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Liquid Diet Online

by Jack Curtin

I drink no cider,
but feast on Philadelphia beer.

--John Adams, in a letter to his wife Abigail

ARCHIVE: 6 September - 15 September 2002

WELCOME. If you've wandered in here before Sunday, September 8, 2002, it turns out you're a bit early for the party. Sorry about that.

Liquid Diet Online will launch that date and offer ongoing regular coverage of the Philadelphia area beer scene and beyond (well beyond, if things go as planned). Call it a weblog, or "blog," although one without the anal retentiveness of daily posting.

As it turns out--and it was pure luck--this is great time to launch. The last few days have already seen the Pizza Port Beer Dinner at Monk's Cafe and a Belgian Beer Dinner at Sly Fox Brewhouse & Eatery. Tomorrow is the annual Kennett Square Microbrew Festival and next week brings yet another Monk's beer dinner (featuring Flossmore Station Restaurant & Brewery) and the first of two Friday the Firkenteenths this year at the Grey Lodge Pub.


The first three of those will be covered in the initial posting on Sunday and the others will be dealt with next week. Plus whatever else crosses the bar in our direction....

So look around a bit now if you like, but be sure and come back later. Meanwhile, if you wondering how this all came about, you can get the details here.[posted Friday, September 6, 2002 5:00 pm edt]

LAST WEEK WAS A PHILADELPHIA BEER GEEK'S WET DREAM. It started at the city's best known beer emporium where rarely-seen-in-these-parts west coast beers were poured.

Mid-week, things kept perking at the first-ever beer dinner held in the slowly revitalizing industrial town of Phoenixville, just west of Valley Forge.

And it ended satisfactorily, albeit under extremely crowded conditions, at a gathering of 2000-plus thirsty revelers at a beer festival in Your Humble Scribe's hometown, the "Mushroom Capital of the World."

MONK'S CAFE PIZZA PORT BEER DINNER, September 3, 2002. Monk's Cafe is one of the two places every beer aficionado considers a "must" visit when arriving in Philadelphia (Standard Tap is the other). Tom Peters built his considerable reputation on his knowledge of--and ability to procure--Belgian beers that were widely unavailable on these shores. He and partner Fergus Carey have made Monk's the place where you can be almost certain to find, often on draft, a Belgian or two you've never tasted before, indeed, never heard of before, in some cases.

Add in their near-legendary Belgian beer dinners (an All Lambic Dinner a couple of years back was not only historic but likely to never be duplicated) featuring Michael Jackson, and you can understand the attraction.

But Peters is not resting on his laurels. Beginning with a dinner last November celebrating Long Island's Southampton Publick House and the beers of Phil Markowski, Monk's has instituted a series of dinners featuring well-known and respected brewpubs from other sections of the country, giving Philadelphians a chance to taste their brews.

This is, it strikes me, in some ways even more of a service to local beer geeks than the Belgian series. The way things work these days, Monk's will feature the American debut of some hard-to-get Belgian and that beer will turn up on other taps or in bottles at your local distributorship a few months thereafter. This is not a bad thing, understand. The point is, the brewpub beers Peters is bringing here are much harder to come by without traveling afar.

On September 3, Monk's presented the second dinner in the series, featuring brewer Tomme Arthur of Pizza Port, located in Port Solano Beach, north of San Diego.

The star of the evening was Arthur's most famous beer, Cuvee de Tomme, a sour Belgian ale (11% abv) which has won Silver Medals at the last two Great American Beer Festivals and was named Domestic Beer of the Year in 2001 by Malt Advocate magazine. Served with a Duck Confit Spring Roll and a sauce combining sour cherries and the beer itself, it came across as one of the finest beers I've had in recent months.

Tablemates Rich Pawlak, of The Golden Age of Beer in Philadelphia Tour, and George Hummel, of Home Sweet Homebrew, found, respectively, hints of bourbon and vanilla amidst the sourness, flavors later acknowledged by Arthur himself when he joined us for a chat. He also noted that the pairing of the beer with entree was "the best ever."

The beer was from the second batch of Cuvee (a third is in the works) and co-brewer Jeff Bagley told me after dinner that so far Cuvee has been dead on in both brewings. He also said the owners of Pizza Port limit the amount and times their beers, especially the Cuvee, are allowed to be served off premises. The following night, at Washington, D.C's Brickskeller, the evening would feature their maltier, non-Belgian brews.

