TWO YEARS ago this week, someone drew Vince Masciandaro's name out of a hat, and maybe changed his life forever.
Funny thing, he wasn't even there to see it happen.
It was Philly Beer Week's annual Belgian collaboration raffle, a contest among beer lovers to accompany their favorite local brewer on an expenses-paid expedition to Belgium. The bar was packed and the decibels were off the chart when Masciandaro's name was called.
A hand shot up: "Over here!"
A guy jostled his way to the front, cameras flashed, huge cheers - the winner would be going to the famed Brasserie Dupont with Chris LaPierre, of Iron Hill Brewery, in Maple Shade, N.J.
"Congratulations - you're in for a helluva trip," I told the lucky fellow, shaking his hand for the photographers.
He smiled then whispered, "Actually, I'm not Vince. He's not here."
"Who the hell are you, then?"
"I'm his friend, Rich."
Classic Philly, I thought.
It took a few minutes to track down Vince on the phone and, of course, he was crazy with excitement. He'd never been to Belgium, a mecca for beer fans. Ultimately, he helped LaPierre, Dupont brewer Olivier DeDeycker and the Philly Beer Week crew create its 2012 Belgian collaboration, Speciale Belge.
Jump forward a couple of years.
Philly Beer Week is getting ready for its 2014 collaborative brew, with its annual raffle on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Field House, 1150 Filbert St. Tickets are available online at PhillyBeerWeek.org.
And Masciandaro? He's getting ready to open his own brewery - with the guy who copped his glory, Rich Palmay.
It's called Village Idiot, opening early next year in downtown Mount Holly.
Don't be surprised if there's a little bit of Belgium in the place.
"Going on the trip definitely influenced me some," Masciandaro said. "What I kind of noticed when I was there, the beer bars in Belgium are really not restaurants. You can order cheese or finger food or small plates of meat, but you really are going there for the beer.
"You see these tiny storefront bars, where you walk down a little back alley and see a door with a sign that says 'Tavern,' or whatever the word is in Belgium. You open the door and it's a tiny little hole in the wall and a few people inside drinking.
"That's kind of what we want to do with our place."
Expect Masciandaro's trip to Belgium to influence Village Idiot's beer, too.
The business partners have been buddies for years; they're both members of South Jersey's Barley Legal homebrewers club. So, for Masciandaro, the trip was an opportunity to improve his skills.
"I had a chance to talk with Olivier and learn about how they do things," he said. "I saw how high their fermentation temperatures are, I got to pick his brain on recipes.
"When I got back, I used the yeast from a Dupont bottle to brew a clone of their Saison. It was the first time I ever brewed a saison, and it took a gold medal in a homebrew contest."
Not everyone comes back from Belgium and opens a brewery, of course. But they do come back with some great beer.
In addition to Speciale Belge, Philly Beer Week collabs include:
* Broederlijk Liefde (2011), a sour ale from De Proef Brouwerij, with raffle winner Jason Kramer and Sly Fox brewer Brian O'Reilly.
* Manneken-Penn (2013), a dubbel from Brasserie De La Senne, with raffle winner Matt Hohorst and Weyerbacher's Chris Wilson.
This year, Philly Beer Week and Vanberg & DeWulf importers are sending the lucky winner, along with an area brewer, to Brouwerij Dilewyns, in Dendermonde, Belgium, about 40 minutes outside Brussels. Known for its Vicaris line of ales, the brewery is led by 26-year-old Anne-Catherine Dilewyns. The young brewer traces her beer-making chops to her great-great-great-great-grandmother, whose brewery operated till the Nazis dismantled the equipment during World War II.
Masciandaro said that he'll be on hand this year for the raffle, "But if I win, this time Rich gets to go."