The Best of
Here are my bests and worsts of 2005. Happy New Year to all of you!
Best beer I had in 2005: The
Urthels. I caught the whole line of Urthels at a beer dinner at Monk's
with Hildegard and Bas Van Ostaden, the husband and wife team that are Brouwerij
De Leyerth (he draws the little Urthels, she brews the beer). We had
the Urthel Amber (an outstanding session-strength beer with layers of
fruit and spice), Tripel, Hop It, Bock, and Samaranth, and they were all
simply tremendous. I recall when this beer first reached the U.S., I
thought it was a total gimmick. I was totally wrong. These are the best
beers I've had out of Belgium this year, and the best beers overall.
Honorable mention: Schlenkerla Lager. I didn't want to pick beers I
had in Europe that you can't get here, although there were a number of
them, like Budvar Dark. But the Schlenkerla Lager is fantastic: a helles
made with unsmoked malt that picks up a gentle but insistent raunchiness
just from being brewed in the rauch-stained brewhouse. Delicious. Please
import this, Herr Neidhart. Good
news: B.United will be importing the Schlenkerla Lager, beginning
in February. Not to overdo it, but I urge you: try this deliciously
light and smoky beer.
Best New Beer: Sly Fox St.
Charles Pilsner. I could conceivably have given this Best Beer,
Best New Beer, and Best PA Beer for 2005. This is draw-you-up-short,
double-take beer, beer that literally stopped our conversation in its
tracks. I've been to the Czech Republic and Bavaria this year, I've had
the best the eastern U.S. has to offer in pilsner, and I believe that
this may be the best pilsner I've ever had.
It is not a zingy tongue-whacker, nor is it a buttery-smooth gravy beer.
It is superbly balanced, the hops soaring above the clean malt but never
outpacing it; a beer as clean as new mountain snow and unearthly in its
drinkability. Full marks, Sly Fox.
Best NY beer: Phin &
Matt's Extraordinary Ale. I kept hearing about this stuff from
friends and on websites, and I finally got some on draft back in
January, while holed up during a snowstorm at Moonwink's
in Cuba, NY. What a great session pale ale! Southern
Tier's Phin & Matt's puts me in mind of Yards Philly Pale:
a whip-sharp hoppy pale ale with a slickly drinkable body that retains a
real malt base. I perk up whenever I see bottles or taphandles with this
beer on them, and I drink some. Extraordinary, indeed.
Best PA beer: Selin's Grove
Kriek slew everyone it came near this year at the Penn State fest.
Bring on your New Glarus Belgian Red; Selin's Grove is ready for the big
time with a solid bed of cherry flavor and aroma. Simply a knock-out beer
that inspires worship among those prone to that kind of thing. Honorable
mention to the lively, hoppy mouth-joy that men call Legacy
Best VA/MD/DE/DC beer: Clay
Pipe Brewing Pursuit of Hoppiness. And to think I almost missed
this one. I had it on December 31, and it was so good I stuffed it in
here. This is a winter warmer that's really a jumped-up IPA, smooth and
slippery and hoppy and aromatic with it. Contract-brewed at Frederick (and
just what is going on at Frederick?), this stuff deserves more attention,
as does Clay Pipe.
Best PA brewpub: Appalachian
Brewing, Harrisburg. This category just gets tougher every
year. There are the perennials -- Selin's Grove, the Bullfrog, Church,
Penn, all three Iron Hills, Nodding Head, Sly Fox, John Harvard's
Monroeville, General Lafayette -- and the new or newly improved -- North
Country, Bube's, Lancaster, Bethlehem, Otto's, Triumph. I chose Appalachian
out of the second group because the beers have greatly improved. ABC's
beers were always drinkable, but in the last year and a half, they have
become interesting, solid, tuned up, and confident. And if last year's
winner, Selin's Grove, was cool for being the smallest in the state, ABC's
huge size is a romp and a roar on busy nights. This brewpub has
transformed its neighborhood, and now it has transformed itself. If you
haven't stopped in for a while, come on back and have a look.
