The Nostalgia Series: (Liquid Diet “Best of…” 2009)

(Over the years, I have written my account of the beginning of the good beer revolution in this part of the world in many articles and venues. Here’s what I was thinking six years ago. One of a set, collect them all.)

2009: It was fun while it lasted.

It’s time for Uncle Jack’s Annual Local Beer Awards Show once again! Actually, it’s about a week ahead of time, but when you have a major snow storm that kills the whole weekend and gives the staff a lot of free time to write, this is what happens.

We’ve done this like they do the Academy Awards this time around, only without all the self-centered hosts and crap in between the awards. Basically, that means we start off with a biggie or two to reel you in, then slow the pace a bit and steadily build up to the grand finale while you keep looking a your watches. No fair scrolling ahead.

One way we definitely part company with those fancier awards ceremonies: streaking is permitted, even encouraged.

NEW BEER OF THE YEAR – Weyerbacher Zotten. I love this beer. All hail to head brewer Chris Wilson, brewer Dan Hitchcock and production manager Chris Lampe. The brain trust in Easton usually has the wisdom to add the best of its one-off or seasonal brews to the year-round list. If that doesn’t happen with Zotten, Mr. Weirback has got him some serious ‘splainin’ to do.

SORTA NEW BEER OF THE YEAR – Victory WildDevil. There are a lot of people who really don’t get WildDevil; I often get those looks when I say it’s one of my current favorites. Let’s put it this way: they are wrong . Victory scores not just because I find the beer very enjoyable, but also for the sheer genius of taking an old familiar standard and turning it into something quite different. They get points too for reinterpreting their Saisonas Helios.

DRAUGHT ONLY BEER OF THE YEAR – Sly Fox Chester County Bitter. It’s not really draught in the broadest sense, but Cask Ale of the Year was too limited a category and that heading reads better than You Can Only Get It At a  Bar Beer of the Year, dunnit? This long-promised release is  a true cask ale and it’s dead-on perfect. Plus it is in the distribution system, available not just at the two Sly Fox locations but also at those taverns and pubs willing to do the extra work to give their customers a special treat. Also not to be discounted is that this presents ample opportunity for us peons to regularly pester Brian O’Reilly for more real cask releases. What’s not to like?

HIGH-POWERED MONOLITHIC CORPORATION TAKING OVER (ALMOST) THE ENTIRE DELAWARE VALLEY AWARD – Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant. Now that they’ve finally conquered New Jersey (a strange dream, that, but they made it come true as they do most of the things they set their sights on), it’s almost impossible to not get an Iron Hill brew in these parts—unless you’re in the City of Philadelphia itself, of course. We can only hope that one day the economics will work out and that deplorable situation can be rectified. Meanwhile, go West, young man. Or North. Or South. Or East.

BEST PALATE EVER AWARD – Suzy Woods. Going where no male beer writer dared, Suzie Woods entered and finished second in the first Memphis Taproom Mystery Beer Weekend event in 2008 by a point or two, then won it going away in 2009. Impressive. Pity the poor brewer who might have to try and keep up with the lady. Note: I almost called this the That Girl’s Got a Mouth on Her Award, but decorum prevailed.

BEST ARTISTIC ACHIEVEMENT- Earth Bread + Brewery.
I was very taken with some of the artwork coming out of Philadelphia Brewing Company in 2009 , but EB+B’s new mural across the outside wall (part of the city’s impressive Mural Arts Program and done by local resident Brian Ames) blew me away. It is not only a striking work, the whole project further cements Tom & Peggy’s rep for “getting it.” They’ve made EB+B part of much that is good and special about a city which is lucky to have them. Good neighbors make good beer, or whatever the poet said.

CREATIVE THINKING AWARD – Teresa’s Next Door. When the Main Line’s best beer location brought in Sam Calagione for a Philly Beer Week luncheon last March 10, there was clearly something different about the food as it arrived at the table: every course was off-centered on the plate, a homage to Dogfish Head’s famous slogan. Brilliant and subtle.

PERSONALITY WE WILL NEVER REPLACE. – Gary Bredbenner. His was one of the most familiar faces in the crowd on the local beer scene, most famously at the Grey Lodge Pub, where he almost seemed to be part of the ambiance. To many, he was just that funny, happy little guy who always had a pint, maybe two, in his hand. If you read all the online remembrances after his sudden, tragic death in October, you now know that a very special part of our communal heart is gone forever.

THE LEW BRYSON DELAYED GRATIFICATION AWARD – Dan Bengel. Mr. Bryson, who currently holds the title of America’s Most Beloved Beer Writer (© Jack Curtin’s Liquid Diet 2009)—a honorific he has asked be retired, which is under consideration at the very highest levels of management here at Liquid Diet (the voting is going to be close and your input is invited)—has still not finished his online account of a six-day trip to the Czech Republic after nearly five years. I figured he was setting a record I’d never see topped. Big Dan Bengel, however, is, as best I can tell, currently somewhere early in the early morning of Day Three in his report of a ten-day (Two week? Who can remember?) trip the Usual Suspects made to Belgium in the Spring of 2008. At this rate, he will eventually blow away Bryson’s questionable accomplishment with ease.

