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by Jack Curtin

I drink no cider,
but feast on Philadelphia beer.

--John Adams, in a letter to his wife Abigail


ARCHIVE: NOVEMBER 2002


THIS WEEK IN BEER (MY STORY, AND I'M STICKING TO IT). This past week's beer consumption (and that, after all, is what life is all about) was highlighted by a gathering of the New Road Irregulars at the Sly Fox Brewhouse.

Despite the fact that management made it subtly clear that they would just as soon have never laid eyes on us (part of its strategy of failure), a group of anywhere from 10 to as many as 30 or 40 of us(when a subsidary group of schoolteachers was in attendance) would gather at New Road Brew House most Friday evenings during its doomed existence to discuss philosophy, art, the meaning of life and other intellectual matters. Or sometimes just to drink good beer. Whatever.

The remnants of that noble group now show up at Sly Fox on occasion. Such was the case Friday, because, not only were the stars in alignment, it was the first Friday of the month and Brian O'Reilly's superb tripel, Incubus, was therefore on tap (not for long, the quarter keg kicked by around 7 PM, helped along by a trio of fine gentlemen who were already on their third glasses when I arrived shortly after 5). Among our small band, of course, were the soon-to-be-legendary Dan & Steve. I had an assignment for Dan (fondly known as the "Big Fella" to everyone who is smaller than he, which is to say, just about everyone) but more on that in a minute.

A fine time was had by all, enjoying not only the Sly Fox brews but also a sampling from a growler of McKenzie Brew House Abbey 8 Amber Ale. brought along by brewer Scott "The Dude" Morrison. This beer was part of the tasting I wrote about here and was, at the time, suffering from a lack of carbonation. This version was much improved (hey, do you think he'd have brought it if it weren't?) and, sensing a trend here, I now suggest he provide me with a weekly sample to insure continued improvement.

As noted above, I asked the Big Fella for a favor at evening's end, which, for me, was around 8 PM. I grow old, I grow old... Hmmm, I also digress which, among beer writers, is the exclusive right of Michael Jackson. Apologies.

Friday night marked the reopening of Sunnybrook Brew Pub, acquired a month ago by Henry Ortlieb. Dan, apparently having acquired a substantial amount of bad karma over his lifetime, lives in Pottstown, roughly a mile from the pub, so I asked if he would stop in and let me know the story. Turns out he was already intending to do so--why am I not surprised? In any case, here is his report, unsullied by editing or coherence:

Elvis was in the building,so was Patsy Cline and the former owner. And yes, even Poor Henry was there. The building has been painted red, white and blue. Tables have been removed for pool tables and a jukebox and some games. The beer was all Henrys, as best I could tell, including bocks, stout, and of course Awesome ale which of course was all right. Moores select lager was also present. But of course, the bar was lined with Coors Light bottles. The place was crowded since 4 o'clock said the barkeep. But there was no opening night price break. Oh well, I will just have to go back and check out the other beers.

I could have guessed that "price break" thing would bother him.

Finally, as the days grow short and winds cold, it's time to start thinking seriously about holiday and winter seasonals. Two of the best arrived this week at the Beer Yard, Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale and Victory Storm King Imperial Stout. As is my wont, I quickly scarfed up a case of each.

First impressions: Celebration is big and hoppy and wonderful as usual, but perhaps not as perfectly balanced as last year's; Storm King is big and smooth and beautiful and is only going to get better as it ages. Yowzah!
[posted Sunday, November 3, 2002 2:00 pm est]
[end]

ONE FRIDAY NIGHT IN DOWNINGTOWN. If you're a lover of fine beer and live in this area, it happens now and again, that subliminal message building up in the back of your mind and slowly, inexorably working its way to the front until it takes control. MUST...GO... TO.. VICTORY. MUST...GO...

You get the idea. Sooner or later, you find that you needs must hie off to Downingtown to savor whatever's on tap at Victory Brewing Co.. If I were paranoid, I'd figure they're slipping something into the Golden Monkey.

Anyway, I was under the spell most of the week past and early evening Friday found me happily settled in at the bar, where I enjoyed the bitter perfection of a Herzberg Pils, the latest in the brewer's unique line of single-hop pilsners; a pint of ESB, the evening's beer-of-choice for co-owner/brewer Ron Barchet, and two pints of delicious Workhorse Porter, one on draft and the other unfiltered on the hand pump. I'm a porter fan and I wish I'd retained my fleeting thought of bringing a growler home to compare to Sly Fox Pughtown Porter, which is on tap on my home system.

