by Jack Curtin
Atlantic Ale Trail
December 2006 / January 2007

East Coast breweries marked the 25th anniversary of the Great American Beer Festival in a fashion they'd surely not have chosen given a choice. Compared to 2005, there was a drop off in total medals, 40 to 35, and the total of Golds was seven compared to 17 last year. Breweries in ten states comprise the total: Pennsylvania and Virginia won seven medals each, Massachusetts won five and Delaware and New York breweries won four each. Maryland breweries took three and Maine two (both Allagash), while Maryland, Connecticut and New Jersey had one medal-winning brewery each.

New England breweries were strong, accounting for four of the region's seven Golds: Amherst Brewing Company, Boston Beer Company and Cambridge Brewing Company in Massachusetts; Allagash Brewing Company in Maine (Boston Beer and Allagash each added a Bronze). Other Golds were won by Basil T's Brewery and Italian Grill in New Jersey, Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant in Pennsylvania and Rock Bottom Bethesda in Maryland.

In the Philadelphia market, while some familiar and respected names were missing from the ranks, certain verities held: historical precedent was reaffirmed (perennial medal winner Iron Hill took a Bronze as well as its Gold), familiar names were called (Delaware's Dogfish Head Craft Brewery and Stewart's Brewing Company each won a pair of Bronzes and Triumph Brewing Company's New Hope, Penna., location won one as well), a streak was-perhaps arbitrarily-continued (McKenzie Ale House won a Bronze to make it three years in a row, assuming you discount their non-participation in 2005) and two newcomers were welcomed into the ranks: Harrisburg's Troegs Brewing Company (a Silver in a category in which no Gold was awarded) and Bethlehem Brew Works (Bronze).

Particularly striking to this observer for 2006 was the paucity of medals in the lager and pilsner categories, styles for which the East Coast is often, and justifiably, feted. That just ain't right.

Phil Markowski nicknamed him "Dude" back in 1989 at New England Brewing in Norwalk, Conn., but Scott Morrison didn't truly become "The Dude" until more than two decades later. He got into the game by parlaying being an eager homebrewer with lots of questions and energy into a four-year apprenticeship under Markowski and Ron Page while running his own coffee shop in the Stamford train station. In 1994, he got his own gig at New Haven's Elm City Brewing which lasted until 1998, although it had devolved into a two-day a week overnight commuting job in the later stages, an arrangement worked out after he'd resigned and returned to his native Pennsylvania. After Elm City closed its doors, Morrison went back into the coffee business full-time once again. By mid-2001, though, he says he'd "decided to go in a different direction." Fortuitously enough, on his way home one afternoon, he took a closer look at the new construction he'd been driving past for several weeks and noticed that it was beginning to look suspiciously like a brewpub.

Which, long story short (trust me), is how Scott Morrison ended up the brewmaster at McKenzie Brew House, which now has two locations, the original in Glen Mills, Penna., and a second which opened this year in Malvern, Penna., at the far end of the fabled Main Line. That's where the all-important adjective was eventually added to his moniker as he slowly caught local attention with his specialty brews which supported the restaurant's requisite standard lineup. When he began hand-bottling some of those beers for sale and, more importantly, garnered a pair of Bronze medals for his Trappist Pale Ale and Saison at GABF 2003, the game was afoot. Morrison became the darling of the online beer sites; when word would get out that something new was out in bottles, they would descend like a hoard of crazed scavengers. He was The Man, The Dude. Bottling is no longer an option these days-Morrison says it's a good thing: "I really don't like worrying about what condition my beer is in once it's out there"-but that has hardly dimmed his profile, not with the second and more accessible location up and running.

Morrison won a third Bronze in 2004 for Bavay, a biere de garde, and a fourth this year, for Raven Baltic Porter. "This was the second time I entered it," he says. "They didn't have a Baltic Porter category the first time and I had a hard time find a category it fit. It's one of those styles which is out there but there aren't many good examples around. When I had the Sinebrychoff Porter from Finland, I thought it was amazing, so I decided to try and make something similar. I really like the flavor characteristics of the style."

While's that's a relatively strong beer, most of Morrison's efforts fall in the 7% and under range. His brewing philosophy-one I agree with strongly, for whatever that's worth-might shock some of his online acolytes. "While everybody's doing big beers these days, I find myself going in the opposite direction. I've come to realize that you don't have to be a great brewer in order to make big beers. They really aren't as artisanal you'd think. You can hide a lot of faults at 8% to 10% which you can't in a beer that's 5% or 6%. Personally, I prefer something like Saison Dupont, great beers you can drink any time."

Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant came home from GABF 2005 with Large Brewpub of the Year honors neatly tucked in its back pocket. Sitting on top of the world, waves of acclaim and all that good stuff were an autumn banquet for founders and owners Kevin Finn, Kevin Davies and Mark Edelson, not to mention their team of what may be the happiest group of brewers around, who are treated like valued employees by an ownership which clearly appreciates them.

Whatever in the world could they do to top that this year?

Well, start with two more Medals, a Gold for medal-machine Bob Barrar, of the Media location, for his Russian Imperial Stout and a Bronze for West Chester's Chris LaPierre for his barrel-aged Bourbon Ivan (this same duo won three of the four 2005 medals that earned Iron Hill the Large Brewpub crown). Add to that the fact that the wins kept alive a perfect record: Iron Hill has taken at least one GABF medal every year since it first entered the competition in 1997. Add in also that Iron Hill's sixth location, in Phoenixville, opened its doors two days after GABF closed its own. Okay, that opening was nine months later than originally scheduled, but, hey, who's counting...especially since all that stuff turned out to be mere prelude.

On October 13 (a Friday the 13th, no less), one Mark and a pair of Kevins finalized a $7 million Citibank loan with which they plan to build at least five more Iron Hill pubs over the next three years. A week later, they revealed that the first of these new sites would be in Lancaster. Other prospective locations are Philadelphia, South Jersey and Maryland. The latter is something new, and even considering Philadelphia marks a significant change in thinking for the trio, as they've always said the city posed expense and labor issues they didn't want to deal with. On the other hand, New Jersey (a no-brainer, by the way) has been in their thinking almost from the beginning. As Davies told me for a story which ran in these pages in 2004, Iron Hill's spectacular Wilmington, Del., pub "only happened because a South Jersey project fell apart. Finding the right site [in Jersey] would be like hitting a home run." For the goes-around-comes-around department: the first Iron Hill pub, in Newark, Del., only happened in 1996 because they couldn't find a site in Wilmington.

Iron Hill did more than $20 million in sales at its locations in Delaware (Wilmington and Newark) and Pennsylvania (Media, West Chester and North Wales) in 2005, with 70% of it in food. Notably, the three partners always refer to themselves as restauranteurs. "We knew from the start that we could make great beer," says Edelson, who heads the brewing side of things, "and we also knew that we had to make great food to succeed. We are competing against other restaurants."

And doing a damned fine job of it, he might have added.

Copyright (c) 2006 Jack Curtin

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