Best VA/MD/DE/DC brewpub: The
Brewer's Art. Does anyone really need me to explain this one?
Seriously, if there was ever an easy pick, this is it. The Brewer's Art
consistently brews great beers, innovative beers, landmark beers, and then
serves them up with great food in a wonderful atmosphere, one of my
favorite places to hang in Baltimore. I can't think what more you could
Most amazing change in a brewery: High
Falls. All hail Dave Schlosser. This new brewer has taken High
Falls (the former Genesee brewery in Rochester, NY, for those of you
who've been sleeping) by the back of the neck and shaken it. Genny Cream
is still their mainstay, but Dave is ramping up the almost moribund
Dundee's brand (Honey Brown) with line extensions that represent a great
deal for the money and seasonals that are flat-out excellent beers; I'll
drink his Pale Bock any time. Brandon Greenwood has joined the brewery as
"technical brewer," and intimated to me that an edition of his
well-loved Wee Heavy may join the Dundee's ranks. Two re-tooled
regionals making craft beer in upstate NY? I sense a tipping point.
(Please note that The Lion is a likely candidate for this award next
year: there's a Stegmaier Bock in the tanks right now, the big mean
Anniversary IPA will return in July, an Oktoberfest will be out in
the fall, and a winter beer as well, Stegmaier Frolicking Festival. I'm
hoping to go up and see the long-talked-about new brew kettle finally
arrive in two weeks. Big changes; hope they can find the drinkers they
Best Event I attended: Belgium Comes To Cooperstown. We
camped, we drank, we partied, and the beer world came to join us. This was
one of those special times when you feel like you've been there when
something momentous happened...and I'm not talking about the Burning
Reindeer or the naked guys dancing. GREAT beer was poured, beer made
specially for special moments, and people came from hundreds, even
thousands of miles away. This was a Moment, almost like Woodstock, but
they're going to do it AGAIN. I would urge you: if you go, keep your
friends from doing stupid things, because I'd hate to see this fest go
away because of drunkenness.
Best Bourbon I had in 2005: Pappy
Van Winkle's Family Reserve 15 Year Old. Give it up, folks: this
stuff simply rules. Sure, it pains me to pay $50 for a bottle, but this
one's all worth it, a bourbon that approaches the legendary Michter's 16
Year Old in my mind. Lean but not leathery, mature but not tired, this
bourbon's all grown up. It has all the complexity you could ask for from
an aged whiskey, but is still vibrant and luscious. Julian Van Winkle's
got the touch when it comes to picking old barrels, and this one proves
Best Bourbon for the money: Old Grand-dad Bottled
in Bond 100 Proof. If the ugly label and plastic screw-top
keep the price down on this wonderful whiskey, I say, keep it garish and
low-key. This is an explosively rye-balanced bourbon, yet well-integrated
and complex. Eminently suitable for sipping, it also makes a great
cocktail, once adjusted for strength. If the brassy orange label bothers
you...well, there are several nice decanters available.
Best non-whiskey spirit: Santa
Teresa 1796 Rum. Yup, another rum, and an echo of Malt
Advocate's choice for Spirit of the Year. Mark my words: aged rum
is just beginning to receive the attention it deserves. It is a marvelous
spirit, and the Santa Teresa 1796 is a stunning example. You'll be running
your tongue around in your mouth, tasting rush after rush of flavors:
fruits, sweets, and fleeting hints of deeper flavors. A deep spirit, and
just the tip of the iceberg.
Why I'm proud to be part of this business: Sam
Calagione and Jay Misson. Let me tell you: it's not as easy to pick
Sam Calagione as you might think. Sam's got his detractors: brewers
who think he's all show and no go, beer drinkers who think Dogfish Head is
inconsistent and a one-trick big beer pony. I know Sam Calagione, and
that's not him. Sam is one of the very best friends craft brewing has.
