Yeah, me neither, but I when ran across this year’s end awards list from those ancient times, I figured it might be fun reading for those of you who kept visiting these environs over my nearly month-long silence. I’ll try not to let that happen again. I have resisted the urge to edit out any of the embarrassing parts of what follows (you’ll know them when you see them) and ask you to be as merciful as you can.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
BREWER(S) OF THE YEAR/BREWERY OF YEAR: Ron Barchet and Bill Covaleski/Downingtown’s Victory Brewing Company. A repeat win for the pride of Downingtown and first time individual honors for Ron and Bill, Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside. Victory is best known for its signature HopDevil Ale, which gets raves from experts across the nation, but Storm King Imperial Stout and Prima Pils are my personal favorites among the dozen or so world-class Victory brews. And I hereby admit to anticipating a mutually beneficial relationship with the wonderful new Belgian Tripel-style Golden Monkey this coming winter. The most serious criticism you can mount against Victory is that the brewpub suffers a bit of ambiance-deficiency. We can live with that. The best we’ve got and lucky to have ‘em.
BEER OF THE YEAR: Yards Old Ale. Okay, Yards ESA is the sine qua non of Philly brews, ground zero for the craft beer revolution of the past half decade, but when I had to make a choice, I gave my heart to this tasty and extraordinary ale during the winter past. It was the first quarter keg I put on my home dispensing system in January and I haven’t regretted that for a minute. Old Ale is already penciled in for a return engagement this year…unless brewmaster Tom Kehoe decides to treat the world to a batch of his superb Entire Porter to celebrate the Millennium. In that case, I’ll have to make a tough choice or double the taps here at Liquid Diet Central. Decisions, decisions.
STEALTH BREWERY AWARD: Flying Fish Brewing Company. The Fish slides along smoothly through the increasingly troubled waters of local craft brewing, moving confidently just below the surface while beer fanciers concentrate on the latest Big Beer or wait for the local houses of cards to fall. Owner Gene Muller, head brewer Rick Atkins and their crew just keep on doing what they do well and increasing sales. Flying Fish is the first local brewery (and one of only 20 from the U.S.) invited to pour at the famous Great British Beer Festival in London this very week, so somebody’s taking notice.
THE HAND OF GOD AWARD: Sam Calagione. After we made Dogfish Head’s Main Man our Brewer of the Year last August, you’d think he’d have reached the apex of his profession, wouldn’t you? But Sam goes Really Big Time this month with a two-page accolade from international Beer Maven Michael Jackson in the September issue of All About Beer. Jackson recounts a visit to Dogfish Head’s Rehoboth Beach brewpub and along the way gives the world a striking portrait of Sam the Poet, Sam the Philosopher, Sam the Hunk and, oh yeah, Sam the Brewer. Trust me, when Jackson speaks, it’s gospel for geeks. A star is born.
BUSINESSMAN OF THE YEAR: Henry Ortlieb. There are those who think they can succeed with blather rather than beer. They are convinced that promising phantom brewpubs and talking IPOs rather than IPAs will somehow bring them success. Henry Ortlieb, on the other hand, keeps his mouth shut until the deal’s done. In recent months, he’s purchased the Dock Street label and product line, gotten back the right to use his own name on his beers and put both Dock Street Amber and the new Henry Ortlieb’s Select Lager in cans as well as bottles, the first local micro to open that potentially profitable door. Poor Henry’s Brewpub has hosted everything from Golden Gloves boxing to a massive beer festival and collectibles show. Running a business like a business. What a concept.
BEER EVENT OF THE YEAR: Manayunk Brew Fest. Yeah, yeah, in the end festivals are supposed to be all about the beer. Beers you’ve never had before. Beers served just the way they were in the Good Old Days. Beers….hey, in the beer festival crazy Spring, the events all ultimately run together into visions of a thousand little two-ounce tasting cups. But an afternoon outdoors on the Manayunk Brewpub deck overlooking the Schuylkill on the most beautiful day of the whole year? If they can come up with that kind of weather every year, count me in.
PUB OF THE YEAR: Monk’s Café. No contest. Monk’s is increasingly mentioned as one of the best beer bars in the country and who are we to argue? Heck, we said it first. The usual selection is mind-blowing, often featuring brews available nowhere else. The food is as good as the beer (I have so far resisted the urge to dab the addictive bourbon mayonnaise on the exquisite chocolate cake, but I figure it’s just a matter of time.) Owners Tom Peters and Fergus Carey are generous, gregarious and just a little bit wacky. The only tough part is deciding whether to sit at the up front bar and watch the world go by or head for the rear room where inviting tap handles sing their siren call. I figure, why not do both?
