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Liquid Diet Online

by Jack Curtin

I drink no cider,
but feast on Philadelphia beer.

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


How I Went From Philosophical to Disgruntled, With a Brief Layover at Depression. This was an odd week, everything thrown out of kilter by the holiday. As I blundered my way through it, the only new beer I had a chance to try was Three Philosophers, from Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, NY. This is a strong Belgian-style ale (9.8& ABV), a limited release created by the brewery from the recipe of the winner of the 2001 "Create a Great Beer" contest conducted by Realbeer.com and is available, as far as I know, only at the brewery itself. I know for sure that it isn't distributed locally. The beer is fruity in both nose and taste, pleasantly spicy and very easy drinking. While it may have been the concept of homebrewer Noel Blake from Portland, Oregon, it is very definitely, in style and execution, an Ommegang brew. Nothing wrong with that.

Thanksgiving evening found me at what has become a traditional dinner at friends', to which I contributed a bottle of Heavyweight Brewing's Bier d'Arte, which has become my "dinner gift" beer of choice these days,. It's a fine accompaniment to turkey and the fixin's, I must say. That's the extent of the beer-related part of the evening, but there was a moment when the aforementioned oddity of the week definitely manifested itself. After dinner, I was startled out of my own musings by the realization that virtually everyone still seated at the table was involved in an animated conversation about...reality television shows. Though I'd never made any effort to find out for use, I had been going through life pretty much convinced that no one I'd actually met had ever seen one of those shows, much less thought about them, but here I was surrounded by young, intelligent, well-educated men and women who spoke of The Bachelor and Survival and American Hero (if that's the right title) with some excitement and obvious familiarity. Fairly or not, that depresses me. It's the sort of thing that might drive me to drink, were I not already there.

This week also saw publication of the first major treatment of this region's nearly a decade old craft brewing renaissance in Philadelphia Magazine. I wrote about it, not all that kindly, on The Beer Yard web page and I urge you to pop over and read it. The story was written in my Disgruntled Beer Writer mode, so read it understanding that I had an ax to grind. And still do. [posted Sunday, December 1, 2002 1:00 pm est] [end]

I Didn't Go to the Party, So the Party (Sorta) Came to Me. The phone rang about 9:30 last night and I knew before I picked it up that it was gonna be Matt Guyer. Guyer's the guy I worked entirely too hard at making famous, the man behind The Beer Yard in lovely downtown Wayne, PA. If you've been paying attention, you know that I show up there for a few hours most Mondays and the occasional Thursday to plow through the debris on the desk in the office and rescue the computer to do the things I do to earn my paltry but much appreciated pittance. Young Matthew has the habit of telephoning me on many an evening from various venues, mostly bars, to gain guidance and succor and, oh yeah, to rub it in. There was no way he wasn't gonna call last night.

Call it exhaustion, pre-holiday malaise or, as some cruel folks are wont to do, creeping age, but yesterday afternoon I did something I never dreamed possible. I wimped out on the annual Yards Christmas Party, one of my favorite annual events. It might even be argued that it had to do with having consumed entirely too much beer on Friday night to dull my senses both during and after dealing with one of the more tiresome human beings of my recent experience. Whatever. I knew by mid-afternoon that I just wasn't up to another multi-hour bash, no matter how pleasant.

It an alternate world, one in which I didn't have this seemingly permanent mental block on how to arrive at Yards' new brewery except by the most circuitous and painful of routes, I might have driven myself to the party and stayed an hour or two. But since I do have said block in this reality, my transportation was going to be aboard the van that the Beer Yard was running to the evening's festivities (as a former Boy Scout, Guyer is inclined to take orders well, and he has embraced Yards' admonition to "bring all your friends" as something of a sacred duty). There would also be a stop along the way at The Standard Tap. While I agree with the basic rule of thumb that you can't go to a beer party without stopping for a few beers first, to have ventured on that trip would have required someone younger/stronger/healthier/more mentally stable (take your pick) than I felt on Saturday. Thus I backed out and whiled away the hours waiting for the phone to ring and Guyer to harass me.

