With 82 beers from 43 breweries on the Brewvi’s blind tasting table, the judges crowned three winners in two categories: the new beers of 2019 and barrel-aged beers. Here are tasting notes from the panel on the champs.
1. Shoat German Pilsner (5%, 24 IBU), Sterling Pig Brewery. Brewer Brian McConnell scored a second place in last year’s Brewvi with a special edition “keller” called Hoppin’ Pils. This year, he takes the top prize with the newly canned edition of his Media brewery’s house pilsner, a crisp homage to the classic German-style Americanized by dry-hopping with Mount Hood hops and kettle hopping, too, which McConnell says adds a minty brightness. The judges called it “clean” with “great balance” between its noble hops aroma and malty backbone. “If all pils tasted like this, it would be a more popular style.” “Wow! Just wow! OMG!” “Seriously," said the panel’s guest out-of-town brewer, Mike Fava, "get in my fridge!”
2. “Manor Light” Microflora Diaspora (4.2%, 30 IBU) Belgian Table Beer, Highway Manor Brewing. The original name (Microflora Diaspora) was so cumbersome that Camp Hill brewer Johnnie Compton III has rebranded this Belgian-style table beer as “Manor Light” to convey the message: This tart brew is a milder, lower-alcohol, more accessible version of the super-funky, spontaneously fermented sour ales (like Mr. Cherry and Say John) that brought him an enthusiastic niche audience. Judges found it still had a hint of that funk, with a “big brett aroma with tropical” and “citrus zest" notes hanging in its refreshingly hazy brew. “Yeasty and excellent!” one judge said, while cautioning drinkers to tip that bottle carefully: “Stay away from the dregs.”
3. Raspberry Tart Ale (4.5%), Tröegs Independent Brewing. The brewing pride of Hershey lands a top Brewvi new-beer finish for the second year straight. Last year’s entry, Dear Peter, was an intensely sour wild peach ale, and this year’s winner also features fruit — raspberries. This offering is less intense, part of the brewery’s “tart fruit series," in which Tröegs ferments the same base for its popular Dream Weaver wheat ale with souring lactobacillus yeast, then a second fermentation with house ale yeast. The addition of Himalayan salt and coriander creates a subtle take on gose. About 12 pounds of fruit is added per barrel, and judges could taste it: “Not too much salt, great raspberry flavor and a great session beer!” “The nose is funkier than I like,” said one resistor, but another praised the measured balance of its pucker: “Tart, but doesn’t take the enamel off your teeth.”
1. Berliner Messe: Credo 2018 Spontaneously Fermented Pale Wheat Ale (4%), the Referend Bier Blendery. The Referend, owned by James Priest, isn’t quite a brewery (yet) so much as a blender in Belgian gueuzerie tradition, sourcing wort brewed to its own recipes by other breweries, then spontaneously fermenting them with wild yeast in a mobile “coolship” before barrel-aging for years until they’re ready to blend. Berliner Messe: Credo has more in common with lambic than German-style Berliner Weisse because it’s fermented wild, but the pale wheat ale base is considerably lighter than many of Referend’s other brews, and still packs a lemony Berliner lactobacillus pucker. “Tart! Tart! Tart!" chimed multiple judges, who detected some funky pineapple brett notes on the nose, as well as hints of apricot. Others praised the fine carbonation of this large-format bottle and a complexity that, despite being a low-alcohol session sour, is the mark of a well-made "bier.”
2. Sticky Drippy Crystals Oak-Fermented Honey Saison (5.1%), Tired Hands Brewing Co. One of the region’s cult brewers — and most devoted barrel specialists — returns to the Brewvi winners’ circle after a year away with this oak-aged honey saison that ferments out completely dry. The honey remains vivid, though, in the tantalizingly floral aroma of honeysuckle that hovers over a beer with complex tartness, fruity yeast notes, and funk that was my personal favorite in the tasting. Several judges agreed. “Zesty with candied orange peel!” “Grassy and earthy” with a malty nose that evoked tropical fruits and the spark of black pepper, an aroma two judges picked out blind as distinctive of Tired Hands’ signature saison yeast. The use of extra raw wheat in the mash contributed to a protein-rich, mousse-y head that lingered long after the rest had disappeared. “Sophisticated. … Honey, amiright?!”
3. Washington’s Reserve Porter Aged in Bourbon Barrels (7%, 40 IBU), Yards Brewing Co. It doesn’t get more Philly than a beer brewed to George Washington’s recipe by one of the founding breweries of our current beer revolution. This classic from Yards’ signature “Ales of the Revolution” series, a porter brewed with molasses, gets extra depth and richness from time in Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels. I’ve tasted overly boozy versions in the past, but brewer Tom Kehoe has found the perfect balance here in a beer so indulgent it could be drunk with dessert. “Cocoa abounds!” wrote one judge; several noted that the barrel’s vanilla influence gave it the aroma of an alcoholic Oreo or Cocoa Puffs. Even so, its success was in a finish that avoided being too sweet, with roasty black coffee notes framed by a vivid bourbon kick. “A little frisky,” wrote one judge, “in a good way.”