CLEVEREST MARKET EXPANSION AWARD – Philadelphia Brewing Company. How do you open, say, the Pittsburgh market if you’re a Philadelphia craft brewery? Well, you can go out and visit with various wholesalers there, seeing what’s the best deal you can get, then work out shipping. Or you can clap your former operations manager, who’s relocating to the Steel City, on the back, buy him a truck and rent him space in a Pittsburgh warehouse, taking advantage of the Pennsylvania law which allows a brewery to open two additional facilities anywhere in the state. It’s even easier if you rent that warehouse from a shipping company which has a location right outside Philadelphia so they can move fresh beer westward for you weekly. Somebody really ought to game the system like this….oh, wait.

WEBSITE OF THE YEAR – Suzy Woods. She does a super job covering the Philly bar scene and often makes me laugh out loud at some of her antics, but this award is mostly because, as the days dwindled down to a precious few, Ms. Woods gave in, foreswore her strange love of the Brown and redesigned her site into a bright, clean readable venue which is a joy to the eyes, abandoning I’ll Have Another Stout as its name in favor of the simpler, says-it-all Beerlass.  Gotta admit, that old site, it done give me headaches.

WRITER OF THE YEAR – Lew Bryson. This one is long overdue. Big and bold, foil and friend, Lew is one of the most influential voices in the drinks press (even if one benighted soul sometimes pokes fun at him—I’ll never understand that). The Big Guy is ever-present on the web, breaking news, promoting beer and booze and tilting at his favorite windmill. He’s all over the printed page in a variety of publications as a columnist and feature writer. And and he’s got those great regional beer guides, including a new one on New Jersey (with Mark Haynie) this year and a revised Pennsylvania edition coming next year. Also, you can always hear him coming. There’s a lot to be said for that.

PUBLICANS OF THE YEAR – Brendan Hartranft & Leigh Maida. Maintain the high standards at the great pub they created in 2008? Check. Open a second successful pub in another under-served part of the city? Check. Oh, what the hell, rinse and repeat, and go for a third pub? Check. Do all this while having a baby? Not a problem. This pair was second to multi-location Iron Hill in the “Taking Over the World” category, which pretty much says it all.  We’d urge everybody else in the business to embrace their work ethic and creativity, but then we’d have a great beer bar on every block in the city and…hey, come to think of it, that would not be such a bad thing. Get crackin’, you other publicans.

BEER EVENT OF THE YEAR – Phoenixville PBW Pub Crawl. Yes, obviously Philly Beer Week itself was the big major beer celebration of the year past, as it will likely be every year, but we can’t just retire the award by giving it to the winner every year, can we? Besides, this one-day celebration of good brew was an astonishing success, filling every participating venue to capacity and creating an overflow crowd all along Bridge St., a crowd which was happy, fully under control and a prime example that beer people is good people. Let’s have a hand for organizers Mark Edelson (Iron Hill) and Brian O’Reilly (Sly Fox).

WHOA! We have us a tie on one of our major categories and ain’t it nice that it’s between the two longest surviving breweries in Philadelphia (we have designated Cherry Hill as East Philly for dramatic purposes here; live with it).

BREWERY OF THE YEAR – Flying Fish Brewing Co. – Brewmaster Casey Hughes and his team (lead brewer Drew Perry, brewery/cellarman Lawrence George, packaging supervisor Jim Brennan, package & bottling guys Mike Zarsecke and Dave Kovalchick) followed up 2008’s first-ever GABF medal in 2008 with two more this year, including a Gold for the much-praised Exit 4. The Fish has rolled along, mostly below the radar, from back in the mid-’90s when founder Gene Muller anticipated a world most of us never saw coming and created his brewery as a virtual entity online; these days everybody knows they’re a player in the nation’s best beer region.

BREWERY OF THE YEAR – Yards Brewing Co. Oh, ye of little faith… There were a few doubters as Yards spent the better part of 2008 struggling to get its new brewery up and running but the ever-smiling Tom Kehoe and new sidekick Steve Mashington assured us all would be well, making a down payment on that promise with the release of Yards Brawler last fall, my 2008 Beer of the Year. 2009 has been full steam ahead for what was once The Little Brewery That Could when the city’s craft beer scene crashed into turmoil at the end of the last century. The money guys died and they survived. All the beers are spot on and the big question is whether Philly Pale Ale or ESA is the one Yards beer you really must have to get a proper Philadelphia vibe. Lets hear a shout out for the brewing team (Tim Roberts, Frank Winslow, Mitch Albach and Andrew Rutherford) and the guys who work the lines, stack the cases and do the heavy lifting.

STORY OF THE YEAR – Craft Beer Keeps On Keepin’ On. It’s not just a local story, obviously, but it has been strongly evident in these parts in the across-the-board growth of all our major breweries, the slew of new good beer locations which opened over the past 12 months and the ever-improving taps at so many, many locations that wouldn’t even consider craft beers not long ago. That all this has been duplicated across the nation in the current economic climate is probably as strong an indicator as there is of the strength and potential of crafts. If you must have a local angle, GABF recognition of two of our wholesalers, Origlio Beverage and Muller Inc., was right in tune with the larger story.

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