PUB OF THE YEAR (SUBURBS): The Drafting Room (Exton). I used to have this improbable vision of a top-notch bar and restaurant out here in the ‘burbs where lucky folks could readily quaff pints of the finest micros and imports. Then I discovered that just such a place already exists, an oasis nestled in the Colonial 100 shopping strip along Route 100 North. Kudos to owners Howard and Drew Weintraub and manager Patrick Mullin, who even list the date of each keg’s tapping so customers know just how fresh the beers are. A bit of paradise in a strip mall.
BREWPUB OF THE YEAR: Dock Street Brasserie. Brasserie? They’re not calling a brewpub any longer? Is that a good sign? Not to worry, friends. What is now the city’s oldest surviving brewpub is still turning out as broad and tasty a selection of on-site brews as you’ll find anywhere and the food is better than ever. If you haven’t been back in a while, you’re missing out on a Good Thing.
DISTRIBUTOR OF THE YEAR: The Beverage Store (Wayne). It’s not quite the same as Cheers, but chances are this is the distributorship where everybody will know your name. Of course, “everybody” is pretty much just owner Matt Guyer and trusty sidekick Matt Sauerbrey, but that’s enough. These guys know beer, they like beer, and they promote beer. A great selection, including some brands you won’t find elsewhere. If there’s a better place to grab a case or a keg, they must be giving it away for free.
RISING STAR (Brewer): Dan Weirback. Is it something in the water once you get past city limits? Victory out in Downingtown, Dogfish Head down in Delaware and Weyerbacher Brewing up north in Easton all seem to have thrived out in the wilderness. Now Weyerbacher’s Dan Weirback, I swear, brews more different beers than any one man should attempt and pulls it off. From Raspberry Stout to the recently introduced Hops Infusion, it all works. The Weyerbacher Brewpub, next to the brewery, makes you wish you lived in the neighborhood. Keep an eye on this boy.
RISING STAR (Pub): O’neal’s Saloon. Tom Mooney made no secret of his intentions for his family’s South Philadelphia bar when he took it over a while back. He wanted O’neal’s to be a “good beer bar.” He added taps, expanded to the second floor and doubled the bottled beers available. Mooney constantly promotes local brews with tastings and other events and has some of the neighborhood folks drinking Belgians these days. There’s good beer on South Street again. Okay, half a block off. Close enough for gummint work.
NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: Savage Beer. With the Dock Street brand name and logo sold off to Henry Ortlieb’s Original Philadelphia Brewing Company, Dock Street Brasserie head brewer Eric Savage decided to come up with a new beer he’d market under his own name. Good thing he wasn’t named “Lousy,” eh? Savage Beer has been an instant hit and its distinctive tap handle in the shape of an ancient spiked battle mace has become a familiar sight at better bars since Spring. A bottled version (brewed at Yards) should be hitting the shelves about now.
STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND: Grey Lodge Pub. The clever li’l publican known as Scoats has done the seemingly impossible over the past five years, turning a former neighborhood tappie on Frankford Avenue into a good beer oasis in, of all places, the Northeast. Firkin Fridays, featuring fresh casks gravity tapped atop the bar, have become a Grey Lodge institution, along with the Tomato Pie, a pizza with the cheese beneath the sauce long before the Big Boys thought of it. Well worth a visit. Okay, nobody goes to the Northeast just for a beer, but if you’re ever in the area….
HAIL AND FAREWELL: Sam Adams Brewhouse. The city’s first modern brewpub (1989) did more with extract brewing than anybody thought possible, but the taps went dry in June. Who knows what might rise in its place? Well, just about everybody, but nobody’s talking….
ICONOCLAST OF THE YEAR: Jim Anderson, Beer Philadelphia. In an area where the regular press seems not care at all about the brewing community and at a time when regional beer publications are dying out, Beau James is, aside from a few frustrated columnists, the only game in town. His idiosyncratic and entirely opinionated beer magazine informs and inveighs, amuses and angers. He sets his own standards, marches to his own different drum, takes his shots and keeps on ticking. Admit it, you read every page.
WORLD’S GREATEST BAR: Dawson Street Pub. I told you last year: Just Because. Don’t make me have to say it again.