As it turned out, it wasn't so bad. Whether they had to pry to phone from his hand or he was distracted by the clearly raucous party I could hear behind him, the familiar Guyer voice disappeared early on and was replaced quite nicely by those of Heavyweight Brewing's Tom Baker and wife Peggy Zwerver (in reverse order), who wished me season's greetings and other good things. Okay, they made a little fun of me as well, but since they're two of my favorite people and folks I invariably spend considerable time chatting with at every beer event, it was, in its way, almost as if I'd made the party after all.

Brew It and They Will Come. As mentioned above, Friday night was marked by an uncomfortable and interminable stretch listening to some guy tell me how educated and brilliant he was and what a burden that had proven to be. He appeared at my elbow at the bar in the Sly Fox Brewhouse , brought there by brewer Brian O'Reilly, who you'd think would treat me better. Payback's a bitch, pal.

It was the first Friday in December which meant that Incubus was on tap at The Fox. When O'Reilly first told me about his plan to serve his Belgian-style Tripel only once a month, I admit I had my doubts that it would work. And I admit I was wrong. I've talked to enough people who plan to be at the pub just to have a glass or two of this addictive brew to be convinced. And I've seen the empirical evidence. In November, I'd been astonished how crowed the bar was as early as 5-5:30 and not all that surprised when the keg kicked early, around 7 pm or so. This time the crowd was much smaller early on but damned if it didn't kick again, right around 7. One of the reasons: more than a few people were buying growlers, apparently not even blinking at a price just south of $20. Given that the place was filling up rapidly, O'Reilly broke down and tapped a second keg. I don't know if he's going to be able to make this batch last through the year until he brews it again next summer, but he's definitely gotten the attention of his customer base.

The other brew that's flying out the doors is the new Christmas Ale, which has been the pub's best-selling beer since it debuted right before Thanksgiving. Looks like that will have to disappear from the taps briefly just to insure that a keg or two will be around for Christmas week. I'm looking forward to see which it's like on cask at this week's Friday the Firkinteenth.

Personnel Notes. Everyone keeps asking and I can now report that itinerant mega-beer writer Lew Bryson is back in town. At least I think he is. I'm pretty sure I my ears were assaulted by that unforgettable laugh just the other day. Although, now that I think about it, that would only prove he's somewhere in the tri-state area.... [posted Sunday, December 8, 2002 3;10 pm est] [end]

A Long Night's Journey Into Beer: Friday the Firkinteenth, December 2002. Just shy of 7:00 PM Friday night it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas, with bright red lights shining merrily as far as the eye could see. Unfortunately, that meant as far as the eye could see down Ridge Avenue, and the lights were taillights twinkling on cars trapped in a mile or two of crawling traffic, with the radio promising more of the same over the horizon.

A vanload of beer fanciers, 15 persons strong, had left Sly Fox at 5:30, bound for Friday the Firkinteenth at the Grey Lodge Pub, the unique cask beer celebration which is, as far as I know, the only one-night beer event extant which is dictated by the calendar (held only on Friday the Thirteenth). Getting to the cult-favorite pub in Philadelphia's Frankford section from the western suburbs in early evening traffic is no easy task under normal conditions, but the combination of rain and Christmas shopping frenzy had turned the evening's journey into the equivalent of a heroic quest. Ridge Avenue was our third route tried at that point, following the discovery that the PA Turnpike and Schuylkill Expressway,the only high speed links from the west, were doing fine imitations of parking lots. We had become the punchline of an old joke: you can't get there from here.

Eventually, after a quick cross-over to Germantown Avenue, succor was found at the General Lafayette Inn, which offered both rest rooms and pints of Hoppy Holidays IPA. Which was more appreciated it's difficult to say. After that break, the rest of the journey became almost reasonable, with less crowded roads affording our ace driver, Libby, opportunities to maneuver our massive vehicle in a fashion best left unrecorded.