Dinner started off with Pizza Port's Saison 2002 (6.7% abv), accompanied by Seafood Sausage poached in the beer and lightly coated with a ginger sauce. Marvelous stuff, touted by one knowledgable attendee whose tastes I trust, "the best spiced saison I ever tasted." I found it interesting to compare and contrast it (as we used to say in high school English class) with one of those "unexpected" Monk's drafts which I found in the famed Back Room before dinner, Fantome Saison. The two are very different, of course (Fantome is drier, fruiter and less spicy), but I wouldn't kick either one off the barstool next to me.

Pizza Port's Farmhouse Ale (8.75% abv) was served with the third course, Smoked Opah Sandwich (made with portabello mushroom "bread") and Oak-Aged Farmhouse Ale accompanied the entree, the traditional "big honkin' piece of meat" characteristic of Monk's dinners, Braised Lamb Shank.

Dessert, a wonderful (and huge) Warm Peach Cobbler with Ginger Gelato, was matched with Acacia Amber Ale (9.25 abv), described by Pizza Port as "probably one of the weirdest beers we have ever made." Made with dried cranberries, orange peel and cranberry honey, among other ingredients, it proved to be a great dessert beer.

On a great night.

COMING UP NEXT. Over the next 48 hours, I'll post my impressions of the other two events noted in the opening paragraph above, the Sly Fox Brewhouse and Eatery Belgian Beer Dinner and the Kennett Square Microbrew Festival. Stay tuned.

OH WAIT! WHATEVER HAPPENED TO.... OK, I can't leave without offering the answer to one of the long-running questions among Philadelphia beer folks, which I learned at the Kennett Square event.

Here's where you can learn whatever happened to Jon Zangwill? and get other local beer news.[posted Sunday, September 8, 2002 5:20 pm edt]

SLY FOX BREWHOUSE BELGIAN BEER DINNER, September 5, 2002. It was the first-ever beer dinner in the seven-year history of this Phoenixville pub (my local, I probably should confess upfront) and I doubt anyone can argue it was anything less than a smash success.

Brewer Brian O'Reilly, who earned his bones (and a GABF Gold Medal) at the late and unlamented New Road Brew House in nearby Collegeville, then worked in the trenches at Victory Brewing while a proposed brewpub venture in West Chester died on the vine, has been wowing the Sly Fox crowd since he arrived there this past spring (aside from a few whiners on PubCrawler that no one at the pub ever seems to have met) and had nine (count 'em, nine) brews ready the five-course meal.

Chef Paul Santos was a bit cautious at first when the concept was presented to him (my impression, perhaps not accurate), but embraced it in the end and put together an impressive menu of Belgian Endive, Asparagus & Mandarin Orange Slices with a Wit Beer Vinaigrette, Mussels with Leeks & Garlic cooked in Saison, Chimay and other Trappist Cheese with Fresh Fruit, Dubbel Roasted Duck Confit over Stoemp (a Belgian dish combining mashed potatoes and vegetables) and Stout-Infused Chocolate Raspberry Cake.

Owner Pete Giannapolus appeared to alternate between bemusement and amusement.

Not to worry. Within a few minutes of a sell-out crowd gathering on the upper level at Sly Fox, it was clear that, aside from the inevitable glitches that a "first ever" event like this always encounters (I bet the servers never expected how often they'd be going up and down those stairs), things were going to be just fine.

O'Reilly used the dinner to introduce his Incubus Tripel, a high-octane (10.5% abv) brew that will be served only on the first Friday of each month until it runs out or the next batch is brewed in the summer of 2003. Paired with C-Quest Dubbel, a beer whose naming I needs must explain here one day soon, it was well-matched with the entree course.

But if "star status" was intended for Incubus, truth is that had to be shared with Renard d'Or, a strong Belgian ale introduced in early summer which aged magnificently over the months.

Other beers during the evening were Pikeland Pils (essentially the same beer which won that GABF Gold Medal), White Horse Wit, Saison Vos (also new to most of the crowd), Abbey Xtra (a Belgian single, which is a rare style), Black Raspberry Wheat and O'Reilly's Irish Stout.

