SLY FOX BOCK FESTIVAL: A FAMILY AFFAIR

A perfect Sunday in May showed why beer is the ideal complement
to good times shared with friends and loved ones.
Plus there were goats.

by Jack Curtin
(Mid-Atlantic Brewing News, June/July 2008)

In the end, the day was all about Jasper, a medium-sized black goat with white markings on his face, one year old, the central character in a drama which unfolded at the Sly Fox Bock Festival & Goat Race May 4, on perhaps the most pluperfect early spring Sunday ever, with records for the event falling like so many cans of beer on the wall: the largest crowd ever (estimated at 2,900 by the local daily), the most goats entered in the competition ever (42 of them, more than double any previous year), the first-ever dead-heat final race, leading to a two-goat runoff to determine which one would forever be attached to the 2008 Maibock waiting to be tapped.

That's what its all about at these annual gatherings at Sly Fox Brewhouse & Eatery in Pikeland Square Village in Phoenixville. The event is the brainchild of brewmaster Brian O'Reilly, built around an afternoon of ruminants on the run, with the shimmering promise of the best of the lot earning the distinction of having the eagerly awaited beer named in its honor, a gold medal hung from its neck and its owner being presented with a $75 gift card. When Jasper Maibock was finally tapped and the first glass offered to the rather blasé new champion, it became the sixth Bock beer on draught, joining Slacker Bock (your basic bock and arguably the best to pour on this given day), Helles Bock and Instigator Doppelbock, plus Eisbier versions (batches which are partially frozen at the end of fermentation to remove some of their water and increase the alcohol content) of the latter two. This must surely be the nation's largest one-day celebration of Bock beers by a single brewery.

O'Reilly conceived of the goat races at the short-lived New Road Brew House in Collegeville, where the first two of the nine to date were run. Roughly 25 people stood in a parking lot there on a rainy afternoon to watch George outrun five other contestants to the finish line, break his leash and dash unfettered the length of the lot, there to scramble back into the truck which brought him and cower in the corner. Carried inside for the initial medal presentation, he further displayed his displeasure beyond any doubt in the middle of an Oriental rug. A Maibock Named George was the beer's name that day; it has been followed by bocks with simpler monikers since, perhaps the most memorable being Weird Beard in 2004. Over the years at Sly Fox, a certain legacy of competition has developed: Entrekin, who finished just a nip behind Jasper, is the perennial bridesmaid-never-a-bride, with another second and two third place finishes on his resume. Sundae, the youngest winner ever at a mere seven weeks old last year, was third this time around. Other former winners have also run again; none has ever repeated.

There are goats all over the place, some there as mere spectators, others awaiting the big run or enjoying the easy comradery afterward. You can't miss the kids, lots of them, a few babes in arms or in strollers, most a few years older, running hither and yon, blowing bubbles, laughing and yelling, free and easy in a family-friendly environment. There are nearly as many dogs as goats, maybe more. Often it takes a second look to see if the animal being cuddled is one or the other. Many of the goats, many of the families, are part of a local 4-H club which has supported the event from its inception and which mans a small stand selling goat soap every year. Many in the rest of the crowd coo an sigh and swear they'll get themselves a goat of their own real soon now.

It all seems reminiscent of a time too long past, of the way it must have been when early German immigrants to this country, the people who created our beer industry, gathered of a Sunday in their beer gardens, families all together, dining and drinking, enjoying traditional music (such as that which is provided in Phoenixville every year by the Emil Schanta Band), beer a natural part of things, a beverage perfectly suited to the social environment, responsible people in the afternoon sun, pint in hand and friends and loved ones sharing the moment.

It makes perfect sense that O'Reilly's inspiration and the nature of the place itself would conspire to create a familial atmosphere. Sly Fox is very much a family business. When Pete Giannopoulos, the managing partner in Phoenixville, set out to create a brewpub back in 1995 and his original investors disappeared, the entire family stepped in to help him out. And stayed. This year, there was his father, the doctor after whom Pete is named, the scion of the family, in his Bock Fest tee-shirt, holding one end of the finish line tape, with younger brother John, now the managing partner at Sly Fox Brewery & Restaurant in nearby Royersford, holding the other. A third brother, Harry, who has a financial career in the real world, was this day behind one of the outdoor food tables, helping out. The building which houses the brewpub, a ski-lodge like structure tucked away in the rear of a nondescript shopping center, was found by Pete's mother, who also created its fox-hunting décor.

While Sly Fox won a few local awards for its beers early on, it was pretty much off the radar of the emerging local beer community for a while. It was more the popular local bar and restaurant where people were drawn naturally, a young family with children looking for a decent, inexpensive dinner or guys unwinding after work, older couples stopping by for an early meal after Sunday church services or a table full of school teachers kicking back on a Friday afternoon, a table of giggling au-pair girls drawing a lot of bartender attention and guys huddled over their football pools, all of them enjoying a fresh made pint and feeling at home. This is a neighborhood place with a flag football team and an annual golf tourney, with regulars and employees who it's easy to believe were all already on hand when the doors first opened, which shutters one night each January for a private post-Christmas party for employees and friends.

These days there's the new Royersford brewery and a slew of off-premise accounts, packaged beers and a whole lot of recognition, thanks to O'Reilly and his award winning beers and marketing genius. The Phoenixville pub is a now destination stop for beer aficionados both local and passing through. One of the regular groups is a table full of what can only be called beer geeks, who gather every Monday--out on the small and very popular patio when weather permits--to sample and discuss a startlingly wide and impressive range of beers they bring along to share. They're really no different than all the others, of course, just folks happy to be where they are, feeling welcome and at home. And drinking beer.

You've heard it said before: build it and they will come. In Phoenixville, on the first Sunday of every May, they come for the goats.

Copyright (c) 2008 Jack Curtin


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