RUMINANTS A-RUNNIN' IN THE WARM SUNSHINE

by Jack Curtin
Atlantic Ale Trail
Celebrator Beer News
June-July 2008

The annual Bock Festival & Goat Race at Sly Fox Brewhouse & Eatery in Phoenixville, Penna. on the first Sunday of May every year is one of the area's most popular and pure-fun events, a family friendly afternoon which inspires comparison to classic German biergartens and the days when the conviviality inspired by spending several hours sharing good brew with friends and loved ones was something to be treasured.

And, oh yeah, watching a whole passel of goats running headlong toward a finish line trying to win the right to have the year's Maibock named in his or her honor ain't half bad either.

This year's Fest on May 4 (the seventh one there, following two at the now closed New Road Brewhouse) just plain exploded. A total of 42 goats were entered in the races, double the number of any previous year, and the local newspaper estimated the attendance at a record 2,900. Kids, dogs, goats and bock beers were everywhere (with the Maibock, Slacker Bock, Helles Bock and Instigator Doppelbock on tap, along with eis versions of the latter two, the festival is almost surely the largest bock celebration by a single brewery anywhere in the country), with German music and food setting the atmosphere. Two large tents, erected in front of the pub because of dire weather predictions, proved instead to be a refuge from the burning sun on one of the best May days in these part ever, and will be a permanent fixture at future fests, the brewery announced afterwards, because they give the spread-out celebration a certain definition which had been missing.

The event is the brainchild of brewmaster Brian O'Reilly, as skilled as a promoter as he is at the kettle, and the premise is simple: goats race in as many heats as necessary until a winner is determined. This year there were six qualifying heats, a dead-heat finish in the championship round and a two-goat run-off for the first time ever. The Maibock is tapped immediately afterwards and named in honor of the winning ruminant, in this case one-year old Jasper. Each goat is run by its owner or handler and must cross the finish line ahead of the human on the other end of the leash. The winning owner gets a $75 gift card. There's even a tradition and rivalry developing. Just inches behind the winner at the finish line was Entrekin, who has already racked up two seconds and a third in previous years, and Sundae, who won the crown in 2007, finished third.

"This has become our Kentucky Derby," said Pete Giannopoulos, whose dream of opening a brewpub got his family into the game back in 1995; Sly Fox Beer now consists of the Phoenixville pub and a Sly Fox Brewery and Restaurant in nearby Royersford. The brewery packages several of its beers in 12oz cans and 22oz and 750ml bottles and current distributes in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.

Hmmm. A beer-centric Kentucky Derby. I wonder if anybody's even made a Bock Julep?

World Cup Winners.
Ric Hoffman and Stewart's Brewing Co. took the Gold Medal in the Kolsch category at the 2008 Brewers Association World Cup competition to lead five Delaware Valley breweries to a total of seven medals. The winning beer was Windblown Blonde and marked the fourth World Cup medal (and first Gold) won by the Bear, Del. brewery since Hoffman became head brewer there in 2000. Toss in a Gold, Silver and four Bronzes won at the Great American Beer Festival in the same span and you're looking at a guy with a right impressive resume.

I like Hoffman, like him because he's a funny guy who gives as good as he gets and a brewer who produces some impressive beers, beers that have me to the point of almost forgiving him for trying to run me down in front of Monk's Café in Philadelphia one spring night a year or two ago. Almost. He's something of a secret treasure in this market, toiling away in a place that might just as well be called "Where, Del." given its obscurity for most of the beer geek types (although Ric can pretty much convince you that you're only minutes away no matter where you are and that a beer will be waiting for you when you get there, promise). If he were producing his big, bold and creative beers in Philly, the guy would be a super star.

In tiny Delaware, of course, Stewart's bears the burden of operating in the shadows cast by the shining lights that are Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant and Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. Each those two were on the World Cup medal rolls as well this year, with Iron Hill's Wilmington pub and brewers Brian Finn and Mike Rutkowsi taking a Silver for Vienna Red Lager (recently added to the standard rotation at all the IH locations for which I give great thanks because it's a super session beer) and Dogfish Head gaining a Bronze for Midas Touch.

Iron Hill's Media, Penna. location and brewers Bob (the Medal Machine) Barrar and Vince Desrosiers won the chain a second Silver for their Wee Heavy Strong Scotch Ale. Troegs Brewing Company of Harrisburg, Penna. also won two medals, both Bronze, for its Troegenator and Sunshine Pils. And Allentown/Bethlehem Brew Works won a Bronze for its Framboise.

Victory at home and on the road.
The World Cup results were announced in San Diego at the close of the 2008 Craft Brewers Conference, where Downingtown, Penna.'s Victory Brewing, in cooperation with the German Hop Growers Association for the second year in a row, debuted three beers it brewed using German hops provided by the Association: Select Pils, Tettnanger Pils, and Sapphire Belgian Strong Ale. The beers were produced as a collaborative effort between Eric Toft, American-born, German-trained Brewmaster of Private Landbrauerei Schonram, and Victory, explicitly for the CBC.

The way it works is that the association sends Victory the hops, Eric formulates the recipe and Victory brews the beer. Select Pils was made with a mix of Hallertau and Spalt Select Hops. Tettnanger Pils was a single hop varietal using hops grown by German farmer Georg Bentele, who Victory founders Bill Covaleski and Ron Barchet visited while touring Germany in 2007 with 23 thirsty Victory fans. Both those beers came at a quaffable 5.3%, but, as you'd suspect, that was not the case with the Belgian ale, It was brewed with a Hallertau grown variety hop named Safir and a Trappist yeast strain; that combination produced an impressive 10.5% ABV rating.

Closer to home, there was even bigger news for Victory aficionados as our column deadline loomed. The revamped and refurbished brewpub, under renovation since February and completely shut down for all of April, reopened on Wednesday, May 7, and features a brand new kitchen and bar with extended seating, booths in the main dining area and a common room with long tables adjacent to the bar. The greatly enlarged kitchen has an in-house smoker. A definite highlight at the 50-foot bar, aside from its three serving towers each equipped with 20 taps and four beer engines, is an automatic growler filler system that does the task similar to a bottling line, filling the vessel right to the top and adding CO2 to keep the beer fresher longer.

When I wrote about the revamping project a couple of issues back and reported that Victory was scheduled to reopen in early May, I must admit, given what I've seen go on with brewery and tavern construction projects from new openings to major or minor upgrades, that I never expect them to meet that deadline. In many ways, that's the most impressive thing about the whole story.

Pints and Pols.
Finally, the Pennsylvania Democratic Primary in April gave us not only Hillary Clinton doing shots and beers in any tavern which would have her, but also a great photo of Barack Obama hoisting a pint of definitely not fizzy yellow stuff at Bethlehem Brew Works (I'm thinking ESB). The man had us convinced he drinks a lot better than he bowls, only to dispel that notion a few weeks later when he turned up on the TV screen chugging cans of Bud in Indiana. Then again, maybe he was trying to win the support of John McCain's wife, an Anheuser-Busch heiress.

Copyright (c) 2008 Jack Curtin

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