The Royal Stumble at Nodding Head is one of those rare beer
events that manages to be truly different. Some fests try to pull this
off by their venues, some by virtue of seminars or panel discussions,
but the Stumble... Have you ever been to a beer fest and had a brewer chasing
you with a pitcher of his beer, begging you to let him fill your
glass? You have? Really? Okay, was he dressed in a kimono with
kabuki makeup, toting a kendo sword? No? I told you the
Stumble was truly different.
The Royal Stumble was an idea conjured up by Nodding Head
bartender and personality Brendan Hartranft (not Brandon, the brewer at
Nodding Head, Brendan, whom everyone knows as Spanky). Brendan has plenty
of ideas, but this one was actually marginally feasible: have a beer
fest that's a contest to see which brewer can kick their 15.5 gallon keg
of beer fastest, presumably because it was the most popular. Fun enough,
and an idea that would lead to the brewer-chasing-you-with-a-pitcher
scenario, but then the Spanky Factor reared its head: and have it be
like a professional wrestling event, with the brewers in costume!
Dios mio. We've had WWF Stumbles, the very popular mad Mexican
stumble (with obligatory masks), and now this year's Sumo Stumble. Oh
no, we all thought, Tom "Heavyweight" Baker in a Sumo
diaper? He'll have to wear suspenders!
I'm happy to report that most of the brewers once again rose to
the occasion. Except Brian O'Reilly, of Sly Fox, who just
kind of dressed, and Chris LaPierre of Iron Hill West Chester,
who showed up in a tuxedo and huaraches. Some guys never get the memo...
Bud the brewer (better-known to his mom as John Parsons) and Chris
Wilson from Weyerbacher showed up in an interesting ensemble: Bud
wore a black kimono with a cedarwood katana shoved through the
sash, while Chris wore a somewhat menacing Japanese Army jungle camo
uniform with a swagger stick stuck under his arm. I noted how he kept
bouncing up and down on his toes, and cautiously walked away, whistling
the Colonel Bogey March.
Nodding Head brewer Gordon Grubb made the stunning mistake of
telling the Nodding Head waitresses that if they made him a costume,
he'd wear it: he wound up in an orange and green number that looked like
a walking harvest festival. That "SG" on his chest, I asked
him: is that "Sumo Gordon" or "Super Grog?" He just
laughed and shrugged.
Someone from Bethlehem Brew Works (sorry, I didn't get the
name!) wore an excellent poofed-out sumo body-suit (and a lot of sweat; I offered
to pour ice down his back) complete with nipples and man-boob lines. Tom
Baker didn't do the diaper route (no one did, thank God) but had an
obligatory headscarf, as did the brewer/new owner of the General Lafayette, Chris
Leonard, as he pushed a delicious madness he called Red Thunder (Tom
paradoxically had the lowest ABV beer in the show, Groin Pull Black
But the boys (and girl) from TrŲegs stole the show. Brewer
Chris Brugger and man-about-TrŲegs Ed Yashinsky brought their own
makeup artiste along, the delightful and talented Michelle Graser. Chris
was kabuki'd up like Dr. no, Ed was pulling off a ganguro
geisha with his usual wild energy, and Michelle was bowing and being
transcendant, all in beautiful costume, right down to Michelle's
hairspikes. Hey, the beer -- TrŲegs' new Dreamweaver Hefe-Weizen, a
first for them -- was pretty damned good too.
But there were more than a couple good beers at the Stumble.
Tim Roberts brought a very smooth and sophisticated IPA from Independence,
and The Belt; Tim was last year's winner. I think the woman
pushing Victory's latest single hops pils (Hallertau MittelfrŁh,
for those keeping score) was Christine Bump, but things were just too
raucous for an introduction at the time (turns out she was: thanks to
Richard Ruch for the confirmation, and nice job to Christine, who
Richard tells me brewed this excellent pils).
