by Jack Curtin
Atlantic Ale Trail
December 2007/January 2008

It was a Lager Landslide.

Pennsylvania garnered 12 Great American Beer Festival medals in October, six of them Gold, to lead the East Coast by a significant margin and rank fourth among all states in total wins for 2007. Depending upon whether you count a Gold in the Pro-Am competition, that #4 ranking stands either all by itself or is a tie with Oregon at 11 medals. Either way, add in two additional medals from Delaware breweries which are considered a part of the Philadelphia beer community, and you a have a damned good statistical argument for that "America's Best Beer Drinking City" slogan which the Philadelphia Beer Week 2008 committee rolled out at a press conference in Denver to officially announce the March 7-16 event.

Significantly, given the region's brewing heritage, eight of those 14 total medals, and three of the Gold, were for lager beers brewed within roughly an hour's drive of downtown Philadelphia.

The first GABF medals ever for Downingtown's Victory Brewing Company were a Gold for Victory Festbier and a Silver for Prima Pils. That Victory hasn't won before is not the shocker it seems on the surface, by the way; last year was the first time they entered any beers in the competition. The Festbier is one of the original Victory brews which have been available since the brewery opened its doors in 1996, a beer so good and consistent that it sometimes fades into the background of the hullabaloo about the Latest Big Thing. The Gold Medal was something of an "I needed that" drink thrown in our collective faces to remind us of just how excellent it really is. As for Prima Pils, it has been Victory's most honored beer over the years, and it's safe to assume that it's not garnering any GABF acknowledgement heretofore is essentially the reset of that not submitting beers thing.

Victory Sales manager Steve German, who accepted the two medals, recalls that "when I went up for our Gold for the Festbier, somebody on the stage said to me, 'Pennsylvania's really kicking ass.' By then, it was clear we were dominating the lager categories. In fact, even early on, when I heard Brian's name called for the Gold right after our Silver in the pilsner category, I figured the region was on a roll." Brian is Sly Fox Brewing Co.'s brewmaster Brian O'Reilly. When his Pikeland Pils, brewed at Sly Fox's Royersford brewery located about half an hour from Downingtown, took the Gold right after Prima won the Silver, it made for a rather neat twofer which delighted locals who have debated the relative merits of Prima and Pikeland for years. I can tell you from personal experience that blind side-by-side tastings can result in a different winner every time. And nobody complains.

O'Reilly was particularly proud of the fact that his winning beer was packaged in a can (a first for a GABF craft beer medal winner) and that it was exactly the same beer enjoyed by Sly Fox's everyday customers. "The outdated notion that cans are somehow damaging to beer or only for mainstream beers ought to be put to rest by now, given all the evidence that cans are in fact better than glass in many ways," he said. "We have enough faith in our beer and our packaging that, when it was time to submit, I just walked over to the canning line and grabbed a sixpack. No special batches, no scheming and planning, that sixpack was what we sent to Denver." Sly Fox also won a Bronze for its Instigator Doppelbock, packaged in 22oz bottles.

Add a Gold for Troegs Troegenator Doppelbock (which won the Harrisburg brewery's first ever medal, a Bronze, in 2006), the two Bronzes for Stoudt's Ofest and Weizen (the first medals for the respected Adamstown craft brewing pioneer since 2000), and a Silver for the Oktoberfest from Delaware's Stewart Brewing and you have a solid testament to the region's proud tradition of lager brewing. How proud? When I talked with Brian McConnell, the talented and oft-overlooked brewer at Rock Bottom's location in King of Prussia, who won a Bronze in 2006 for his Rauchbier and a Gold this year for his Barleywine, he lamented that those results couldn't have been reversed just so that he could have joined in on the 2007 fun.

Man does not live by lager alone, of course (although he probably could), and Pennsylvania breweries also won three more medals in Ale categories besides McConnell's barleywine, including a Gold and Bronze by first-time entrant Ryan Michaels, of McKenzie Brew House for his Saison Vautour and McKenzie Wee Heavy respectively. Those two awards were, incidentally, something of a heads-up to the local beer community. After brewer Scott Morrison, who won four GABF medals from 2003-2006, was abruptly dismissed by owner Bill Mangan last December 12, the local beer community basically turned away from both McKenzie locations, Malvern and Chadds Ford. So much for that policy now, I expect. Michaels, who was Morrison's assistant, winning a pair of medals with his own beers less than 12 months later would have surely been my lead story for the region were it not for the Lager Landslide (gonna keep using that until everybody does).

