Philly’s best beers: 16 experts tasted 82 beers to tell you what to drink this summer
At The Inquirer's 10th annual Brewvitational, we crowned a best new beer and a best barrel-aged beer. See who won.
A good beer can become great with time in a barrel, the right bacteria “bugs” to do the work, and an intuitive brewer who knows how to be patient enough to let the magic happen.
“You know me, I just dump it in oak and let the beer rot for few months until it tastes good,” says Jean Broillet IV of Tired Hands Brewing Co. “And then we put it in the bottle.”
It was a coy bit of false modesty considering Tired Hands’ rising national acclaim, and the fact I’d also just informed Broillet that his Ardmore brewery had won one of the top prizes at The Inquirer’s 10th annual Brewvitational for local beer, a second place in the barrel-aged category for an oak-aged honey saison called Sticky Drippy Crystals. Though the sweetness is fermented out of the beer completely, it was aromatic with yeasty tropical fruits and black pepper, and in the distinct perfume of honeysuckle that hovered in the frothy mist of a head that just wouldn’t quit.
“That guy is completely stoned to the bone on honey," Broillet said of both the beer and the besotted, psychedelic cartoon character sketched on Sticky Drippy’s label.
Of course, none of the 16 judges who convened from different corners of the beer world for the private tasting had any idea. The Tired Hands entry was just one of 82 beers from 43 brewers served in two categories — “new” and “barrel-aged” beers — to the panel in clear plastic cups simply marked with a numbered code. It’s a blind-tasting method that levels the playing field for unknowns and big names alike and that inevitably produces some surprise winners and story lines. This year was no exception, from the little-known first-place winner from New Jersey that blends and barrel-ages multiple vintages of beers — but doesn’t brew them — to a clear push toward lower-alcohol brews and a lighter touch across a wide range of styles.
It was the biggest field yet for a competition that began with just 28 beers from 18 breweries in 2010. And the “BrewviX” judges got to glimpse the vast range of beer visions bubbling through today’s local scene, from the crisp technical prowess of the well-crafted German-style pilsner from Sterling Pig that won first place for best new beer, to oddities made with everything from basil to peanut butter, to aromatic saisons, barrel-aged dark beers, spontaneously fermented sours and fruit-infused summer gose sippers.
“I feel like I tasted nearly every flavor profile known to the beer world,” said Mike Fava, the panel’s guest out-of-town master brewer, a barrel beer specialist at Oxbow in Maine who trained locally at Dock Street and Nodding Head before leaving the region seven years ago. “It truly is a testament to how advanced and mature of a beer scene exists in Philadelphia. … Nowhere in the world has the diversity and variety that exists in Philadelphia.”
This year’s special focus on barrel-aged beers seemed particularly apt for a scene that’s hit a certain level of sophistication but that still continuously produces treasures from unexpected places. True to form, a new star — and a new local trend altogether — were revealed this year with the first-prize winner in the barrel category, an ethereally tart and well-balanced spontaneously fermented wheat ale called Berliner-Messe: Credo 2018 from … the Referend.
The who? That was the reaction from most judges in the room save for Tom Peters and Felicia D’Ambrosio, the tasting duo also known as “Tomlicia” (he sniffed, she sipped) from Monks Cafe, the Belgian beer temple that happens to have several beers on its list from the Referend, a “blendery” housed in a Pennington, N.J., industrial park.
“I actually met [Referend owner James Priest] at Cantillon,” Peters said with a nod of approval. He was referring to the legendary lambic producer in Brussels, an inspiration to wild yeast brewers everywhere, which is essentially the ultimate place you’d like to run into your ambitious neighborhood beer-blender on vacation.
Priest, 31, even has an open-top fermenter called a “coolship” inspired by the one at Cantillon in order to capture the terroir of ambient yeasts floating in the air. Of course, Priest’s is a mobile version in the back of a box truck because he does not actually own a brewery (“yet”), but instead sources wort (the base of beer) made to his recipes from up to 10 local brewers. Once he returns to his cellar, the beers are fermented further, put in barrels to mature, and eventually blended. It’s an old European method prized by the gueuze masters of Belgium, like Tilquin, that is gaining traction locally with other examples.
The beer for Credo 2018, for example, was assembled from four barrels brewed between 2016 and 2017 over the course of three seasons at Stickman Brews in Royersford, fermented in multiple methods, and drawn from some barrels that were neutral and others that previously held port. Judges raved about its balance of tart and funky notes, as well as its elegant carbonation.
“We intervene as little as possible in the process, and from there we let intuition drive all the little individual blends and moves,” Priest said.
Mastering the vagaries of barrel-aging and the introduction of wild yeasts like brettanomyces, which can produce challenging aromas of barnyard funk and sourness, is not always an easy task. That was obvious from judges’ tasting notes, who described off notes like “cheese rind” and “Tabasco sauce” in less-impressive barrel beers.
“French fries, yoooo,” wrote bartender Jessica Miller of the International Bar, echoing a similar tasting note for the beer coded #44b. “Tastes like moldy cheese.”
“What’s up with the nail polish [smell]? Again. Not good,” brewing consultant Scott “the Dude” Morrison wrote of the beer identified only as #6b. Morrison found several to like, however, including a bourbon barrel-aged Russian Imperial stout from Brewery ARS, Colored Moon, that took fourth place: “Yea, Yea, Yea, it’s outta here! Home run!”