Despite my detractor's puling smears, I don't like every beer.
Flying Fish's Hop Slam Farmhouse was 5 pounds of Simcoe hops in a 3
pound bag of Farmhouse Ale, and I found it a bit over-done...though I
didn't pour it out. And I consider Brian O'Reilly a good friend, and
normally I like his Pilsner a lot, but the Keller Pils he had at
the Stumble seemed overly sweet (Jack Curtin told me later that Brian
had brought "the wrong pils;" (Jack's since explained that he
didn't say it was the wrong pils, he said that Brian's "St.
Charles (which he hasn't brewed in nearly a year now) is the one which
is supposed to be the keller [unfiltered] version but everybody
keeps insisting that he not filter the Pikeland, which is what this was.
If that makes any sense." No.) I didn't ask, but I think he was
right. Jack also said that the beer tasted fine two nights before.).
But people... the beer to have was Yards Philadelphia Pale Ale.
You can see my review to the right, but I'll say it again: this stuff is
required drinking. Chris Morris was one happy camper as people
kept coming by and saying "This beer is [insert preferred profane
term of awe here] excellent!" I know I told him that at
least twice. As Jack Curtin's already
pointed out, I found a little square of bench to sit on between the
Yards and Victory tables, and just kept passing my glass to one and then
the other. It was a good place to be, especially since it was close to
the phenomenal McCuba, making fast-moving Buena Vista Social club
kinda music with lots of guitars, percussion, and a trumpet and flute
Enough suspense: Iron Hill won, rather handily, and LaPierre
held the empty keg over his head, tux and all. The women he had
circulating pitchers through the crowd surely didn't hurt, but as I told
Jack, cheating's all part of the Stumble, long as you do it with
But the event was a huge damned success to the point of
claustrophobia. Spanky was talking about taking it to Blue
Horizon (admittedly a sweet place to have this wrasslin'-themed
event); owner Curt Decker wanted to get the city to block off the 1500
block of Sansom Street (not a bad idea at all, especially for an
event called the Royal Stumble that encourages patrons to drink as fast
as...er, wait. Let me rethink this.), and everyone wanted something else
done. Although it was an awfully friendly crowd, and all that rubbing up
agin' one another was occasionally pleasant -- for me, anyway.
Not long after Chris hoisted his empty keg, Jack and I split
for Monk's. Tom Peters had been at the Stumble early on and tipped us
that he had a keg of 1998 Victory Old Horizontal (yes, really,
and if you're curious about The Story That Will Not Die, about Victory
changing from Friedland to Penn for their Philly distribution and Tom
Peters subsequently deciding to not buy Victory beer any more....well, I
don't see a need to talk about it, since Jack's taken
it on so well; besides, I'll admit to not really wanting to know any
more about it. I intend to keep going to Monk's, buying beers that
Friedland wholesales, and buying Victory. Call me weak; I just happen to
think that it's really about the
beer), so we thought we'd go sample it. Sorry about the
It was a beautiful summer day, until we ran into Mike Horkin
on our way down 16th Street. Just kidding, Mike! Mike was with the
Philly bar bus tour the Baltimore chapter of the Society for
Preservation of Beer from the Wood was running that day, and we'd
just missed them at Monk's. Said hi to a couple more people I knew, then
we entered Monk's. We dropped anchor at the back bar and ordered our 98
Ho's. The stuff was good, no doubt, but the wineyness of it made me
think about how fresh and hoppy the young stuff is. Also made me think
about how little I'd had to eat recently, so we got a basket of frites
as a little alcohol insurance policy.
