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Brew-vitational: An unexpected triumph at The Inquirer's beer competition

We drank the best of beers, we drank the worst of beers. We exalted the lightest of brews, then honored the darkest, too.

Andy Hejl, one of the judges, tries a "wheat" beer entry during The Inquirer's Sixth Annual Brew-vitational competition for local beers.
Andy Hejl, one of the judges, tries a "wheat" beer entry during The Inquirer's Sixth Annual Brew-vitational competition for local beers.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

We drank the best of beers, we drank the worst of beers. We exalted the lightest of brews, then honored the darkest, too.

It was a day of wisdom from the judges, but also plenty of foolishness - inevitable any time you set nearly 60 beers on the table for an afternoon and instruct the experts to discuss.

"I'm just looking for a beer I want a pint of," said Fergus Carey, the white-maned co-owner of Fergie's Pub and several other bars, disappointed by his first few sips.

"Maybe I just don't like beer?" he wondered.

"Your whole life," offered fellow judge Rick Nichols, with a hoppy twinkle in his eye, "has just been one big lie."

The one thing that was certain as The Inquirer convened its Sixth Annual Brew-vitational competition for local beers: This is a time of hope for Philadelphia's brewing scene, which has continued to grow in quantity, quality, and audacious diversity. Good news with another Philly beer week about to launch.

From bold sours to classically soft German wheats, from punchy IPAs (India pale ales) to suave sippers best suited to dessert, an impressive range of efforts was tasted by this year's panel of nine judges.

"Philly is one of the country's great beer cities," said John Holl, the editor of All About Beer magazine, who came from North Jersey to participate on the panel. "If you're a local and you like beer, you're very lucky."

In all, 33 breweries submitted 59 beers for the blind tasting - easily the largest showing for a competition that began in 2010 with 18 breweries and 28 brews. They were assessed in two separate categories - best "new" beer from 2015, and this year's focused style of "wheats."

The wheat-beer division brought a surprising variety of its own, with summer-friendly and (mostly) light-alcohol brews in Belgian, German, and wild-card styles, with trendlets toward tart Berliner weiss, hoppy wheats, and the use of fruit (mango is in). A disappointing showing for the Belgian-style wits showed just how difficult it was to brew such a delicate beer.

The region's long history with traditional German styles made it no surprise that Pennsylvania's craft-beer pioneer, Stoudts of Adamstown, took second place with its hefeweizen, a frothy classic aromatic of bananas and clove.

"It was bang on," Carey finally approved.

A third place finish for I Love Lamp from Evil Genius elaborated on the hefeweizen style with the addition of actual pineapple to the refreshing brew, a boost for the West Grove-based company that has designs on opening a Philadelphia brewery within the next year.

The winning wheat beer, however, spoke not simply to the rising trend of previously obscure tart brews such as Berliner weisser (of which there were four), but also to the democratizing beauty of a truly blind competition, where a beer must rise solely on the virtues inside its anonymous numbered cup. It also highlighted the potential for young breweries to make adjustments that could yield dramatically positive and swift improvements.

Jaws dropped onto the judging table when a Round Guys can of the Berliner was revealed as the champion wheat.

"I've had it several times, but never this good," said Andy Hejl, a Dow chemist by day and experienced beer judge (who was also a two-time Jeopardy! champ).

"That beer used to be horrendous," said Casey Hughes, the former Flying Fish brewer and two-time "Brewvi" winner, who returned from his new home at Coppertail Brewing in Tampa, Fla., to be the panel's guest brewer this year. "When I first tasted that a few years ago, it was cheesy and off. But wow, they've turned that ship around 180 degrees. I'm blown away."

Hughes wasn't alone. In an almost-unprecedented near-unanimous vote, eight of the nine judges voted for the Berliner as their favorite wheat, citing its clean tang, yeasty complexity, and almost-shandy-like refreshing smack.

Round Guys' owner and brewer Scott Rudich conceded the beer's early flaws and said, "I had sleepless months trying to figure out how to fix that Berliner."

A change of yeast and a decision to pasteurize the beer and prevent any unwanted bacteria from harming the brew corrected the issue. But that wasn't all the good news for this Lansdale brewery.

Its Cyrano saison, made with mango and cherries, took third place in this year's new-beer category. Paired with its third-place new-beer nod in 2014's competition - from a different panel of judges - it proves that under-the-radar Round Guys is truly on a roll.

There's nothing under the radar about Tired Hands, the iconoclastic Ardmore brewery specializing in funky barrel-aged saisons that have become a darling of beer geeks nationwide and a regular Brewvi winner almost from the moment it opened. It placed two beers in the finals yet again this year, including a second place in the new-beer category for its Guillemot - Guilly Vanilly, a beguilingly complex Baltic porter fermented with saison yeast and aged in red wine barrels, then finished over chocolate and Madagascar vanilla.

It was my personal favorite and might have been the first-place winner had brewmaster and owner Jean Broillet IV not called it a "dessert saison," which perhaps brought a false expectation of sweetness that perplexed some judges, who nonetheless came around to acknowledging its bold complexity. At least eventually.

"Hated it at first sip," said judge Liz Einhorn, a level-two cicerone degree candidate, who's also a national account manager for the Boston Beer Co. "Now, I can't stop drinking it."

Broillet understands the confusion. "I agree with them," he said. "This struggle to define our beer has been perpetual."

That struggle in many ways reflects a wider trend in genre-busting that comes from the free-flowing creativity of today's master brewers.

"There are no longer any real styles in beer," Holl said. "There are names, sure, and there are guidelines, but to see the diversity and the different interpretations that many brewers have on one style of beer was pretty amazing."

The concept was put to the ultimate genre-bending test with the bottle that took first place in the very close vote for best new beer: a chocolate porter from River Horse in Ewing, N.J., whose witbier was also a finalist in the wheats.

Unlike Guilly Vanilly, this porter's chocolate flavor, derived from a pound of rehydrated cocoa for every 10 gallons, was front and center, with Madagascar vanilla to help it pop. And yet, with natural ingredients instead of the artificial flavors that dumb down so many beers into pure novelties, this brew was anything but cloying, with a roasty bitterness to balance the sweet.

A hint of smokiness conjured up images of s'mores by a campfire.

Einhorn, meanwhile, grabbed a tub of Capogiro's chocolate peanut butter gelato from the dinner buffet and began to whip up a porter float that opened some eyes.

"Beer floats," she said, "are the new budino."

I looked across the room to see whether this panel's expert brewer might be aghast at the mere notion of a soon-to-be-champion beer made with chocolate. Would its victory lead to the winter of our beer despair?

As if on cue, Casey Hughes cleared his throat and weighed in: "Give me this beer and a bag of Thin Mints - and I'll be happy."