In addition to Barchet, other familiar faces gathered at our end of the bar were Victory's other partner, Bill Covaleski (young daughter Audrey in tow, who wisely ignored his efforts to make me out as the bogeyman), fellow beer fanciers Richard Ruch and Joe Meloney, Chuck the Bartender from Sly Fox and beer guy Patrick Mullen of The Drafting Room-Exton.

Ruch and Mullen provided much of the evening's entertainment with extraordinary performances at the pool tables. In fact, the former managed a "hat trick" of awesome proportions, scratching thrice in memorable fashion: a double bank into the side pocket, a triple bank into the other side pocket and directly into the corner pocket on a break. Such work might not ever be seen again from a single individual.

THE DEVIL MADE THEM DO IT? Meloney wisely avoided public displays of prowess at Victory but did provide me with a revealing document from our pals at Dogfish Head Brewery. It seems that Sam and the Gang are handing out a sheet verifying the astonishing 23.04% ABV achieved by this year's WorldWide Stout. But there's lots more data on that page as well, and this certainly caught my eye:

                   Calories - 666.65.

666! Could this be (Gasp!) the beer of....Satan?

I COULDA BEEN THERE IN FIVE MINUTES. A new Joe Sixpack column here, in which he recounts a visit with one of my favorite brewers, in terms of both skill and geography, Brian O'Reilly of Sly Fox Brewhouse. Geography? As should be evident by now, Sly Fox is my "local," about four miles and a five-minute drive from my humble abode. Come to think of it, given all I've done for him, you'd think Sixpack could have called and invited me over for beer, wouldn't you? I almost feel inclined not to tell you that you can email him and get a biweekly notice when a new column goes up.
[posted Sunday, November 10, 2002 1:00 pm est]
[end]

SPREADING THE WORD, ONE BOTTLE AT A TIME. Last night I visited a long time acquaintance at his home for the first time to have dinner with him and his wife. they are "wine people" as opposed to "beer people" and I wanted to take along a bottle of brew to challenge my vision of their preconceived notions (he'd mentioned that he hasn't had a beer since 1980). To that end, I asked four of my compatriots in the beer-writing game to help me out, telling them the beer I had chosen and asking their reactions. Two of then, conveniently enough, not only agreed with my choice, they said it was one that came to mind as they were reading my email. The other two suggested it was all a waste of time, asked why I wanted to impress anyone and were generally misanthropic on the whole situation. Hey, where's the love, guys?

My beer of choice was Heavyweight Brewing's marvelous Bier d'Art, chosen for several reasons. I wanted something local and I wanted a big bottle for us to share. I thought Bier d'Art's malty spiciness was more likely to appeal to a wine-trained palate than something with a hoppier profile (I briefly considered Dogfish Head 90-Minute IPA just to see what the reaction would be). I thought the wonderful label by artist Christine Haley would be a nice touch and enforce my approach that beer was at least the equal of wine on all levels, including cultural. I liked that I was able to tell them the beer was unique, since Tom Baker claims (so far) that he won't be brewing it again, and that it was not available in Pennsylvania. And, oh yeah, I happen to really enjoy Bier d'Art and this gave me an excuse to go and buy a case.

We drank the beer as an aperitif and both enjoyed it while listening politely, if not in absolute awe, as I rambled on about the Victory Brewpub, which is a mere three miles or so from their door, and other aspects of the local brewing scene and the way beers have matured and changed. In factg, the whole situation was more beer-friendly than I had thought. Turns out the female half of the pair is an occasional beer drinker already and inclined toward the better end of the spectrum. And hubby stood up midway through and left to come back with a bottle of Dogfish Head Chicory Stout from sixpack he'd purchased for her because of her fondness for stouts.

The Italian red wine with dinner was as excellent as the beer, as was the evening as a whole, aside from having to drive home through the monsoon of 2002.

BELL, YOU SAY? NOT EXACTLY THE BEST NAME TO CARRY INTO THE PHILADELPHIA BEER SCENE THESE DAYS. There was a gathering in the back bar at Monk's two nights earlier. Brewer Larry Bell of Michigan's Kalamazoo Brewing Company was in town to celebrate the release of several of his many beers into the Philadelphia market, accompanied by sales veep Fred Bueltmann. Tom and Fergie put together a small reception of local brewers--(Bill Covaleski (Victory), Brandon Greenwood (Nodding Head), Tom Kehoe (Yards), Tim Roberts (Independence), Brian O'Reilly (Sly Fox)--and high-profile beer journalists--Lew Bryson, Don "Joe Sixpack" Russell, George Hummel--to give them welcome. I tell you, I was honored just to be allowed to hang out with that stellar grouping.