We were just finishing up the Ho when Billy White showed up
with two friends. Billy's Chris Firey's assistant at Manayunk, a
great older guy who Chris says "just loves to make wort," and
he'd been pushing the Call IPA at the Stumble, a sharply hopped goodie I
see I forgot to mention above. Right after -- I swear it
was after -- I had pointed out a big bottle of Cuvee Rene lambic in the
bottom of the cooler and said to Jack, "That's our next beer,"
Billy and his friends said "We want to buy you guys your next
"Are you sure?" I asked, "because we've already
decided on our next beer, and it's not cheap." Go ahead, they told
us, so we called it up, and asked the bartender to pour them some as
well. It was tasting real good, and then Tom Peters walks in, all
bright-eyed and completely sober (not that he's always drunk...he'd told
us earlier that he was doing his annual month off from alcohol in July
this year rather than August, which of course led to silly jokes all
day, some from Tom), and says how the Cuvee Rene's really good and all,
but the gueuze he really likes is Drie Fonteinen. I'll bet, I
said, it's good stuff.
"So," says Tom, "chilled or cellar
temperature?" What a good man! We got it cellar temp, and it
was huge, all the stuff you expect from gueuze, sour, funky, dry, and no
one thing overpowering the others. No doubt it was kicking the Rene's
ass. We shared that one with Billy's crew as well. Then Tom pops back
with two bottles of Girardin black label gueuze, saying how he thinks
all their other lambics are pretty so-so, but the black label's great.
But Tom, we're kind of lambic'd out right now. "Oh, this is for
home!" he booms, and shoves them in our hands. Bless his heart.
Almost like clockwork, about the time we needed another beer,
in troops Chris LaPierre and his harem of beer-pouring beauties,
including one dressed up like the Iron Hill Beer Bird, and Chris buys us
a beer! Hail the champion! I screwed up, though, and got a Poperinge
Hommelbier that tasted like sweet crap, a nasty sweetness like face
powder. Jack's Yards ESA off the handpump was much better.
Just as we decided we'd better run while we could, the
BeerAdvocate denizen known as gueuzegeek got herself a bottle of Drie
Fonteinen at the bar. Hey, Jack says, we just got one of those. Yeah, I
said: is yours chilled or cellar temp? She smiled and said it was
chilled. Could we...? Sure! And she poured us samples. Hmmm...Chilled,
it tasted a LOT more like the Cuvee Rene. Only one thing to do, I guess.
Some point in the future, we'll have to have all four. Yup.
That was enough for us, though. We walked back up 16th, where
we saw Tim Roberts standing on the corner of 16th and Sansom in his
kimono, holding a gas cylinder. Ah, the Stumble. Hey, if it's at a
bigger venue next year, you oughta go!
The Family That Drinks Together
I started research for PA Breweries 3rd edition
with a trip to two new breweries: Marzoniís, near Altoona, and Johnstown
Brewing. When I started planning the trip, I remembered that two
classic old PA amusement parks were nearby: Lakemont and Del
Grossoís, both within 20 minutes of Marzoniís. Itís summer
vacation time; why not take the kids?
So I did. On July 8, we stuffed the Windstar with too many clothes,
bunches of necessary "stuff," and my parents Ė I've still
got bars to hit in the evening, and I canít take the kids
along! We got off to a late start, thanks to an accident on the PA
Turnpike, but things went smoothly from that point on, and we rolled
into Duncansville Ė just south of Altoona Ė right about noon.
Marzoniís sits out in the middle of a plaza, right beside
the corporate headquarters for the regional Hossís family
restaurant chain. No surprise: Marzoniís is a new branch of the Hossís
operation. As it was explained to me back in December, the Campbell
family, who own Hossís, have expanded that chain about as far as they
want to go, with 42 restaurants in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West
Virginia. Further out, and theyíll lose control. Marzoniís is a new
concept, the first in their small empire that includes booze.
"They saw the potential for alcohol service," brewer
Bill Kroft told me. "Marzoniís is really different from Hossís;
the brick oven, the brewery, the barÖeverything, really." For me,
for us, Bill represents the big difference. Heís working that 10 bbl.
Liquid Assets brewhouse behind the bar, a nice system Hossís got used
out of a brewpub in Florida.