He is articulate, he is truly pushing the boundaries, he has not sold out
to anyone, and so long as Dogfish Head continues to make 60 Minute IPA,
all "big beer" complaints are just noise that fail to note this
wondrously well-balanced session beer. Sam thinks about this business in
ways that are simultaneously deeper and broader than almost anyone I
know...and as often as not, gives away those thoughts to whoever can use
them. Jay Misson was part of the very beginnings of the east
coast's micro-lager domination at Action Park, inspired a number of
excellent brewers...then went away to the west to train Gordon-Biersch
brewers. He's back, and Triumph is becoming a lager genius mother house
under his guidance. Jay brings people to lager beer appreciation not
through ranting and educating and signifying; he and brewers Tom
Stephenson and Patrick Jones simply brew excellent lager beers and lay
them before their customers. It is the soft sell, and it works like
Best interview I got this year: John Trogner of
Tröegs. I took way too long to get this
interview up on the site. John was at his geekiest, which I know some
of you like, and we got the real nuts and bolts on the new system. But he
showed his personal side as well, which is why we like him.
Best new brewery in the East: East
End Brewing. Scott Smith's starting small, in lowly surroundings,
but East End is off to a ripping start. You have to admire a one-man
operation that goes balls-out and does a fresh-hop ale on the east coast in
the brewery's first year. The beers are excellent, and Scott talks the
talk as well as walks the walk: he's thinking, he's making a difference as
well as a product with his concerns over environment. I love the optimism,
and I can't wait to see what 2006 is going to bring from East End, and
from the wave of new-minted breweries that looks to be coming in this
Best new brewpub in Pennsylvania: North
Country. I waited a long time for this place to open, and the waiting
was even harder once I'd seen it. It's worth the wait. I had no idea that
Jodi McCafferty could cook like that (wow on the soups and apps), the
atmosphere has been great since day one, the beer's excellent (no
surprise), and the place is just astounding. I need to stay here for about
three days, really soak it up, just drink, read a book, chat with the
locals...and I cannot think of a brewpub in PA where I'd rather be doing
that. Get off that beaten path and find this place.
Local stuff: the best and worst in
my corner of Pennsylvania
Best local brewery: Sly Fox. This brewery
is moving up to another level. They do a huge range of beers -- all well,
some exquisitely -- they are pushing their draft into new places, they
have plans for new beers, new markets. The annual IPA festival brings
sorely needed hop prestige to the east -- what other brewery puts on 11 of
their own IPAs at once? Specialty beers for special occasions, goat races
and bock tappings, Burns dinners and poetry readings, PA's first micro
canning line, big bottles of big beers, continued excellence at the
brewpub taps...It all adds up to not just the best local beers, but to the
best local beer advocacy (and no, I don't mean BeerAdvocate
in any way, shape, or form). I believe that Sly Fox is going to change the
beer scene in this area, and I think they've already started. Great moves,
guys. (What happened to Victory, the perennial winner of this
category? They've won the past two years, they're just as strong this
year, and I don't see them screwing up...but dammit, there are now some
other local brewers that are competing on their level. After I wrestled
with this one for days, my wife and Old
Jack (erm...thanks again, Jack) came up with the same suggestion: retire Victory in the
category. I like it. Consider Victory to be tied for this category until
further notice. Oh, and the fresh-hop Pilsner? Brilliant.)
