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The Buzz

A Beerfly's view. If you see anything here that seems crazy, click here.

Fresh Buzz

Vintage Buzz

2005 Buzz

Dec. '05: Look at Me Drink!

Nov. '05: Malt Monsters

Oct. '05: Sweetness

Sep. '05: When to Fold

Aug. '05: Little Nightmares

July '05: American Spirit

June '05: Miller Time 

May. '05: Breathing Beer 

April '05: Now It's Personal

Mar. '05: 7% Ain't Enough

Feb. '05: Down to 18 

Jan. '05: Best of 2004 

2004 Buzz

Dec. '04: Joys of the Dark 

Nov. '04: The Next Store 

Oct. '04: Beer's Image 

Sept. '04: Clearly Insane 

August '04: Love of Lager

July '04: Speak Up!

June '04: Get Drafted

May '04: Shedding Tiers

April '04: Keg Party

March '04: Ultra Madness

February '04: Case Law

January '04: Best of 2003

2003 Buzz

Dec. '03: Wine good!

Nov. '03: Say Anything

Oct. '03: Shots at Saveur

Sept. '03: Pay For It!

August '03: Subtlety

July '03: RIP, Corner Bar

June '03: Screw 'Em!

May '03: Extreme Beer?

April '03: Liquor Taxes

March '03: St. Patrick's

February '03: Coffee

January '03: Taxes


January, 2006

The Best of 2005

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 Hedonism.

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 ask.

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 deserve.)

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 it.

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 magic. 

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 year.

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 your mussels.

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 Curtin's Liquid 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 informative.

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 it.) 

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:  Spinnerstown Hotel, Ortino's Northside, and Union 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 out. 


Copyright © 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: February 01, 2006