When we finally arrived, managing to squeeze all 15 of us inside the Grey Lodge was a testament to our desire for the 11 cask-conditioned beers lined up in firkins along the bar and to the good nature of those already crammed wall-to-wall. The noise level was extraordinary, a cacophony so overwhelming that it was impossible to distinguish any one element. Except, of course, for Lew Bryson, which was a good thing as I battled my way to his side and allowed him the honor of buying me my first beer. That surely brightened his evening considerably.

Overall, this may have been the best Firkinteenth lineup ever, one to savor while we await the only Friday 13 of 2003, which occurs next June. My three favorite beers of the evening were, roughly in order, a treacle-primed version of Heavyweight Perkuno's Hammer, Nodding Head Sled Wrecker and the always wonderful Victory Storm King Stout. Biggest regret was that I managed to miss out on Yards Thomas Jefferson 1774 Ale, which was the first cask to kick, followed by Sled Wrecker and Sly Fox Christmas Ale. The latter, one of my favorite seasonals this year, came across as somewhat over-spiced in cask form, leading me to break away from the firkin beers late in the evening and have a pint from the regular draft taps to reassure myself. Reassured I was.

Among other beers of the night: Dogfish Head Chicory Stout (primed with maple syrup and "dry hopped" with honey rum oak chips from the Dogfish distillery), Flying Fish Grand Cru, Iron Hill Pig Iron Porter, Troegs Oatmeal Stout (a growler of the just released Mad Elf Holiday Ale was also on hand for a lucky few--my brief sip showed it to be right nice good stuff; at 11% ABV, this is probably the Harrisburg brewery's biggest beer ever), Weyerbacher Winter Ale and the only beer I somehow missed at least sampling (but, hey, we did stop there on the way in), General Lafayette Holiday Cheer.

There are other stories to tell, haunting tales of brewers at play and sad stories of how I was dragooned out of a growler of beer and bottle of Dogfish Head Olde School Barleywine by a charter member of my posse (i.e., Dan & Steve, whose exploits wander through these narratives with rampant disregard for propriety). However, your humble scribe is writing this on Saturday afternoon so that he can attend the Philadelphia Eagles v. Washington Redskins game on the morrow and has not sufficiently recovered from the night's excesses to press on, so they must wait for another time.

For now, let just note that I learned a couple of useful things Friday night. For one, having attended all nine Firkinteenths to date and have written a slew of nice things about the event, I can reaffirm, happily, that every word was well deserved. Also, despite what the New Age folks tell us, there are times when the destination, rather than the journey, is clearly the point.

When Tom's Away, Adam Will Play: Monk's Holiday Dinner, December 10, 2002. You know how, when you get to a restaurant, sometimes you'll be told "your table isn't quite ready" or something along those lines? That turned out to be literally true for a few attendees at the Monk's 2002 Holiday Dinner last Tuesday night. Tom (Peters) & Fergie (Carey) decided to replace all the tables in the center room, which were, shall we say, less than attractive structures which definitely required tablecloths, with striking new, dark wooden tables upon which their beers and meals can sit proudly. That task was still in the latter stages of completion at 6:30 or so, only half an hour before the night's event was scheduled to begin.

If you know anything at all about those two fine gentlemen, then perhaps that is not entirely surprising, nor is the fact that they pulled it off in time for dinner. Conversely, I was more than a little bemused when Tom called me last week to invite me to the dinner, proud as punch that he'd actually remembered my phone number rather than, as he has for much of the past year, calling around and leaving messages with various folks. Bemused because, rather than talk about the beers as is his wont, he rattled off the complete dinner menu for me, item by item. When he then announced that he was leaving the next morning for Seattle for the Eagles game there and would not be getting back until right before dinner on Tuesday, the lightbulb went off over my head. This was going to be the first Monk's Beer Dinner which was entirely in the hands of Chef Adam Glickman and Tom was feeling separation anxiety.

How that worked out is, of course, the point of all this, but no fair scrolling down to find out. A little suspense is good for the soul...

