Of the 52 beers from 28 breweries on The Inquirer's tasting table, judges crowned three champs in two categories: the "new" beers of 2014, and saisons, a dry, aromatic, and yeast-driven Belgian farmhouse-style ale that has grown dramatically in popularity. All but Tired Hands and Forest & Main will be pouring their winners Friday at Philly Beer Week's Opening Tap beginning at 7 p.m. at its new home at the 23d Street Armory (22 S. 23d Street).
- Craig LaBan
1. Nihilist Russian Imperial Stout (new in 750 ml bottles) (9.5%) 90 IBU, Sly Fox Brewing Co. "Brian O'Reilly sure knows how to make a big beer taste small," marveled one judge after the post-tasting reveal of this year's top new beer. Bottled for the first time, this whopper of a Russian Imperial stout was rich with roasty black coffee-chocolate notes, but also drank with a perfect balance of hoppiness to keep the alcohol in check without any bitter astringence. "Perfect example of the style." "Lush, alive!" "Epic."
2. LaGrave, Triple Golden Ale (8.0%) 31 IBU, Tröegs Brewing Co.
The first of Tröegs' Belgian-style corked and caged releases, this classic abbey-style tripel golden ale impressed the judges with a malty, creamy fizz and a long-lasting head that gave off a rich fruity yeast. Most important, it drank in harmony and hit the classic style head-on. "A good tripel - it's all there," wrote one. Another loved the "sweet, thick finish . . . well-designed and well-executed: A+."
3. Fear of a Brett Planet, Pale Ale with brettanomyces, (5.1%) 45 IBU, Round Guys Brewing Co.
Brettanomyces yeast is usually employed to foster a wild sourness in beer. The brewers at Lansdale's Round Guys, though, deliberately deprived their brett of oxygen to keep it dry, and it hovers as a fascinating, lingering echo of funk behind the citrusy crispness of this superbly refreshing canned pale ale. "Tight and fantastic," wrote one judge, while another noted the "melon and gooseberry hops." A well-balanced and drinkable pale, but with a little something extra.
1. HandFarm Four-Grain Saison aged in Chardonnay barrels (5%) 15 IBU, Tired Hands Brewing Co.
Brewer Jean Broillet IV's four-grain saison, which is aged for six months in chardonnay barrels and won second place "new beer" last year, took first place in the saison class at Brewvi V from an almost completely different panel wowed by its light, dry, and refreshing complexity, with a "delightfully wild" ale sourness from "a lot of bugs and long fermentation." Two judges hedged at the relatively low hops, but one still conceded it's "beyond amazing."
2. Saison Wood, Saison (7.0%) 30 IBU, Iron Hill Brewery and Restaurant (Maple Shade) A variation on Chris LaPierre's "Saizanne Wood" (minus the peppercorns) that took third place "new beer" in 2012, this saison made from classic Dupont yeast spends nine months with wild bacteria in old wine barrels. Judges dug the "barnyard" and "apricot/tropical" flavors, including a big nod from guest brewer Tim Adams, who found all the elements - wild and saison yeasts, malt, and hops - working in union: "Wonderful beer!"
3. Solaire, Grisette/Saison (5%), Forest & Main Brewing Co. Brewer Gerard Olson calls this saison a "grisette" because of its relatively low alcohol, a blend of funky brettanomyces with classic Dupont yeast, and some German noble hops for earthy, anise notes. Judges loved the balance of hoppy bitterness, peppery spice, and fruity notes, with a texture of fine bubbles that accent such a desired dryness; one wrote: "I want another immediately if not sooner." Also my personal favorite.