Victory creates an historic Harvest Pils;
Troegs produces an oxymoronic "giant" Mad Elf;
Sly Fox promises cans this spring

by Jack Curtin
Atlantic Ale Trail
Feb/Mar 2006

Last October, with the release of their Braumeister Harvest Pils, brewers at Victory Brewing Company in Downingtown believe they probably created the first fresh-hop pilsner ever. Adding to its singularity and historic significance, the beer was made with freshly harvested East Coast hops grown at Pedersen Farm in Seneca Castle, NY.

"The Mt. Hood hops were in our kettle less than 24 hours after they were picked," says Victory co-owner Bill Covaleski, and farm owner Rick Pedersen confirmed that claim. "We harvested them one afternoon during the first week in September and stored them in our cooler. We'd called Victory and told them we were harvesting and their refrigerated truck arrived an hour after we finished and took them right back to Pennsylvania."

The result was a remarkable brew, enhancing the fresh, crisp characteristics of a well-made pilsner with a striking and citrusy fresh hop presence. It was as fine a beer as I had all of 2005.

The Harvest Pils was the latest release in Victory's estimable Braumeister series of draft, single-hop pilsners, initiated in 2000. "We started brewing them so that we could try hops other than those we used in our flagship Prima Pils," says Covaleski, "and also try some of the Prima hops 'pure.' Each varietal Pils batch begins with the same grist and a selected hop variety, then is fermented cold with the same yeast strain and served unfiltered. Among other distinctions, I believe the beers in the Braumeister series were also the first modern keller pilsners brewed in Southeastern Pennsylvania."

Victory contacted Pedersen Farm through the Northeast Hop Alliance (NeHA), a coalition working to re-establishing commercial specialty hop production in New York State and the entire Northeast. From the mid-1800s through the very early years of the 20th Century, hops were a major agricultural product in central New York State and one of the major economic factors in the area's culture and development. But the crops were perennially plagued by disease and insects and the onset of Prohibition finally spelled the industry's doom.

Pedersen's 1200-acre farm mostly produces vegetables for wholesale commercial sales, with 4.5 acres now devoted to hops. A first small hop garden was added in 1998. "There are several of us in the area interested in trying to resurrect the hops industry, concentrating on aroma hops for the most part," says Pedersen. "It's a long, slow process because of the capital investment required. I just happen to have been the first and the biggest and I was lucky to already have all the farming equipment I needed. I was also able to modify some other things-I turned a grain bin into a dryer, for example-to get started."

Pedersen says he initially "gave away samples to anyone who'd take them to try and create some interest." He finally made his first significant sale in 2001, to Wagner Valley Brewing Co., located in the Finger Lakes region of New York, for hops they used in making their well-regarded Wagner Valley IPA. A breakthrough moment came two years later when Ithaca Beer Company purchased Pedersen's crop of Cascade, Mount Hood and Willamette varieties and used them exclusively-7.5 lbs. per barrel-to make an imperial IPA.

Ithaca Double IPA was released in February 2004 and was the first beer brewed entirely with New York hops since the 1950s, according to Duncan Hilchey, agricultural development specialist with Cornell University's Farming Alternatives Program, who helped to develop NeHA. Both Ithaca's founder/owner Dan Mitchell and brewer Jeff Conuel attended Cornell.

Bigger than your average elf.
John Trogner, co-founder and head brewer at Harrisburg's Troegs Brewing Company, was once accused, to his horror, of having "latent homebrewing tendencies" during a late night beer 'n' bull session in a Pittsburgh motel. This fall, those tendencies, or maybe some submerged mad-scientist genes, manifested themselves when Trogner jerry-rigged a whacky Rube Golberg-ian contraption for filling 500 3-liter bottles with the brewery's popular Mad Elf Holiday Ale, a big (11% abv) seasonal bundle of cheer made with cherries, honey and chocolate malt.

Trogner says he was inspired during a visit to Germany and came home to find that his brother and co-founder, Chris, was thinking along the same lines, so he ordered two pallets of bottles from Germany and got to work. "The first job I had in a brewery was operating a four-head bench-top hand filler for 22oz bottles. It was kind of a nightmare, actually, but that experience convinced me this wouldn't be so hard. I took a look at our Krone's line to see how it functioned, then took a 10-foot length of conveyor, popped the rollers off and put legs on it. After that, I laid down two 10-foot pieces of stainless steel and starting cutting and clamping things together. When I had what looked about right, I started welding it all together."

Troeg's John Trogner at his "Frankenfiller,"
filling 3-Liter bottles with Mad Elf Holiday Ale.

The resultant piece of equipment, dubbed the Frankenfiller by Troegs PR guy Ed Yashinsky, handled four bottles at a time with a total of eight hoses, four to purge CO2 from the bottles and four to replace it with fresh beer. When the cleaned bottles moved into place, Trogner pressed a button which pushed the filling head and tubes into each one. "I had a pressure gauge with a two-way valve, one for CO2 and one for beer. Once the bottles were pressurized, I opened the exit value and began filling them with beer. Each one moved at a different rate, of course, so I had to have a valve for each bottle. When all four were filled, I'd hit the button to pull the fill tubes up and out of the bottles and then shove everything to the right, where whoever was helping me would grab a bottle and porcelain swing-top, step on a pedal which jetted water, through a very small hole, at the top of the bottle, causing it to foam over so he could crown it."

Why 500 bottles? "We just sorta picked the number out of the air. We need to do enough to make at least a little money on the project, as well as have bottles for ourselves and friends of the brewery. We were a little nervous, honestly. We didn't know how people would react to $60 bottles." Trogner paused and laughed. "It turns out they love $60 bottles."

Troegs will likely repeat and increase to the 3-liter bottling next year, especially if they can get a change in Pennsylvania's beer regulations to make 100 ounces the minimum for single bottle sales instead of the current 120 ounces. Meanwhile, brewery fans will have to settle (quite happily, I'd guess) for the 12oz bottle release of Nugget Nectar, a hoppy ale introduced last February as a draft-only single batch beer. Word on that should be out about the time this hits print.

Bottles are just so 20th century, y'know?
Sly Fox Brewing (for whom, I always alert readers, I do some website work) released its long-awaited initial packaged products from its new production brewery in Royersford during the final weeks of 2005. Brewer Brian O'Reilly and assistant Tim Ohst turned out 750ml bottles of Saison Vos and Christmas Ale prior to Thanksgiving and debuted 22oz bottles of their popular Rt. 113 IPA during the December 9 IPA Project celebration at the company's other, original location, Sly Fox Brewhouse & Eatery in Phoenixville. That gathering was the culmination of a year-long program of creating a series of nine draft, single-hop IPAs. One keg of each varietal and a brand new Imperial IPA--brewed with all nine of the hops--were poured that snowy Friday, ten beers to mark Sly Fox's tenth anniversary.

The rapid bottle release pace will continue. ,I>Ichor Quadruple (750ml) size is scheduled for release in early February, with Instigator Doppelbock following in March, and Incubus Tripel sometime thereafter. This Big Beer/Big Bottle program is big news, of course, but perhaps an even more significant announcement came from managing partner John Giannopoulos in late December. Sly Fox has purchased a canning line, expected to be up and running by March, and Phoenix Pale Ale and Pikeland Pils,/I>, two of the brewery's core brands, will be the first beers canned. Their release is expected to drive Sly Fox's expansion into the New Jersey and New York markets by summer 2006.

Copyright (c) 2006 Jack Curtin

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