As soon as I got there, I bought a glass of Chimay Cinq Cent at the bar while waiting for things to get underway and I admit I still feel slightly astonished that I'm able to do that, but the truly astounding moment happened when it was time to be seated. I was assigned to the long six-person table in front of Monk's big window onto 16th Street, the traditional "press table." Why anyone would choose to put the likes of us up there where passers-by can see us is beyond me, but what do I know? In any case, I took a seat and looked around. Nary anyone in sight. I was alone, a solitary figure at the table. The first thought that crossed my mind was that members of the Fourth Estate missing a meal and drinks at Monk's was surely a sign that the Apocalypse was upon us; the second was that there were worse places to if The End was imminent.

I was soon rescued from my lonely splendor and squeezed into a table with Home Sweet Homebrew's George Hummel & Nancy Rigberg (George is the perennial guy-in-charge-of-introducing-things at Monk's), where I was accepted with pitying looks and spent a goodly part of the evening chatting with Fergie about Ireland's Dingle Peninsula (one of my favorite places in the world) and his forthcoming wedding next summer, for which he's already rented an Irish castle. Such a fine lad he is...

There were three vintage beers among the ten served with the five-course meal. Boon Marriage Parfait Framboise 1997 was the pre-dinner beer and it was wonderful. Well, to be more exact, the first serving was. A second pouring at our table, from a different bottle, had lost its edge, one of the things that can happen with beer, wine or whatever you might choose to lay down. It's part of the deal. You wouldn't want to open four or five bottles gone bad in a row, lord knows, but if the purpose of aging a bottle is to discover what happens, then what happens is what you discover.

A first course of Roasted Quail stuffed with wild boar and wild rice was accompanied by Dupont Les Bon Vieux (Dupont Noel) and St. Feuillien Noel. That was followed by a Foie Gras Salad with Aass Juleol (one of the best pairings of the evening) and Carolus Speciale.

Braised Callbaud with eel timbale & red endive (which is really, really fancy codfish) were matched with Corsendonk Christmas Ale and Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale. The entree course was Venison Loin (four perfectly roasted-in-Val-Dieu-Noel slices & dried cherries), served with an onion tart , roasted gala apple and perfectly cooked pearled barley pilaf. The beers were Casco Bay Old Port Winter Ale (from Maine and, sad to say, the weakest beer entry of the evening) and the aforementioned Val Dieu Noel, which was marvelous. Dessert, for which I wisely decided to take a later train, was Pear Tarte Tatin with vanilla bean creme anglaise, served with magnums of Scaldis Noel 2000.

The consensus at our table? Perhaps the finest Monk's beer dinner menu ever, with each course dead on target. When your sole complaint is that the onion tart could have maybe been a bit spicier, the kitchen has done its job. As always, Adam brought out assistants Mike Rock & Mike Moseley and the rest of the staff, to a well-deserved ovation. Digesting the evidence, we suggested that Tom hit the road before all future Monk's dinners, with only Fergie objecting. "Don't tell him that," he said, shaking his head, "he'll do it, he'll really do it."

It was another great evening in one of the world's finest drinking establishments, leaving me with but one regret. To attend the dinner, I had to pass on the taste-off between Red Bell Philadelphia Lager and Yuengling Lager which was held that same evening at the Red Bell Non-Brewpub in Manayunk.

I swear, the sacrifices I make... [posted Sunday, December 15, 2002 8:30 am est] [end]

On The Tenth Day of Christmas, My Dissolute Lifestyle Gave to Me One Wicked Winter Cold... I awakened Monday past unable to breath, swallow or talk. That condition persisted, to one degree or another, through most of the week and--disappointing as I'm sure this must be for everyone--this dramatically affected my ability to garner beer experiences I could share here. Hey, buck up. It was no fun for me either.