The final two Delaware Valley beer category medals were a Silver for Delaware's Dogfish head's Midas Touch (DFH's fourth straight medal-winning year and the third medal for Midas Touch), and a Bronze for Kriek de Hill from perennial medal medalist Bob Barrar, brewer at the Media, Penna. location of Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant. Only single medal for the regional chain, which should have its seventh site up and running in Lancaster by the time this sees print, had to be something of a disappointment. Iron Hill has won a medal at every GABF since 1997, multiple medals for the last five years and was Large Brewpub of the Year in 2005.

The region's sixth Gold went to Allentown/Bethlehem Brew Work brewmaster Beau Bader and Chris Bowen, a 40-year old financial planner and AHA member, in the second year of GABF's Pro-Am competition. The medal was for an English-style India Pale Ale based on the latter's award-winning homebrew recipe, which Bader scaled out to large batch proportions, using the British malted barley that Bowen insisted upon, to produce a beer "really close" to the one Bowen had made at home. Bowen reacted to winning the medal in true homebrewer spirit, enjoying the process as much as the award. "I got a chance, a guy who makes five gallons at a time, to make 500," he told the local newspaper. "That was the biggest thrill for me."

Elsewhere in the East, a total of 18 medals were garnered, with New York (6) and Maryland (5) leading the way. Maine, Massachusetts and Virginia accounted for two medals each and New Hampshire one. Gold Medals were won by Boston Beer's Samuel Adams Double Bock in Massachusetts, Captain Lawrence Cuvee de Castleton in New York, Rock Bottom-Bethesda' s Brown Bear Brown and Clipper City BaltoMärzHon in Maryland and Great American Restaurants Crazy Jackass Ale in Virginia. Rock Bottom-Bethesda also took a Silver and Bronze, while other double winners were Clipper City, Southampton Publick House (NY) and Allagash Brewing (Maine). Blue Point Brewing, Chelsea Brewing and Olde Saratoga Brewing all recorded single wins in New York, as did Cambridge Brewing in Massachusetts, Portsmouth Brewery in New Hampshire and Capitol City Brewing in Virginia.

Origlio and Yards change Philadelphia beer picture.
In a move which was anticipated but perhaps not this soon, Origlio Beverage, a Coors house and the region's largest wholesaler, closed a deal in October to acquire the distribution arm of Kunda Beverage as of January 2008. The takeover will add most of the major local and U.S. craft beers now in the five-county market to the Origlio portfolio, which will now include locals Dock Street, Dogfish Head, Legacy, Sly Fox, Stoudt's and Weyerbacher; hot West Coast brands such as Port, Stone and Russian River, and an array of high-end Belgian and other imports. Origlio signaled its interest in becoming involved in the craft beer segment when it sought and acquired the rights to the Sly Fox brand from Kunda this spring. Kunda had pulled off a major acquisition of its own earlier in 2006 by purchasing Edward I. Friedland, Philadelphia's major distributor of craft and Belgian beers.

The move is seen as a serious effort by Origlio to become a player in the craft market and not just expansion for expansion's sake, which should be good news for the brands involved. Still, there are always winners and losers in a major wholesale reshuffling, with trading of brands between the survivors usually involved, so it will take several months to sort it all out. One obvious downside is that there is now one less option for new brands looking to enter one of the nation's most attractive markets.

Also in October, Yards Brewing co-founder Tom Kehoe, who split with partners Bill and Nancy Barton in July, came up with a new site for his brewery, signing a 10-year lease for 28,000 square feet of space in a building on the Delaware River waterfront. Kehoe is installing the 50 bbl brewhouse he purchased from the now closed Ybor City Brewing Co. in Florida and will move Yards there by the end of the year. Once the relocated operation is up and running, and assuming that his ex-partners do start brewing as Philadelphia Brewing Co. in the current Kensington plant (which Kehoe will use until the end of the year under their separation agreement), Philadelphia will have two full production breweries operating within city limits for the first time in over a quarter century.

Copyright (c) 2007-2008 Jack Curtin

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