I sat with a pair of old pals, beer writers Lew Bryson (the World's Loudest Beer Writer, actually) and Dale Van Wieren (along with wife Leslie). Lew writes for Ale Street News, Dale for Mid-Atlantic Brewing News and I ply my skills occasionally in the pages of Celebrator Beer News, so we were able, and willing as is our wont, to pontificate at length.

Lew is also the author of Pennsylvania Breweries, a marvelous volume now in its second edition (which I had to purchase for myself); Dale was kind enough to give me a copy of his American Breweries II at the dinner. I don't have a beer book (or book of any sort, comes to that) with which to reciprocate to either of them, so I hereby direct them to Truth Is the Perfect Disguise, which is my novel in progress. Perpetual progress, it appears, but that's another story.

Bryson, as those who know him will undoubtedly agree, is one of those people our parents warned us about, the very definition of "bad companion," as in "I fell in with bad companions last night..." (usually said with great chagrin). Nothing would do but that I accompany him to Victory Brewing after dinner was completed. This was, in a way, the culmination of a previously unfinished journey. We had arrived at Sly Fox late one night last March on our way to Victory (about 20 minutes down the road in Downingtown) and instead ending up closing the place with Giannapolus.

And so Victory it was, where we sampled ESB and Porter from the tanks and a pint of Hersbrucker Pils, the latest in the innovative series of Varietal Pilsners being produced there. God help us, we then got back to Sly Fox in time to have a final pint with O'Reilly, a few hardy regulars and the waitstaff.

Friday was a hard day, my friends, but not so difficult that I didn't have an hour or two to stop back at the pub and enjoy watching a large crowd roll in to taste samplers of all the Sly Fox Belgians (on draft throughout the weekend) and a glass or two of Incubus, which will not appear again until October 5.[posted Monday, September 9, 2002 8:15 pm edt]

KENNETT SQUARE MICROBREW FESTIVAL, September 7, 2002. When I was just a lad growing up in Kennett Square, the self-proclaimed "Mushroom Capital of the World," nestled in the beauty of Southern Chester County, the idea of thousands of people crowding into a tent in the center of town to consume craft beers from 20 or so fine breweries would have been so alien a concept as to warrant not even laughter, but puzzlement and confusion.

Which maybe only shows how long ago it was that I grew up, but I like to see it as a sign that, no matter how difficult the struggle and now disdainful the attitudes of the nay-sayers, what unfolded on those formerly sleepy streets this past Saturday is pretty good evidence that the interest in good beers and good brewers is now part of the public gestalt. People do care, and probably more of them than we think.

It's not that Kennett Square is a backwater. Even in those long ago days of my youth, the presence of nearly Longwood Gardens and the visitors it attracted, plus the influence of new residents drawn to the area as a result of employment at The duPont Company in Wilmington, Delaware (about a half hour drive away) gave us a bit more sophistication than we perhaps deserved.

In fact, these days good beer is part of the local ambiance, festival or not. The venerable Kennett Kandy Kitchen, for decade's the town's central meeting and dining spot (stretching back to the '20s), has been transformed into the Half Moon Restaurant and Saloon, a lovely place with 17 draft beers, most of them micros or imports, three beer engines and an admirable bottle list.

I guess what I find reassuring (and this may well be nothing other than a subconscious desire to attach significance to a locale I know and remember fondly) is that, while the brewfest gained a foothold six years ago as part of the annual Kennett Square Mushroom Festival (which celebrated its 17th anniversary last weekend), it appears to have established an identity of its own while continuing to be the central Saturday afternoon activity of the larger celebration.

Ah, but enough with the history and nostalgia. We're hear to talk about beer.

Easier said than done, in this case.

There is such a thing as Too Much Success and that was the case at Kennett Saturday. Festival organizers were prepared for about 1500 people (based on 1000 pre-sales), and pretty much stretched to the limit to handle a crowd of that size. But 2000-plus people poured through the turnstiles before everybody stopped counting!

The end result was as crammed a beerfest as I've ever tried to work my way through. Locals will understand when I say it made Manayunk seem like a deserted beach.