On the other hand, the week started off with great promise. I set out on Sunday at 10 AM, in the company of Sly Fox brewer Brian O'Reilly and John & Harry Giannopoulos (the Giannopoulos family owns Sly Fox), to attend the final regular season football game ever in Veteran's Stadium and watch the Philadelphia Eagles beat up on the hapless Washington Redskins. Good fun for sure, but made even more so by a stop at The Standard Tap for brunch beforehand.

With perfect timing, we arrived just as the doors were opening at 11 AM and settled in for a morning beer, one of life's great treats. I ordered a Sly Fox Christmas Ale because O'Reilly, in his wisdom, had squirreled away what little remains of this bestseller at the pub for serving during Christmas week, but the keg kicked when they tried to pour it and I was brought a Weyerbacher Winter Ale instead. No complaints here. By the by, has anyone else noticed how clean, crisp and dead-on Dan Weirback's brews have been since the move to the new brewery? Add that to the attractive repackaging of much of the line and a more aggressive presence in the market and I can almost--I say, almost--accept the loss of the quirky and oh-so-appealing brewpub at the old site.

The Tap's co-owner, William Reed (he's the "beer guy" and partner Paul Kimport is the "food guy"), joined us while we worked our way through more than ample plates of omelets and French toast. He showed us a full page feature on Philadelphia in that day's New York Times in which the Tap was one of five restaurants recommended for a visit and then began talking about beer, which is his passion.

"Have you had the new Baltus (from New Jersey's Heavyweight Brewing)," he asked. "It's really good. We have it on tap upstairs." The upstairs bar is closed during brunch so that appeared to be the end of that, but William was on a roll. "You really need to try it," he said and off he went up the stairs, returning shortly with a glass to pass around. It's exactly this sort of attitude, not only talking up good beers but making the extra effort to see to it that people get to try them, that makes Reed and Standard Tap so important to the local beer scene.

The Baltus? Marvelous. O'Reilly termed it "one of the best dubbels I've ever tasted," and I'd go along with that, except I'm not quite sure it's a dubbel. Nor, for that matter, is Heavyweight's Tom Baker, who describes Baltus on the brewery's website this way:

a hybrid style...a top-fermented beer made with English pale malts, malted wheat and noble hops. A classic European yeast strain with a subtle yet discernible estery profile is employed. A warmer fermentation, followed by a period of cold conditioning serves to develop and refine this complex beer. Difficult to classify, Baltus has been called a Belgian-style brown, a dubbel and a weizenbier. We just call it O.V.S. - Our Very Special and we bet you'll call it delicious.

Well, no disagreement on that last comment. Although, at 8.2% ABV, maybe "delicious and dangerous" might be a more accurate description. Either way, I think I needs must add a bit of Baltus to my "This Will Be a Long Cold Winter" stockpile real soon now.

And that, my friends, pretty much ended my good beer consumption until Friday night when I had a chance to sample O'Reilly's latest, Burns Scottish Ale, but we'll save that for next time, along with news of a night forthcoming at Sly Fox that Should Not Be Missed. The game went about as expected, Philadelphia kicking Washington's ass, and the only beer in sight was Bud, which I politely sipped (for the first time in well over a decade!) when someone handed me a cup, then slipped under the seat.

As the sun sank behind the stadium walls in the second half and the chill set in, I noticed that my throat was becoming quite sore. "Must be from all the yelling," I thought to myself (although I had hardly raised my voice at all). I mean, it wasn't like I could be getting sick or anything.... [posted Sunday, December 22, 2002 2:30 pm est] [end]

The Coming of Ichor. When I promised last week to talk about a Not-To-Be-Missed event coming up at the Sly Fox Brewhouse, it seems that most people figured that I had in mind the January 17 Robbie Burns Birthday Bash, which will feature folks climbing atop the world's tallest bar to recite the Scottish bard's poetry and bagpipes and lots of good Scottish food (and Haggis too), not to mention the debut of Gang Aft Agley Scotch Ale and a full selection of other fine beers.

Well, no I didn't (although I hope to see you January 17 nonetheless).

