Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

South Jersey beers come up big in Brew-vitational's biggest competition yet

There is a beauty to the meritocracy of a blind beer tasting. There's no slick marketing to influence decisions. No brand loyalty tugging at judges' sympathies. No extra points for history or the geography of state lines, as this year's winners would prove.

Judges Ben Keene,  Matt Guyer, and Meredith Rebar at work at the seventh annual Brew-vitational.
Judges Ben Keene, Matt Guyer, and Meredith Rebar at work at the seventh annual Brew-vitational.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / staff Photographer

There is a beauty to the meritocracy of a blind beer tasting.

There's no slick marketing to influence decisions. No brand loyalty tugging at judges' sympathies.

No extra points for history or the geography of state lines, as this year's winners would prove.

At The Inquirer's seventh annual Brew-vitational competition for local beers, our biggest yet with 64 entries from 35 breweries divided into two categories ("new" and "sour"), every beer had an equal opportunity to impress the panel on its own virtues.

The dozen judges carefully sniffed and sipped their way through wave after wave of vibrant brews, each served in a clear cup marked only with a coded number. Three top beers were chosen in each category.

"I hate session IPAs, but I love this beer!" Tria Cafe co-owner Jon Myerow wrote of #22, which made it to the final round of the new-beer category.

"Cherry bright, yes! But is it a gose?" former Inquirer food columnist Rick Nichols wrote of #46, ruminating over technical details before giving it his highest grade in the sour category. Of a grapefruit pale ale labeled #55, he was less gracious: "I wouldn't order this. Ever."

"Of all the beers, this is the one I really can't wait to have again!" Inquirer business writer and beer aficionado Harold Brubaker noted of #5. It was prophetic praise for what became our surprising new-beer king - a spot-on Belgian blonde called Bell Buoy from Slack Tide Brewing Co. in Clermont, N.J.

Never heard of Slack Tide? That's not surprising, considering this Jersey Shore upstart was among the newest, tiniest breweries to enter. But with two brews in the top-10 new-beer finalists out of 41 entries - its Angry Osprey American IPA tied for fifth place - this six-month-old brewery from two brothers on the mainland just outside Avalon couldn't have asked for a better debut.

"Very excited!" Jason Campbell said, upon learning of his finalist status. His brother, Tadhg Campbell, has been brewing about 800 gallons a month on their three-barrel system. "We have plans to expand."

But, as always, the day's results would not be determined without some drama - including a first-ever disqualification for a top-scorer. There were wildly divergent opinions over the quality of the sour beer entries - "refreshing!" "peachy!" "ugh!" - with one judge so displeased he declined even to vote for a favorite.

But the big story was where many of this year's top-tier beers were made: South Jersey is suddenly brewing large.

Of the top 10 beers voted into the final round, six were brewed in South Jersey, stunning considering the state's current beer boom really dates only to a 2012 change in law that fostered more growth by allowing breweries to sell directly to the public through tasting rooms.

South Jersey's craft-beer pioneer, Flying Fish Brewing Co. of Somerdale, produced the Daylight Savings IPA (#22) Myerow was raving about, which finished in fourth place.

Meanwhile, Forgotten Boardwalk Brewing Co., which less than two years ago took over Flying Fish's old facility in Cherry Hill with David Bronstein as brewer, placed two beers in the top 10, including Pocket Trick Imperial IPA (sixth place) and Captain's Quarters, a stunningly complex yet elegant smoked porter aged in bourbon barrels that wowed the panel for its highest new-beer score. However, after learning post-tasting that virtually none was left by competition time - entries are required to be reasonably available to the public at publication time - the Captain had to cede its prize for an honorable mention. The last sixtel - about 41 pints - is expected to be poured at Philly Beer Week's Opening Tap event Friday at the Fillmore, where other Brewvi winners can also be tasted.

As a result, the next three highest-scoring new beers stepped up. Bell Buoy bobbed into the top prize, followed by a masterfully rich Russian imperial ale from another exciting new brewery, 2SP Brewing Co. in Aston, Delaware County, cofounded by former Iron Hill brewer Bob Barrar.

Meanwhile, another South Jersey newbie, Double Nickel Brewing Co. of Pennsauken, claimed third place with a classic Vienna lager that brewer and founder Drew Perry touts as "a better version of Yuengling." It hit all the right retro notes with panelists, who hoped it was the beginning of a local craft lager trend: "This tastes like what I imagine a good tavern beer tasted like 50 years ago," Glen Macnow wrote.

That easy-drinking lager could not have been farther in style from the 23 sour beers featured in the second half of the competition. They highlighted one of the fastest-rising genres in craft brewing that also touches a host of other trends, from barrel-aging with funky wild yeast to fruit-influenced beers and salty, kettle-soured goses.

Macnow, the WIP sports talk radio host and self-avowed hop head who also co-owns the Conshohocken Brewing Co. (whose beers he was not allowed to judge), gladly took the role of anti-sour-beer crusader: "Sour beers are the opiate of the hipster class that grew up on Sour Patch Kids."

His panel mates, a diverse collection of practiced beer judges, journalists, and beverage industry pros, often disagreed, loving the diversity of flavors, creativity, and food-friendly nature of the best examples.

"Sour beer is one of the most exciting areas in brewing right now," said judge Ben Keene, managing editor of BeerAdvocate magazine. "But we're still new to it in the United States."

That was apparent in several of the contenders, to the point where our guest out-of-town brewer, Brian Strumke of Stillwater Artisanal, who specializes in sours, saw too many flaws to vote for a favorite: "Every one of these is broken in some way."

Imperfections, though, can be among the charms of sour beer. And many of the other judges - myself included - felt more positively than Strumke, finding thrills in the various shades of funk and tartness, though my personal favorite, Free Will's kriek-style Sour Cherry Powered Rocket, was too funky to do better than fifth place. ("Beautiful barnyard!" wrote Keene, another fan). Rick Nichols' favorite sour, #46, Victory's Kirsch gose, was widely enjoyed but just not quite savory enough for some panelists who were looking for a gose's telltale salt and coriander savor.

Not surprisingly, the winners came from three brewers with practiced success in the sour game. Weyerbacher Brewing Co. from Easton, a past Brewvi champ, took first prize with the first edition of its Brünicorn series, a complex blended ale aged in barrels with wild yeast and apricot for more than a year. Delaware's Dogfish Head took second with its Festina Pêche, a low-alcohol Berliner Weisse infused with peach that was perhaps the first of its style to be bottled in America almost a decade ago.

The third-place Ourison, meanwhile, a tart and peppery saison from Tired Hands Brewing Co., represents a major step forward in terms of growth for Ardmore's craft brewing star, which has been known for prolific creativity but also frustratingly limited availability. Aged for months in the huge oak barrels at Tired Hands' large new Fermentaria facility, then fermented longer in large bottles, batches of Ourison will be available frequently throughout the year.

In a competition where the flip side of a blind tasting is that judges' palates can gravitate toward the most rarefied and hard-to-find beers, that is one bit of good sour news, indeed.