Worst use of the Internet: The
continued inexplicable slamming of Monk's Cafe on a variety of beer
websites. Let me make this as clear as possible: Monk's is a
national treasure. Tom and Fergie have created a magnet that pulls the
best beers in the world to Philadelphia. Eulogy is a perfectly fine beer
bar with a great selection of Belgian beers, but it ain't Monk's. Neither
is Bridgid's or the Abbaye, and they have the sense to recognize this and
move on with being what they are. Now, stop it, or I'll eat
Best food in a bar: Monk's would rule this
category on the beer dinner desserts alone, so I am ruthlessly
retiring them from this category. (Even though Newsweek
referred to them as a "gastro-pub" and printed a picture of Tom
and Fergie; Gastro-pub? Sounds like a confused snail.) Therefore the
winners are the Thai Curry Mussels at the Grey
Lodge, which are spicy, clean, innovative, and addictive; and the Cuban
Sandwich at Sly Fox:
I'm pretty sure there are other good things on the menu at Sly Fox, but as
long as the Cuban is available, I'll be unable to try them. Talk about
addictive: the crunchy grilled bread, the gooey cheese on toothsome pig,
and the classic piquancy of pickle and mustard. Gawd, it's good.
Worst example of Pennsylvania’s gutless, worthless
legislature: Case law, anti-drinking law
proposals. The legislature, despite my best efforts, swallowed all
the propaganda the anti-alcohol forces fed them, and a package of
pointless and potentially harmful anti-drinking laws are up for
consideration. And the case law is still there. WHY? I may be taking a run
at the case law this year, we'll see what happens.
Best brewpub that you people just don't get: Triumph.
New Hope. Okay, so Triumph is in New Hope. It would have
been in Newtown if it hadn't been for the parking and the Quakers. Lagers.
Okay, so Triumph is making some outstanding, GABF medal-winning lagers.
They taste great and they're classics (and other folks love 'em). I guess
I just don't understand why more people aren't making the great combo trip
up to New Hope for the sight-seeing and the brewpub, because mark my
words: Triumph is a destination brewpub, and worth a trip for food and
drink. I want to hear more buzz about the place this year. You guys are
reading too much PhillyMag, I think.
Worst area brewpub: Crabby Larry's. Someone
has to say it: Crabby Larry's beer is just barely worth drinking. I love
the idea of a brewpub in a seafood market/restaurant, I absolutely love
it. But the execution leaves a lot to be desired. It could be better; I've
had better beers from extract systems. But it will take a homebrewer with
good practices. Any volunteers?
Best beer that you people just don’t get: Iron
Hill Anvil Ale. I never hear anything good about the Anvil Ale, and
I just don't get it. This one's a beauty, the real hidden gem in Iron
Hill's line-up. I used to go to the Pig Iron Porter, but I've been hitting
the Anvil for the past year. Luscious Brit hops and solid malt body make
this a great food beer and a mighty fine drinking beer. Try some soon.
Survivor Award: Legacy Brewing. Well, who else? Scott and Dave have come back from the wreckage of
Pretzel City (the brewing equipment of which may yet resurface in 2006 as
Tom Rupp's long-hatching brewing scheme), survived contract-brewing with
Henry Ortlieb, and look to be making a go of it in the formerly accursed
Neversink brewhole. They claim to be practically debt-free, they're
working with local artists (with somewhat
alarming results), they have a growing line of great beers. And,
um...they're planning a beer garden in Reading. Do that, guys, and you're
the best in my book. Welcome back!
Best Local Beer Event: Friday
the Firkinteenth. As we gear up for another Firkinteenth in less
than two weeks, I have to say: even when they're bad, they're good. Scoats
loads up the Grey Lodge with cask ale that brewers anxiously transport
there: weird stuff, hopped and spiced stuff, and just normal stuff. And
beer geeks come out of the woodwork to drink it, as do a bunch of normal
folks...which is what I really love about this event. I'm always excited
by the number of people I see at this Fest that I only see here. Great
time, and it's all about the beer.
Worst beer coverage in local press: "New
Hope Bar That Makes You Forget You're in New Hope: Triumph New Hope.
Not a single man in asschaps at this huge, casual, modern pub
that's a respite from the sweatsuit-filled streets of New Hope.