The event I was referring to will occur three weeks later, on Friday, February 7 during the monthly Incubus Friday celebration (on the first Friday of each month, brewer Brian O'Reilly taps a keg--or two, if necessary--of his fine Tripel). That's surely a good thing in and of itself, but the February blowout will be highlighted by the introduction of the first Sly Fox bottled beer, Ichor, a dark, strong (10% abv) Belgian Abbot Ale served in 750mm bottles. To mark the occasion, O'Reilly plans to offer the entire run of Sly Fox Belgian-style beers on draught--Abbey Xtra, C-Quest Dubbel, Renard d'Or Golden Ale & Saison Vos--turning the evening into a mini-Belgian festival.

I think most of us agree that strong Belgians are, in general, always better suited for the bottle and I'm really eager to see how Ichor turns out. After carefully consuming bottles of Abbey Xtra and Saison Vos which Brian did for experimental purposes, I told him--only partially in jest--that I might drink neither on draft ever again (and I really liked them on draft). In short, those first bottles alone are enough to make February 7 a date circled on my calendar.

The evening will also probably mark the last chance to try the 2002 vintage of at least a couple of those other Belgian-styles. The Renard d'Or was a real revelation at the Sly Fox Belgian Dinner last September and I want to see if it's gotten even better or passed its peak some five months later.

February 7, Be there or be square (using up my annual allowance of bad cliches before the year runs out).

The Future of LDO.You may have noticed that, differing from my usual practice, I did not link either event above when it was first mentioned. That's because, as you'll see if you click the Sly Fox link which I did provide, the pub's website is currently being deconstructed and reconstructed and such links are not available.

Like all too many websites put up by various small businesses with all good intentions, the Sly Fox site has languished terribly in recent months, with outdated information and no good reason for anyone to visit it. That's about to change, I can assure you with some confidence. I'm the person doing the job.

The revised site, or at least the preliminary version of it, will be available a week from today, perhaps even sooner. Do stop in and take a look around.

Assuming negotiations work out, I'll be responsible not only for Sly Fox's web presence from here on out but also for other promotional and public relations work. Because Some Big Things are about to develop for Sly Fox (some still in the potential stage, others already in process), I'm beginning to wonder about the propriety of this supposedly "personal" beer journal.

The fact that I already perform similar duties for The Beer Yard has concerned me since this page debuted last September. I've also been aware that I perhaps devote too much attention to Sly Fox already for some tastes (hey, it's my local pub so that's unavoidable). Now I have to figure out how to deal with those issues and still maintain some degree of professionalism. That probably means either revising how this column is written and/or abandoning it.

I have to admit that arguing in favor of the latter course is an increasing time constraint. I'm currently juggling work on four websites, a small mail order business, production of a weekly political cartoon, the occasional writing assignment and my fiction efforts, plus other, more mundane activities designed to provide much needed income. The ability to do so does offer reassurance that my brain hasn't totally turned to mush with advancing age (although I do walk into the kitchen all too often to discover that I've left the faucet running), but a crisis in any one of those areas can turn an already lengthy work week into a complete horror show.

An example, if I might (mostly because I have a need to vent). This past week's shipment of books, magazines, comics and related items for my mail order customers was short 37 (!) different items in varying quantities. Not just short in the sense of "we sent your cartons to the wrong location and will get them to you" but completely, utterly gone. As if they never existed.

Further complicating things, the missing items were already invoiced and paid for by two dozen customers across the U.S. and in four other countries. Their shipments, which I held because of all the confusion, needs must go out no later than this coming week, no matter what, since they contain the catalogue from which the January orders will be placed. It has already taken the better part of two days (days which were scheduled for website work) to sort out what's missing from each shipment and see about getting replacements, not to mention trying to work out a way of issuing proper credits and soothing worried customers. And the end is not yet in sight.

Okay, got that off my chest. Sorry to burden you with it. Consider it part of the price of admission.

The point of all this: it's not clear what you'll find here a week from today. I guess we'll both just have to wait and see. [posted Sunday, December 29, 2002 12:45 pm est] [end]

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

--A. E. Houseman

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