The event was scheduled from 2-6 PM, but most brewers were out of beer before 5:00, a few hardly made it past the first hour. At times, especially when a few attendees pushing large baby carriages were in the center of things, movement inside the tent was at a dead standstill. The food line, unfortunately outside the tent perimeter in the broiling sun, was also deadly slow, even though a second serving table was added this year. Happily, most every took it all in good spirits and seemed to have a fine time.

I'd guess the folks running this thing will have to make some changes for next year, finding more space and either selling tickets exclusively prior to the event or limited sales at the door. For what it's worth, here's my suggestion for another useful change:

Get rid of the little plastic cups and build the price of a small commemorative glass into the ticket. That way, rather than having people coming up to brewers' tables asking for five and six cups at a time and workers having to scramble at the end to make sure enough cups are available, things should be a bit more stable.

The most interesting beer I managed to get a taste of in the middle of all the above was Biere d'Art from Tom Baker of Heavyweight Brewing in New Jersey. He was pouring bottles of this new farmhouse ale (which he may not do again and which isn't going to be generally available in Pennsylvania, it appears) along with his draft beers and I was lucky enough to be gifted with one, which is beckoning me even as I type.

I talked and sipped with Dan Weirback about the repackaging and marketing of his beers from Weyerbacher Brewing in Easton and discussed his big new brewery with Sam Calagione of Delaware's Dogfish Head Brewery and will report what I learned in the days to come. Also talked to Jon Zangwill, new head brewer at Flying Fish, a story which is linked further down this already too long page.

The overcrowded conditions plagued us even after things were done, when our small traveling party was unable to get in the doors of the Half Moon, much less get a table and some brew. But there's always a silver lining: instead we traveled up the road to McKenzie Brew House in Chadds Ford where I finished the day's work with brewer Scott Morrison's excellent Pils and absolutely delightful bottle-conditioned Tripel White.[posted Tuesday September 10, 2002 4:00 pm edt]

MONK'S CAFE FLOSSMOOR STATION BEER DINNER, September 10, 2002. Monk's has gone high-tech on us. Difficult though this will be for many of you to comprehend, be advised that the sound system there now actually works the way a sound system is supposed to work.

No, really. When a speaker gets up to tell you about the beers you're drinking or about to drink, you can hear and understand every word.

I can't wait for the next Michael Jackson appearance.

Given that quantum leap into the 21st Century, you no doubt suspect I'm going to tell you that the best part of this Tuesday past's beer dinner featuring the beer of Flossmoor Station Restaurant & Brewery was that I was able to hang onto every word spoken by perennial emcee George Hummel of Home Sweet Homebrew, right?

It is to laugh.

Brewer Todd Ashman's beers blew me away. I can't recall another time when, faced with so many different beers and styles from a brewer with whom I was unfamiliar, I've been as dazzled by the quality and consistency of each and every one.

This guy is good. What the hell is he doing way out in Illinois where I can't get to him readily? I'd insist that he move closer except that I've made a policy not to mess with anybody that big (a policy which has served me well, I might add).

The evening started with a relatively new beer from Ashman, Framboise de Flossmoor, a lovely concoction which offers its fruit tastefully rather than with the soda pop aggressiveness of some more famous versions I could name. The batch we were tasting was about 2.5 months old and started as a Belgian Wit which was transformed by the addition of 280 lbs. of raspberry puree two days into the brew, along with grape concentrate. "We wanted the fruit and the color of a traditional Framboise and I think we got it," said Ashman.

One of my two favorites of the evening was up next, Todd & Bill's Excellent IPA, made with Amarillo hops (I say we put Cascades on the shelf for a bit and go with this one, fellas) and big enough to stand up to chef Adam Glickman's inspired pairing of tangy Pickled Oyster Salad with Caviar. "An incredible match," according to Ashman.

Todd's Tupelo Triple, made with 120 lbs. of Tupelo honey in lieu of Belgian candy sugar, was equally well matched with Roasted Quail with Tupelo Honey Glaze, and Old Conundrum Barleywine (a batch aged in a Jack Daniels Cask) was well served by a delicious Mussel Bisque.

