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Best in local beers: Brew-vitational 2011

As the sunset beamed through tall windows, illuminating the kaleidoscope of beers arrayed before us, the judges made their case.

Judge Mat Falco gets into the blind tasting with gusto. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)
Judge Mat Falco gets into the blind tasting with gusto. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)Read more

As the sunset beamed through tall windows, illuminating the kaleidoscope of beers arrayed before us, the judges made their case.

What are the Philadelphia region's greatest local beers?

That just depended, it seems, upon which of the eight panelists was holding forth. There were impassioned tone poems to the beauty of honeyed bock. There were tirades against tooth-numbingly bitter IPA's, and dander raised by fruit beers and coconutty Sorachi hops. The power of great pilsner was universally reaffirmed. The winning porter was likened to sex. But there were standoffs, too, with one deadlock punctuated by a water bottle flung by a judge across the room.

"I do not want strawberries in my taco, or jalapeños in my beer!" grouched strong-armed Rick Nichols, the recently retired Inquirer food columnist, reacting to one of the more unusual entries.

In other words, the Second Annual Inquirer Local Brew-vitational went off without a hitch. Because after five hours of blind-tasting (and retasting) through 38 brews from 20 breweries, we arrived at a perfect six-pack of Philly suds: three top "new" beers and three top "classics" that represent the very best our brewers produce.

Unlike last year's inaugural competition, which focused solely on new creations, this Brew-vitational included proven year-round beers to be considered for the title of local "classic."

The 16 classic entries helped show the full range of our beer scene - with top-scorers like Iron Hill's Pig Iron Porter, Victory's Prima Pils and Weyerbacher's Merry Monks Abbey Trippel showing mastery in British, German, and Belgian styles. But they also helped set a high benchmark for the 22 newbies to be measured against.

On the whole, the classics averaged higher scores than the new beers on the competition's five-point rating scale, which might be expected from bar-tested brews.

But having eight judges from varying backgrounds gave the panel the benefit of multiple points of view, including guest out-of-town brewer Phil Leinhart of Ommegang, a Belgian specialist whose input on the growing class of tart and spicy saison beers was invaluable. Distiller Rob Cassell of Bluecoat gin, a former brewer at Victory, kept the fermentation geek factor high, while Mat Falco, Philly Beer Scene magazine founder and local bartender, represented the thirsty enthusiast ("way too drinkable," he wrote of Flying Fish's high-octane Exit 9 Scarlet Ale, no doubt as a compliment).

Wine expert Marnie Old showed her impressive beer-tasting chops, but stuck to a refined aesthetic that demanded balance and food-friendly grace: "Beer should be refreshing."

Avid home brewer (and Penn English postdoc) Devin Griffiths glimpsed the local scene at this tasting through the eyes of a recent transplant from Texas: "I'm totally impressed by how such an experimental beer scene is complemented by some really classic, well-crafted standbys like the Yards E.S.A." (number 4 classic).

Carolyn Smagalski, ebullient beer writer cofounder of the Philly Beer Geek competition, uncorked her heightened "organoleptic" (multisensory) powers with poetic visions of honey-soaked bread loaves, morning quiche (to accompany Sly Fox's Royal Weisse, classic number 5), sensual maltiness and more: "Really satiating . . . like sex," she said of Iron Hill's Pig Iron Porter, which was voted this year's number one classic.

With the beers set in perfect tasting order by former Brewvi-judge Jason Harris, Smagalski's Beer Geek cofounder (and owner of Keystone Homebrew), this year's panel needed all the organoleptics it could muster to handle the roller-coaster of different flavors. Especially from the new entries.

The over-the-top hop bombs of previous years were less prominent in this class. But there were plenty of bold entries, like the ever-popular Belgian farmhouse saison ale style (yeasty, tart, spicy) led by number 2 "new" beer, La Saison du Capitaine, Earth Bread + Brewery's convincing ode to Brasserie Dupont.

There were strong beers aged in bourbon barrels with wildly divergent results - Weyerbacher's Blasphemy was the number 5 "new" brew while Yards' barrel-aged Thomas Jefferson Ale ("tastes like boilermaker," shuddered Old) landed dead last.

Added ingredients - other than the purist's usual hops, barley, yeast, and water - were more prevalent than ever, from the chamomile and lemongrass in Triumph's Zitronenweizen (number 10 "new") to the berry power of Blueberry Belch (number 13 "new") from Fegley's Brew Works in Allentown to the roasty Rwandan coffee beans perking through Earth Bread's the Gryphon (number 9 "new"), the Four Loko of amber ales.

Most memorable, perhaps, were the unorthodox creations of inventive newcomer Prism, from North Wales, which submitted a smoky-sweet Insana Stout made with cocoa and "veggie-friendly bacon" (not a hit, at number 21 "new"), and Love Is Evol, the jalapeño-strawberry brown ale (number 15 "new") that some judges appreciated (even if it lacked enough fruit to quench the heat), but riled the traditionalist in Nichols.

"I don't need jalapeños in my beer," he grumbled. "It isn't natural."

Pennsylvania's unique German roots were well-served, especially when it came to snappy pilsners. This year's number one "new" creation, Standard Pils, was an addictively refreshing unfiltered "Keller" collaboration brew between Sly Fox's Brian O'Reilly and the Standard Tap's William Reed. Victory's oft-celebrated Prima Pils took a well-deserved No. 2 in the classic division, though it might have risen higher had two judges' sensitive noses not noted the "cheesey" aroma of "old or improperly stored hops."

The closest call was a virtual tie for third place among the new beers between Flying Fish's Exit 9, which I'd earlier ranked my favorite, and Lancaster Brewing Co.'s Rumspringa, a honeyed bock lager that is a remarkably well-crafted value in a can.

As Nichols' bottle flew in exasperation, and the debate ensued, I listened to the different camps making their case - the powerful zip of Exit 9's spicy full-throttled red ale, or the malty finesse of an understated bock with soothing honey finish? Falco praised Exit 9's drinkable hops. Old labeled it a "beast," then touted Rumspringa's clean finish and skill with a rarely done style.

I sipped again. I suddenly wasn't sure. Smagalski went organoleptic, drizzling visions of honey on bread. I warmed the cups between my hands, then sipped again. I felt myself slip.

"Man, are you flipping?" said Falco, giving me the crazy gaze.

"Yup," I said, raising my hand for Rumspringa.

In a night of surprising flavors and spirited dialogue on the region's most exciting beers, it was a fitting way to end.

1. Sly Fox Standard Pils, unfiltered keller pils, collaboration with Standard Tap's William Reed, 4.8%

2. Earth Bread + Brewery La Saison du Capitaine, classic saison based on Saison Dupont, 6.7%

3. Lancaster Brewing Co. Rumspringa, Golden bock lager with Lancaster

1. Iron Hill Brewery Pig Iron Porter, classic porter, 5.4%

2. Victory Brewing Co. Prima Pils, traditional pilsner with whole German and Czech hop flowers, 5.3%

3. Weyerbacher Brewing Co. Merry Monks, Belgian abbey trippel, 9.3%

  1. For a list of the winners, click here.

  2. For a complete slideshow of the winners, plus tasting notes, click here.

  3. See the video of the tasting here.

  4. See a video of the judges here.