Bill came from their own organization. "I worked at Hossís
for 12 years," he confirmed. "I started as a dishwasher and
worked up to a general manager." While he was doing that, he was
also homebrewing, and when the Marzoniís concept came along, "I
threw my hat in the ring," Bill said.
Can we be honest? When I found out, before I first visited
Marzoniís back in December, 2003, that the brewer was a homebrewer
with no commercial brewing experience, I shuddered. Iíve been
to some brewpubs where they had let a homebrewer step right in on their
system, and they were just disasters; poorly formulated beers, bad
sanitation leading to nasty infections, and perhaps most frightening, a
small core of dedicated customers with palates of plastic that
convince the owners that the beerís not to blame for their lack of
success. Marzoniís, I thought then, may be set up to fail, and Hossís
will run from the concept.
Was I ever wrong. Bill Kroft made the transition from
homebrewer to pro brewer without much trouble at all. The first
time I visited was only two weeks after the brewpub had opened, and
the beers were already pretty good. Things have been tuned up since
then, and there is a wider range of beers here, including a big
anniversary ale that Bill let me tank-sample, a beer thatís going
to be awesome come November.
I was also impressed with the soft, malty Dortmunder, the
smooth and tasty Stone Mason Stout, and Ė surprise! Ė the Locke
Mountain Light, a clean and grainy lager with a flip of a bitter finish.
If youíre selling a lot of this, I told Bill, youíll have these
folks in a position to move up to something gutsier pretty soon; theyíre
already past Bud and Yuengling. All in all, I tasted eleven
beers, and talked with three regulars, Mark, Jeff, and Michael, good
guys who loved the fact that Altoona had a brewpub.
When I was done with the tasting, I had lunch, a portabella
pannini that was delicious, crisp but not oily on the outside, gooey
with marinara and cheese on the inside. The kids had meatball parmigiana
sandwiches: "If you ever get it," Nora advises, "you
might want to cut it in half. Because itís huge. And good. With lots
We had to run -- not because I had an
appointment, but because the kids wanted to get to Lakemont! We went and
checked into our motel (an adequate Econo Lodge), changed into bathing
suits, and headed for Lakemont.
Dig it: free parking. $6 admission. Okay, so the
rides were a couple steps above a parish carnival. But there was Leap
the Dips, the world's oldest roller coaster, a side-friction
figure-8 coaster of a type that doesn't exist anywhere else any more,
and a ride that was surprisingly exciting. The other coaster, a wooden
ride, was okay (definitely not up to the Phoenix at Knoebel's),
but there was no line: when we came to the end, in the front car,
the guy said "You wanna go again?" Well, yeah! We
mostly had the place to ourselves, with maybe 40 other people. More came
in around 5:00, and mostly went to the water park, which is where we
wound up as well: a pool, waterslides,
We had fun, but at 6:00 the kids were ready to leave.
We showered and went to the Knickerbocker
Tavern. I'd heard about the Knickerbocker for a while, and had
been looking forward to it. It's an old row house-hotel, originally
built for the Pennsylvania Railroad to house workers. Now it's a very
cool old bar, with a big comfy dining room, a spacious and green
courtyard, and the best tap selection in town...not a bad bottle
selection, either. Thomas and I had the Western burger, with fried
onions, cheddar cheese, barbecue sauce, and an onion ring. The onion
rings were exceptionally good, by the way, we'd done an order of them
earlier. Only complaint was that they wouldn't do the burger rare. Hmmph.
While the family continued to enjoy themselves, I
slipped into the bar. I'd already had a Brooklyn East India Pale Ale
that was one of the better examples I'd ever had, now I went for a
Sierra Nevada SummerFest; mighty nice. The bar was small but busy, and
the neatly turned-out bartender/waitress duo was way ahead of the
customers. The only complaint we had at the Knickerbocker was that
things got a bit slow when it came time to get the check at the table. I
Back to the motel, leave Mum with the kids, and
my dad and I had a decision to make. Did we want to drive 30 miles over
the mountains to Huntingdon to chase down a bar tip Mark had given me:
Boxers, in the middle of town. No, we decided, and after finding The
Phoenix inexplicably closed on a Thursday night, we drove over to
Hollidaysburg to the U.S.
