All morning long, I led a frenzied caravan of beer cases and growlers through the newsroom, followed by a mountain of ice in preparation for the big event. It was only natural that it might pique some curiosity.
"Are you competing?" called out one of my youngest new colleagues from philly.com, who quickly noticed my look of confusion. "This is a giant Beer Pong game, right?"
No, not quite. The seven esteemed judges who had thirstily assembled to join me at the paper had come for the Third Annual Inquirer Brew-vitational, a local beer competition set to grapple with some of the most important questions of our time (especially with Philly Beer Week set to launch Friday): What are the greatest beers made in the Philadelphia region today? Who would take home the title of the region’s most exciting "new" beer? Who would be crowned this year’s "Philly Classic"?
Ping-pong balls were about the only detail we had not arranged for the competition, which had grown to be our biggest and most contested yet, with 48 beers on the table from 27 breweries — compared to 38 beers and 20 breweries a year ago. For a region now coming into its own as a brewing force with a distinctive identity, with a special flair for Belgian and German styles and a sudden influx of half-a-dozen young new breweries to complement our solid roster of well-established labels, this was no mere drinking game.
With an engraved crystal stein trophy and a featured spot at Beer Week’s Opening Tap for the winners at stake, the sipping began. The panel — a range of seasoned writers, bar owners, professional brewers, homebrewers, and trained beer judges — undertook the first round of tasting and grading with the usual utmost reverence. the beers had been organized independently by Jason Harris of Keystone Homebrew into six flights of blind tastings, grouped by style and strength.
"Like a cherry-soaked horseblanket, " scribbled Monk’s Cafe owner Tom Peters, praising (yes, praising) the eventual new beer winner, Amarelle, a Belgian sour ale with cherries from Earth Bread + Brewery. "I really like this!"
"This tastes like dish soap!!" belched George Hummel, referring to another beer. A homebrew author and co-owner of Center City’s Home Sweet Home Brew, and a champion of "clean" flavors (though not that clean), he chimed in frequently, and colorfully, with his disappointments.
"Beer with blood oranges? It’s an outrage!" said former Inquirer columnist Rick Nichols, not one to easily relinquish his usual status as the panel’s curmudgeon.
"Lively fresh citrus salad taste," wrote veteran beer writer Lew Bryson, warming to the same brew, Shady Blond, from Prism in North Wales. "Bring me a hot day!"
"Good hops aroma, an interesting finish, and a well-hidden 10 percent alcohol," wrote Jan Matysiak, lauding this year’s eventual "Philly Classic" champ, the Exit 4 American Trippel from Flying Fish in Cherry Hill. Peters was the only judge to pick both eventual winners, the Amarelle and Exit 4, as his personal favorites.
The German-born Matysiak, this year’s guest out-of-town master brewer, from Sixpoint Craft Ales in Brooklyn, was by far the kindest, most soft-spoken grader on the panel. But he was duly impressed with the region’s offerings, saying most ranged from "well done" to "outstanding." That was emphasized by the fact that 11 breweries are represented among the 12 top-scoring beers. (Most submitted the maximum of two beers for consideration.)
For those who’d followed even the Brew-vitational’s brief history, some local trends were clear: a push away from extreme beers in favor of balance, finesse, and complexity.
"Looks like insanity has stopped, and the hop-bitters freak-out seems to have ebbed," said Nichols. "I could taste the beer again!"
What the judges tasted was a deepening embrace of the region’s long-standing German tradition, from the crisp Sly Fox Pikeland Pils that won third place in the Philly Classic category, followed by the dark and fruity richness of Troeg’s Troegenator Double Bock (fourth), and the roasty black licorice tones of Triumph’s Schwarz Bier (fifth, but one of my personal favorites), to the pure golden maltiness that made Appalachian’s Anniversary Maibock, bottled this year for the first time, the second-place "new" beer.
Even more present, though, was an increasing skill with often difficult Belgian styles, from the pineapple-scented and high-octane Exit 4 from Flying Fish that took first prize as this year’s Philly Classic, to Earth Bread’s champion Amarelle, brewed by Tom Baker’s longtime apprentice-turned-head brewer, Jon Defibaugh, whose peppery Belgian-style Bière de Garde, Piperine, also took fourth place in the new beer category. (Because Earth Bread + Brewery does not participate in Beer Week, Amarelle is the only winner that will not be poured at Friday’s Opening Tap.)
The power of sour — an acquired taste that’s gaining in popularity — was present in several beers on the table, including a pair of Berliner-weisse, plus the third-place new beer, Saizanne Wood, a Belgian "wild ale" from Iron Hill’s Maple Shade location, a green-and-pink peppercorn saison aged in oak barrels with brettanomyces yeast. The yeast certainly helped Saizanne live up to its "wild" pedigree, with an earthy aroma Bryson described as "weird @#$!" Others, like myself, found it bold and funky.
"I like it!" agreed panelist Mike "Scoats" Scotese, owner of the Grey Lodge Pub.
Those hop-centric beers that did find their way onto the list of top 12 favorites — Victory’s Headwaters Pale Ale (second-place Philly Classic), Tired Hands’ HopHands, and Kinch IPA from Forest & Main (fourth and fifth "new" beers, respectively) were noted for their balance and citrusy brightness.
The six new breweries participating in this year’s competition certainly made their presence known, with those two recently opened brewpubs — Ardmore’s Tired Hands and Ambler’s Forest & Main — earning the best grades of the freshman class, though Blind Eye PA from West Grove’s Evil Genius, and Original Slacker brown ale from Round Guys in Lansdale also made the Top 16 cut for the finals round.
For the most part, though, the more established breweries still held their own. And scores for the new beers were also significantly lower than the classics.
"I’ll take dependable over trendy any day," says Nichols. "You can depend on a Pikeland Pils."
Fellow panelist Nancy Rigberg, who’s married to Hummel and also co-owns Home Sweet Home Brew, agreed: "Philly is still, through the diligence of our hardworking professional beer community, the place where debuts happen and collaborations are hatched and brewed," she said. "But … there really are only variations on the same theme. And the classics are just that for a reason. Always chasing after the next best thing grows wearing. And sometimes a beer is just a beer."
Perhaps it will not be long, though, before one of the upstarts reaches out to snag a "classic" crown in the coming years. Either way, I’ll make sure next year’s Brew-vitational has ping-pong balls at the ready for a tiebreaker, just in case.