As was Kehoe's wife, the lovely Linda, the only woman in the room most of the evening. She seated herself at the bar, looked around, then smiled and proclaimed, "this is a great place to be since it's always filled with men." Hey, I'm more drawn by the Belgian taps, but whatever works, you know? Kehoe hisownself, having unfortunately spent the afternoon at a family funeral, was all snazzied up in sportscoat and clean trou and the like. After everyone had gotten over their nervousness that he was going to try and sell them life insurance, things went much more smoothly.

Bell's beers were on tap, of course, and I was particularly taken with Two Hearted Ale, their seasonal IPA, and Kalamazoo Stout, a roasty, full-bodied flagship brew which heads up the brewery's portfolio of stouts, all of which I intend to sample at first opportunity.

It was, not unexpectedly, Hummel, a man never lacking for biting wit, who pointed out to the bemused guest of honor that "Bell" is not exactly an honored name in local beer circles, given the fiasco that was Jim Bell's Red Bell Brewing. I'd recount for you the amusing comments he had to offer but that wouldn't be fair. Besides, I don't remember.

EXPANSION AT STANDARD TAP. I'm sure it's no secret any longer, but there's a lot going on at Standard Tap down in the heart of the Northern Liberties section of the city as a major expansion is underway into the adjoining building. I hitched a ride down to the Monk's even with O'Reilly, who was also on his Thursday beer delivery run, which included dropping off five kegs at the Tap. Co-owner William Reed gave us a tour what will be the new upstairs dining area and outside deck, the completion of which (along with a doubling or tripling the size of the kitchen) will turn what is already one of the city's best eating and drinking spots into a real gem.

The final construction touches are on hold for the moment in one of those inevitable zoning glitches, but that's merely temporary for sure as the neighbors and anybody else who might pose a serious objection are already on board. Meanwhile, Reed and partner Paul Kimport have also purchased a small bar in the Fishtown section which they will transform with their magical touch once the sale is officially completed. More on that down the line.

RUDY'S KUNG-FU GRIP? SAY WHAT? Nothing would do post-Monk's, of course, but that we wander the few blocks to Nodding Head, where we were soon joined by co-owner Curt Decker (who was also at the Monk's thing but who did not fit anywhere into my neat listing of brewing and journalist luminaries and thus had to wait for his moment of glory way down here near the bottom of this report). He plied us, or at least me, with the new Rudy's Kung-Fu Grip, a weirdly named, 11% ABV Belgian style ale which was both delicious and frighteningly drinkable.

From whence comes such an unusual name, you ask? Can it be that the ever cheerful and smiling Greenwood also has a playful side to his effusive personality? Well it seems so, not to mention a most forgiving one as well. This is the story as Decker told it to me. It may in fact not be word for word that way he told it, but I'm going to put it in quotes anyway so he can take all the blame.

"Brandon and I were visiting this friend of ours who is a chemist and a homebrewer. He has this parrot named Rudy and Brandon puts out his finger for the bird to sit on it. While he's holding his hand up to his face to look more closely, the parrot reaches out with one of its claws and grabs on to his lower lip. The owner tells him to flick his hand, to throw the bird off his finger and it will let go. He starts to do that and the bird instead reaches over and grabs onto his eyebrow with the other claw. I'm now laughing so hard I'm almost falling off my chair. When we get the bird off him the first thing Brandon says is 'we have to make a beer named after that bird.' And so he did."

That's my story...Okay, it's their story--but I'm sticking to it. [posted Sunday, November 17, 2002 2:00 pm est] [end]

OF BAD INFLUENCES, GOOD BEER & TOURING GEEKS. I am entirely too old to need any further bad influences in my life, but try telling that to O'Reilly. Brian O'Reilly, that is, ace brewer at Sly Fox Brewhouse. I end up at the Fox most Friday nights for a brew or two before dinner, but on this Friday past I was going to see the Philadelphia 76ers play the Toronto Raptors at the First Union Center with son-in-law Tom and told O'Reilly early in the week that I'd have to forego that weekly pleasure. Yet there he was on the phone around 4 PM. "What time you leaving?" "Tom's picking me up at 6." "Great. Then you have time to pop over and try the Christmas Ale." I looked at the work still to do on my desk and demurred. He insisted. I pointed out it would be silly behavior on my part, especially since I was meeting some fellow beer geeks at the pub on Saturday and could sample the new brew then. He insisted. What can I tell you? I'm weak. And what did I think of the beer? Ah, that will have to wait a bit.