Two brews made with molasses were served with Venison & Leek Dumpling as the main course (reading down the menu so far, you figured by now we'd hit a main course and were coming around again, didn't you?). Pullman Brown Ale, Flossmoor Station's signature beer (and my second favorite of the night) is a hefty 9.5% abv and not quite what it professes to be ("It's probably really closer to a porter," Ashman confessed). The second beer, Ashman's Abbeye Dubbel, also uses molasses instead of Belgian candy sugar.

The barleywine made a repeat appearance at dessert (Bittersweet Chocolate Brownie with Jack Daniels Ice Cream), this time a batch aged in a virgin oak cask. Not on the menu but earning a place in our hearts was a "surprise" brew, Imperial Eclipse Stout, which ended the evening. Okay, the "official" evening.

At every previous Monk's dinner I've attended, I've been seated at one of the tables, but this time I was at the bar, which turns out a wonderful place to be, given the way the beer flows.

Maybe it was because I was seated next to a Movers & Shakers lineup consisting of Kurt Decker & Brandon Greenwood (Nodding Head Brewery), Tom Kehoe (Yards Brewing), Sam Calagione (Dogfish Head) and Matt Guyer (The Beer Yard ). Let me tell you, I am now privy to a whole slew of secrets which I can easily be bribed to reveal. Catch me at the bar.

I might have learned even more, had things gones as planned. The now mysterious and elusive Jim Anderson, founder and entire staff of of Beer Philadelphia , was listed to sit with us, but he wandered in late and plopped himself down at the main table. Just as well. That dress shirt and tie would have undoubtedly messed with our ambiance.[posted Thursday, September 12, 2002 3:45 pm edt]

BLACK CATS & CASK BEERS. There's no such thing as bad luck for Philadelphia area beer lovers on Friday the Thirteenth these days. Rather than avoiding ladders and black cats, we get to embrace the finest local brews in cask-conditioned splendor, thanks to Mike "Scoats" Scotese and his Grey Lodge Pub.

Friday the Firkenteen has become a local institution and I'll have all the details on tonight's activities posted here over the weekend. Meanwhile, though, I've stolen a quote by one very satisfied attendee from the Grey Lodge web site to give you some flavor of the thing (I feel perfectly justified in doing so because the one being quoted happens to be me):

This whole thing makes no sense whatsoever. It's totally random because the timing is entirely at the mercy of the calendar. It's held in this tiny neighborhood bar in Northeast Philadelphia, an area which is not exactly your mecca for great beer. Yet virtually every brewer within shouting distance would kill to be a part of it and people come from all over to stand shoulder-to-shoulder and hope they can get a beer from bartenders who are incredibly overworked. Scoats is either a genius or an idiot savant, I can't decide which. But God bless him.

I'm especially looking forward to trying the cask version of Flying Fish OktoberFish, the brewery's first lager which was released this week. I had a sneak preview about ten days ago and was struck by a noticeable tobacco-y finish. It was actually quite pleasant, but unexpected in an Oktoberfest, so I want to see if I get the same flavor tonight.

And since Sam Calagione was kind enough to give me a bottle-conditioned sample of his big and hoppy Dogfish Head 60-Minute IPA at Monk's earlier this week, I want to compare my impressions of that version with cask-conditioned 90-Minute IPA.

Oh hell, who am I kidding? I'm anxious to try all ten beers in the lineup. I do it all for you, of course.

WESTWARD HO. The weekend report will also cover Saturday's annual Capitol City Invitational Beer Festival at the Appalachian Brewery in Harrisburg.

If you're keeping count, that makes six major beer events in 12 days in these parts. Philadelphia remains a surprisingly well-kept secret as a flourishing and always interesting "good beer city" and I can't for the life of me figure out why.

"IN PHILLY, LAGER MEANS YUENGLING." That's the title of Joe Sixpack's column today in the Philadelphia Daily News and it should make interesting reading for any of you who are not familiar with the way family-owned Yuengling Brewery (America's oldest) has established itself in this market. Yuengling either beats or comes damned close to beating Budweiser in sales volume in this market and has managed to become indelibly identified with the generic "lager" in almost every region where it is sold.

Those regions are becoming more numerous every year. Sixpack predicts Yuengling will be the nation's fifth largest brewery by year's end, given its double digit growth in a stagnant market.