With outdoor seating and live music, this is the place for brews and pubby
food like burgers, or lamb shanks braised in amber ale." That's
right: with this amazing bit of casually homophobic suburb-slamming
as the only beer-related selection in their "Best of
Philly" issue, PhillyMag secures the award
three years in a row. Congratulations.
Best beer coverage in local press: Don
Russell. Easy call, since Don's Joe Six-pack column in the Daily
News is pretty much the only regular beer coverage locally, but it's
also very good. Don's empire is expanding, with a new Saturday night beer
show on WPHT AM-1210.
Worst problem with an otherwise excellent beer: Lancaster
Hop Hog IPA: The inexplicable difference between the fantastic
draft Hop Hog IPA and the dull and lifeless bottled Hop Hog.
I love this beer. It is a solid DIPA. But it just does not
come through in bottle. I continue to have problems with Lancaster's
bottles, while their draft continues as interesting and delicious as ever.
What's wrong, guys?
Best local beer website: Jack
Diet. Despite the lengthy year-end hiatus (and I
should talk), Jack continues to talk about local beer, local brewers, his
neighbors, national beer issues, and all that. Always a fun site, always
Best move by a Philly-area wholesaler: Tie:
Friedland selling to Kunda, or Kunda buying Friedland. Talk about the deal of the decade: Eddie
Friedland has sold his business to the Kundas,
an earthquake move in Philly's beer supply. Eddie's "book" has a
ton of great names, and it comes with Eddie on a five-year contract.
Congratulations to both parties for a smart move; Eddie got the money out
of a business he inherited from his dad and hustled into something even
bigger, and Kunda now has their chance to become the craft beer kings of
the five county area. Win-win for us with Kunda's resources (trucks,
warehouses, sales staff) married to Friedland's beers, contacts, and
account list. (Jack Curtin's got a very nice piece on this up on the Beer
Yard site, you should go read
Best beer scene: McMenamin's
Tavern. Small bar, tiny kitchen, huge beer love. McMenamin's is one
of those rare places where the big deal isn't the beer -- ohhh, look, they
have Hopsanmorehops, don't you want the Point Rocky Cuvee de Woowoo? --
but the bar and the people...who happen to drink the great beer PJ
McMenamin has on. I ought to have my butt kicked for only going to
McMenamin's a few times a year, but I tell folks about it all the time,
because I'd be here every week if I could. Great vibe, great food,
excellent beer...and nobody over the edge about it. Siddown, get a beer,
and talk to me.
Worst food in a bar: The
"frites" at Eulogy. These things are steak fries, just
big, dumb, planks o' spud that look like they came out of an Ore-Ida bag.
I love fries, but I left half of my order on the bar.
Best local brewers: The
brewers of Iron Hill. I can't give this award to just one of these
guys, and I sure couldn't give it to someone else this year, so I'm naming
the whole band of them as Best Local Brewers. They continue to please the
everyday palate with great standards (like the Anvil Ale above), they
continue to challenge the educated palate with beers that are anything but
everyday, including a stunning series of oak-aged and bug beers. I have no
qualms about visiting any Iron Hill; I know I'll get good service, good
food, and excellent beer.
Most surprising Philly area bar I was in this year:
Hotel, Ortino's Northside,
Jack's on the Manatawny, three winners out on the border
marches. All three of these bars have an excellent selection of beer that
is truly worth traveling for, and to have all three of them so relatively
close is a bonus. Spinnerstown is a pre-1800 classic that a growing
selection of top-end beers, a warm atmosphere, and smart staff. Ortino's
offers great food and a changing selection of draft beers that will
surprise you. But Union Jack's is the biggest surprise: a high
Philly-level beer selection (honestly, draft and bottle are just amazing)
with deeply knowledgeable staff in a warm comfortable bar (plus a
beautiful outdoor creekside deck in the summer)...down a tiny country road
across from a roller rink. Get out of the city a bit, and check these bars