The Red Bell Brewery & Pub in the First Union Center was the centerpiece of Jim Bell's grandiose plans for his brewing empire back before he learned you have to actually brew and sell beer and not just make promises and presume a gaggle of investors are going to make you rich. I hadn't been there in a while and was looking forward to trying new brewer Chris Rafferty's beers. On the advice of Sly Fox bartender-to-the-stars Corey Reid, who'd been down to the FU Center Thursday night for a Flyers hockey game, I went for the Czechoslovakian Pilsner, which was nice enough to warrant an immediate second. Those came pre-game. At halftime, I opted for the Pale Ale, which was by no means bad, but lacked sufficient hop character to be a true pale ale. The pub has been carrying beers from Yards Brewing in recent weeks because it didn't have enough of its own and two of those guest brews were still on. I'm not sure whether this will be a permanent thing. Sixers won, by the way.

I spent most of Saturday writing (I know it's difficult to comprehend, but I actually do produce some things intended to earn me beer money and funds for things like rent, food and the upkeep of two lovable but demanding dogs), but arranged to catch up with a small western-suburbs beer tour when it ended up at Sly Fox late in the afternoon. Ringleader was Richard Ruch (he of pool table infamy at the Victory pub a few weeks back), who got together with pal Joe Meloney, former Manayunk Brewing head brewer Jim Brennan and Beer Advocate mega-reviewer Dave Rodriguez to sample the wares at Victory Brewing over lunch and then make their way to Sly Fox, stopping in at The Drafting Room - Exton along the way to avoid becoming overly parched.

When I arrived, the gang (soon to be joined by another Beer Advocatee and friend of Rodriquez whose name I didn't catch) was sipping away en masse at pints of the Christmas Ale. Their judgement? "The Best Beer of the Day." A couple of them were even debating taking growlers home with them. I had another pint or three myself to confirm my own positive impression, which I so cleverly avoided revealing way back there in paragraph one. This is an eminently drinkable, very nicely balanced spiced beer, exactly the sort of quaffable brew these holidays demand. It's going to be a smash hit--the astute Scoats grabbed a keg as soon as it became available on Friday for his Grey Lodge Pub and is asking for more--and it will make O'Reilly even harder to deal with. A small price to pay, says I.

QUICK POPS. I asked Rich Ruch to grab me a sixpack of Victory's just-released 2002 Old Horizontal Barleywine-style Ale (that's the official name; it's "Old Ho" among friends), to add to the stock of big beers I'm laying in anticipation of a cold, snowy winter. I couldn't resist opening a bottle late last night to sample, however, and I can report that the lads out in Downingtown haven't lost their touch. 11% ABV this year and I slept quite well, thank you....Joe Meloney gifted me with a bottle of 2000 Brother Adam's Bragget Ale Barley Wine from The Atlantic Brewing Company in Bar Harbor, Maine and I'll either be reporting on that a few weeks down the road or aging it another year or so. It promises 11.8& ABV and I must admit I'm intrigued to see how that big alcohol hit blends with the Maine honey used in the brew. thanks, Joe....You may recall that I had some reservations about the 2002 Celebration Ale upon opening my first bottle of the year. Since then I'd pretty much convinced myself I was off base but it turns out that both Ruch and Dave Rodriquez have similar feelings: it seems to lack the "bigness" and balance of the 2001 release. Maybe we're nuts. Opinions welcomed....Joe Sixpack devotes his whole column this week to Dogfish Head WorldWide Stout but I notice he didn't have the cajones to consume a bottle of the stuff while he wrote the story....Assuming an article about the famous Sunday brunch at Pottstown's Sunnybrook Ballroom is accurate, the brewpub on site is now officially called Ortlieb's Brewery & Grill. My spy guy, who asks to remain anonymous but we all know who he is, told me recently that Awesome Ale, Light Lager, Moore's Select and "a very good Blonde Bock" are among the beers on tap and that something very close to the near-legendary Dock Street Illuminator may be in the works. There's talk of a beer festival in the spring, but spring is a long time from now, innit? [posted Sunday, November 24, 2002 5:15 pm est] [end]

Malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.

--A. E. Houseman


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