Interesting reading and welcome confirmation that the good guys do win sometimes. [posted Friday, September 13, 2002 12:00 pm edt]

FRIDAY THE FIRKENTEENTH, GREY LODGE PUB, September 13, 2002. The two outstanding beers at the Grey Lodge Pub Friday night, at least in my not-so-humble opinion, were Nodding Head Hop Bitch and Heavyweight Stickenjab, followed closely by Sly Fox Pale Ale. Based upon consumption, the evening's winner was Flying Fish OktoberFish, followed by the Nodding Head and Sly Fox brews.

And since I raised the issue in this posting yesterday: no, there wasn't any strong tobacco flavor in the O'Fish on draft. No surprise in that, actually. What we've come to depend on from Flying Fish is drinkable, on-style and sure-to-be-successful beers and that's surely what O'Fish is.

As for my plans to report on Dogfish Head 90-Minute IPA on cask, they went a bit awry. Actually, my plan was perfect. It was the keg that went awry. I don't know if it was because of the keg being mishandled or the result of some mysterious brewing thing which happened inside it, but the beer first poured thick and filled with yeast, then went clear and crisp as it is supposed to be and later turned yeasty once again. At one point. I was standing asking brewer Sam Calagione, who was holding a pint of the "thick" version, about it, while next to me one of my traveling companions held a glass in which the same beer was bright and clear. Weird.

I didn't get to every beer (Victory ESB and Yards Philadelphia Pale Ale slipped by me), but here are quick impressions of those I did sample: Barley Creek Chocolate Porter (a bit thin, lacking the chocolate and/or coffee flavor that one should expect), General Lafayette Old Curmudgeon (a very drinkable Old Ale, I'd have to have a full pint or two to make any final judgement) & Iron Hill Ironbond Ale (Iron Hill's cask ales always seem so good at the pubs and never quite so at Firkin Fridays; I wonder why?).

About the only time I get talk with Heavyweight's Tom Baker and Peggy Zwerver is at beer events and thus I make it a practice to always do so. There we were, sipping Stickenjab (like O'Fish, a lager, and innit interesting that two lagers were among the top brews in what is traditionally an ale event?) and talking about the backlash which we've been hearing as a result of the over-crowding at the Kennett Square Microbrew Festival last week when Peggy asked how come I never showed up at the Half Moon Restaurant and Saloon afterwards.

The reason was pretty simple, I thought, when I wrote about it here, but it turns out that just the other side of all the folks crowding the doorway and bar, there was a plethora empty tables awaiting those with pluck and daring. I was momentarily depressed but then, remembering that I detest pluck, I was able to press on.

Pressing on meant a long and interesting talk with Nodding Head's Kurt Decker about breweries, brewpubs and some of the differences between the two, a discussion enlivened by periodic heckling from brewer Brandon Greenwood. Kurt and I resolved that we will take all this up in a longer, quieter, more sober moment. When we do, I'll post the story here.

Overall another great night but, for the first time ever at a Friday the Firkenteenth, I got that little nagging thought in the back of my head: Is this all there is? This remains a singular, got-to-be-there event, but I have a feeling that a few folks are beginning to coast. There were fewer brewers present that ever before and some of the Wow! factor (as in "Wow! You gotta try this beer") seems to be fading.

Since the December 13 event will feature Christmas Beers, I have no doubt much of the excitement will be back, but I hope Scoats will poke a couple of these guys with a stick and get them stirred up again come 2003. And maybe try to bring in some new blood. As my buddy Lew Bryson suggested when we talked about this, the marvelous cask version of Stoudt's Pilsner from Stoudt Brewing (tasted on cask at a Jim Anderson's Real Ale Rendezvous ), would be a great addition. And I wouldn't mind seeing the occasional guest beer from a brewery outside the area.

Bryson, whose bad influence on my simple and uneventful lifestyle I discussed here earlier, was just arrived at the Grey Lodge as our hearty five-person traveling party was leaving, having been delayed by a dutiful attendance at an event honoring his father. He tried to gather us into his clutches but we eluded him with some fancy footwork.

Ah, perhaps too soon to gloat. Tomorrow, as they say, is another day....

Which we shall write about tomorrow.[posted Sunday, September 15, 2002 2:30 pm edt]

Malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.

--A. E. Houseman

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