The "sour beast" was rising.
When I'd first tasted it in the preliminary round of this year's Brew-vitational, the Inquirer's annual competition for local beers, my eyes almost crossed from the intense tartness of its barrel-fermented red fruit.
But by the finals round, once we'd winnowed the 39 beers entered in the "new" beer category down to 10 top contenders, my taste buds had snapped to attention and tuned in to the proper frequency. And this sour ale aged in wine and whiskey barrels for a year-and-a-half with wild yeast and raspberries was suddenly an irresistible beam of bright fruit light.
Every sip was funky, red-ripe juicy, and bold - but also incredibly quenching. And the "beast," as judge William Reed nicknamed it (since we were tasting blind), was rapidly leapfrogging other beers in my final rankings.
"This is the one I want more of," said Bryan Kolesar, a freelance beer writer on the eight-judge panel, holding his empty cup.
"This sour is fantastic," agreed Reed, co-owner of Standard Tap and Johnny Brenda's. "But are we really going to tell Philadelphians that this is the beer they should be drinking? Maybe it's just too far out there?"
Well, pucker up, Philly. Because Weyerbacher's 2012 Riserva - 18-plus patient months in the making by brewer Chris Wilson - is coming at you in all its palate-tangling glory as the Brew-vitational's best new beer of 2013.
Earlier in the afternoon, the panel of beer pros, journalists, and special guest out-of-town brewer, Andrew Rich of Pittsburgh's Penn Brewery, had focused on a separate category of 10 elegant pilsners, a crisp, subtle, and classic style particularly strong with local brewers, many of whom have roots in the region's German tradition. Sunshine Pils, the citrusy lager from Tröegs in Hershey, took first prize in that category, followed by Victory's single-hop Tettinger Braumeister, and Dogfish Head's high-octane My Antonia.
But the "new" beer category, bigger than ever in this fourth-annual Brew-vitational, was dominated by bold and distinctive brews. In a year that saw a continued drift away from the sledgehammer hops of IPAs past, the Riserva was just one of several finalists that drew big flavors from different techniques. Increasingly, brewers showed a mastery of Belgian styles (like saison), barrel-aging, and spontaneous fermentation - and occasionally all three at the same time - intuitive arts that depend on the unpredictability of time and living yeast.
"The beer tells you when it's done, which is really special," says brewer Jean Broillet IV of Tired Hands in Ardmore, whose chardonnay-barrel-aged HandFarm saison took second place (and was my personal favorite.) The fact that Tired Hands landed two new beers in the top 10, including its Pineal IPA, bodes well for the region's growing crop of new breweries. Tired Hands celebrates just its first anniversary on June 2 (at which it will be pouring HandFarm) and already has plans to build a larger production brewery.
Four new breweries entered the Brew-vitational for the first time this year - Neshaminy Creek (Croydon), Old Forge (Danville), ShawneeCraft (Shawnee on Delaware), and Vault (Yardley), whose Chinook IPA was a finalist.
Another yearling, Perkasie's Free Will, took an impressive third place with its genre-bending Rapunzel, an unconventional saison brewed with spicy rye and enough Chinook and Apollo hops (100 IBUs!) to sate the jilted IPA fans at the table, like Natalie DeChico and Dan DeLuca.
DeChico, winner of the 2011 Philly Beer Geek trivia competition and a sales rep for Weyerbacher, loves hops so much she visibly shuddered with pleasure after waving her nose above a flight of pale ales before her. (To avoid a conflict of interest, her vote was not counted on Weyerbacher beers.) She and fellow judge Tara Nurin proudly refused to waste good beer on spit-cups.
Vetri beverage manager Steve Wildy, meanwhile, attacked the tasting with the quiet efficiency of a pro, composing prolific, lucid notes (on Vault's Chinook IPA: "sweet, sappy, almost Campari-like?"), setting his pen down always well before the rest.
DeLuca, the Inquirer's pop music critic and a devoted West Coast beer fan, took the usual place of former Inquirer food writer Rick Nichols at the judge's table. And while this year's largely well-behaved banter lacked the usual fireworks of Nichols' curmudgeonly grousing (and occasional bottle-throwing), we gained a soundtrack thanks to Mixmaster DeLuca, who crafted a playlist tailored to serious beer drinking.
As Loretta Lynn crooned her chart-topping 1967 country hit "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind)" in the background, William Reed hummed the lyrics on cue.
"Hot Dice anyone?" he said, suddenly tossing three red dice out onto the judges' table.
But the biggest beer-drinking gambit in Philly had already been cast. The real winners - beastly sour, barrel-aged, pilsner-crisp, and bright with hops - waited in our cups.
Sample winners from the Inquirer's Brew-vitational at Philly Beer Week's Opening Tap, 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Independence Visitor Center. HandFarm is available only at the Tired Hands brewery.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682, on Twitter: @CraigLaBan, or firstname.lastname@example.org.