Sipping beer all afternoon does have its rewards. Like the bourbon barrel-aged version of the historically inspired George Washington Porter brewed with molasses by Yards that took third place in the barrel-aged category: “Instead of chocolate cake, I’ll have this for dessert,” wrote judge Ned Foley, whose Royersford farm, Two Particular Acres, produces malt for several local brewers.
“It’s a little frisky! In a good way,” former Inquirer columnist Rick Nichols wrote of the porter’s pleasantly boozy edge. The ever-opinionated Nichols, though, also had an unpleasant run-in with a saison. “For fans of vinegar purges, this should be a godsend.”
Tasting this many beers can be a challenge considering the wide range of brewing skill levels on display with entries that are inevitably trying to make a big statement. A decade ago, the Brewvi contenders were all about big double IPAs, lip-numbing hops bombs, and high-alcohol heavies.
Over time, the competition has charted the scene’s shift into more diverse interests, with yeasty Belgian styles, fruity sours, a return to lagers, and the now-popular juicy Northeast-style IPAs whose hazy brews emphasize fresh hops aromatics over pure bitterness. This year’s competition saw brewers take a decisive step toward more finesse, as the best examples that won BrewviX prizes ratcheted back the intensity of sour notes (while still delivering a fruity pucker) and embracing the national trend toward lower-alcohol brews.
Of the top six beers across the two categories, only one came in at higher than 5.1% alcohol. Hershey’s Tröegs Brewing Co., which in 2018 placed high with a wickedly sour wild peach ale called Dear Peter, took a far softer approach to fruit beer this year with a refreshing but far more accessible gose plush with red berries accented by Himalayan salt called Raspberry Tart Ale.
Highway Manor took second place in the new beer category with a Belgian-style table beer initially called Microflora Diaspora that still shows the bretty funk of a spontaneously fermented beer but that is considerably less intense (at just 4.2%) than sours like Say John and Mr. Cherry that first put the Camp Hill brewery on the beer-nerd map. The biggest challenge, says brewer Johnnie Compton III, has been the cumbersome name, which he recently rebranded as Manor Light: “No one wants to buy a beer they can’t pronounce,” Compton says.
Even this year’s winning new beer from Sterling Pig, a newly canned (and now widely available) version of its flagship beer, Shoat, is less intense than the more powerfully hopped keller pils that won Sterling Pig a second-place award in the 2018 competition. That a clean, crisp pilsner could win beside far showier styles proves there is still a thirst in this region, with its long established German roots, for classic beers done right.
That breweries like Sterling Pig and Tröegs should place so well in back-to-back years (and two wins in three years for Tired Hands) is a testament to their consistent excellence — especially considering that the judging panel is significantly different every year.
Tröegs, meanwhile, can claim the distinction of also being a top finisher in the original Brewvitational of 2010, with a massive barley wine called Flying Mouflan that was a product of its “more is better” era that now also gets aged in bourbon barrels (because … barrels, of course!) Tröegs’ admirable longevity, not to mention a first Brewvi win for Philly pioneer Yards, should reassure any veteran brewers concerned about the continuous flood of new breweries across the region. The Brewvi has hosted nearly all of them over the last decade. And the verdict from all that blind sipping is clear: Philly’s good beer scene has become great over time, and quality still rises to the top.
When there are more than 80 beers to consider in a blind tasting, it’s no small accomplishment to make the cut for the second round at the Brewvitational. Here are the top 18 finalists for the 10th annual Brewvi, divided between two categories. They are listed in order of finish.
The best beers in Philly: Meet the 18 finalists from the 2019 Brewvitational
1. Shoat German Pilsner (5%, 24 IBU), Sterling Pig Brewery.
2. “Manor Light” Microflora Diaspora (4.2%, 30 IBU) Belgian Table Beer, Highway Manor Brewing.
3. Raspberry Tart Ale (4.5%), Troegs Independent Brewing.
4. (tie) Mojo Belgian-style Wit (5%, 20 IBU), Brewery Techne.
4. (tie) Sauer Sauce Berlinerweisse with Peach (4.8%), Stoudt’s Brewing Co.
6. (tie) Wild King Wild-Fermented Double IPA (8.9%), Dock Street Brewery.
6. (tie) IP-Yay! India Pale Ale (6.2%, 32 IBU), Manayunk Brewing Co.
8. Pretty Persuasion Raspberry Farmhouse Ale Saison (5.8%, IBU), Love City Brewing Co.
10. (tie) Amorphous Anniversary NE IPA (6.5%), Locust Lane Craft Brewing Co.
10. (tie) V Grand Cru (12.7%, 15 IBU), Conshohocken Brewery.
1. Berliner Messe: Credo 2018 Spontaneously Fermented Pale Wheat Ale (4%), the Referend Bier Blendery.
2. Sticky Drippy Crystals Oak-Fermented Honey Saison (5.1%), Tired Hands Brewing Co.
3. Washington’s Reserve Porter Aged in Bourbon Barrels (7%, 40 IBU), Yards Brewing Co.
4. Colored Moon, Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout (10%, 30 IBU), Brewery ARS.
5. Sweet Sunshine, Sour Barrel-Aged Imperial Porter (7.3%), Conshohocken Brewery.
6. Bourbon Barrel-Aged Russian Imperial Stout (11.3%, 82 IBU), Double Nickel Brewing Co.
7. En Passant, Saison (6%, 25 IBU), Forest & Main Brewing Co.
8. Oak-Aged Honor Wagon, Mixed Fermentation Saison Conditioned in French Oak (6% IBU N/A), Tonewood Brewing