastic example of the hazy New England-style, Trust the Process from Evil Genius, which took third place even without the benefit of its timely reference to Sixers pride — because it was served anonymously in a numbered plastic cup (#17B) to level the playing field. The ultimate fairness of the blind tasting prevented any bruised taste buds from Evil Genius’ unfortunate blue raspberry water ice Milkshake IPA being held against it.
It also worked to the benefit of the winning canned beer, SeaQuench, after some judges who loved the beer sheepishly confessed they no longer routinely drank Dogfish Head, one of the giants of the craft beer industry, whose marketing prowess has achieved a massive audience but which, counterintuitively, can be a turnoff for beer geeks always seeing the latest indie star.
In general, however, the best beers always rise to the top. And with different judges at each Brewvi, a repeat showing in the winner’s circle proves impressive consistency. Kensington’s St. Benjamin, which won first prizes in two categories in last year’s competition, took second place in this year’s canned division with a vibrant Belgian-style grisette saison called Ultraviolette that was praised for its effervescence and the American touch of its Citra hops. Evil Genius was a third-place winner last year, as well.
This year’s second place “new” beer, an unfiltered Hoppin’ Pils from Sterling Pig in Media, proved that subtle beers in classic styles were appreciated by the judges just as much as the flashier sours and IPAs (“I’d buy a case of it and down it all!” Jason Miller said). It also validated a long-standing theory of mine from nearly a decade of Brewvitationals that new breweries generally need two years to begin dialing in their true potential. Over the course of two-and-a-half years, Sterling Pig’s brewer and co-owner Brian McConnell has become known for refined takes on classic styles. Berwyn’s La Cabra is just two years old, as well, and only recently began pouring the prizes of its painstakingly aged and blended cellar treasures.
With that in mind, some future names worth paying attention to are apparent if one looks just beyond the winners to the bigger list of 18 beers that made the finals round. Rising stars like Tonewood from Oaklyn (whose canned Fuego IPA was one of my favorites) and Hidden River from Douglassville and Cape May Brewing Co. shared the table with proven names like Victory, Sly Fox, Forest & Main, Stoudts, Flying Fish, and Yards that are still producing high-quality beers, as well as other recent Brewvi winners, such as 2SP, Forbidden Boardwalk, and tiny Slack Tide.
“The sheer number of entries also shows how difficult competition has become in the marketplace,” said panelist Mary Grace Hodge, who runs the bottle shop at Di Bruno Bros. “But the entries did show that our local scene shows no signs of slowing down.”
Suffice it to say, it definitely won’t peter out.