What a beauty. The bar at the hotel has a
hexagonal mosaic tile floor, tile walls, a massive cherry and mahogany
twin-pillar back bar, stained glass windows, glass 'bunch o' grapes'
lights, and a "spittoon trough" with working plumbing. Look,
folks...the Hotel insists on calling this a spittoon. You'd have to
angle yourself something fierce to spit in it. This is a piss trough,
plain and simple, and that is a beautiful link to the past. I grabbed a
$1.25 pint of Yuengling, and just plain enjoyed the moment. Then we went
back to the motel, and slept.
The next day started early. We were showered and
dressed by 7:45, so we packed, checked out, and went to R Waffle King
("There's no waffle like R waffle at R Waffle King!") for
breakfast. If you're in Altoona, go to R Waffle King for breakfast.
This was some serious good eats, and everyone was happy, even my picky
father. (17th St. and 8th Ave., 814/946-4463).
Linger though we did, swilling down more coffee, we
were still out by 8:45, leaving us two hours to make a one hour drive to
Johnstown for my 11:00 appointment at Johnstown Brewing. Some
sightseeing was clearly in order, so we chugged out of town towards the Horseshoe
Curve, eating some excellent fresh cherries as we went. The road
wound up past Altoona's three reservoirs, blue jewels set in steep green
valleys, with overflow streams running along the road. The Curve
Historical Center was not open, unfortunately, didn't open till 10,
but we did see a train going by. We slipped through the tunnel and
headed for Tunnel Hill. I took the opportunity to stop at a supermarket
on the way and bought some Del Grosso spaghetti sauce, a local
brand that's delicious and cheap; can't beat that!
It was an absolutely stupendous day, mid-70s and
no humidity to speak of, blue skies with wispy white clouds. We got into
Tunnel Hill and stopped to eye the Gallitzin Tunnels: 3,605 feet long,
chopped through rock with picks and shovels by Irish immigrants at an
altitude of 2,167 feet above sea level. The northern tunnel's closed
now, as the southern tunnel was expanded; I'm told this is one of the
best spots for train-watching in the east, if that flicks your ticker. The tunnels and the Curve
celebrated 150 years this past July 4th, evidently quite a
From there we went to Nanty Glo, a town I've
always wanted to visit. It was just a typical Pennsylvania hill town,
but I finally found out where that odd name came from: it's Welsh, Nant-y-Glo,
for "Valley of Coal." Nice enough, and we left for Johnstown,
stopping at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial on the way; the place
where the dam on the Little Conemaugh gave way, starting the flood. Hard
to believe that this green valley was a large man-made lake.
We got to Johnstown Brewing right at 11:00. I
sent the family down into town to do some recon work, and went into the
pub, looking for partner Ralph Lovette. After some banter with the
waitresses, I found him and started even more good-natured banter.
Ralph's pretty happy these days: "My God," he said in a
slightly stunned voice, "we're selling a lot of beer." Ralph,
buddy, we call that a good thing!
Ralph left me in the care of his new brewer, Barrett
Goddard. Barrett's a quiet guy, but not a dullard by any means; it
was a good conversation once we got warmed up. He's certainly no slacker
when it comes to beers. He has taken this lineup and shaken the hell out
of it, and I'm expecting some very good things, like the upcoming
hefeweizen that I'm trying to figure out an excuse to visit and try. The Steelworker Stout is
already nigh onto perfect, a classic dry stout. "I learned a few
tricks about stout from Ned Strauser," Barrett said with a grin.
"I don't want to talk about them, but they work, and I won't be
doing anything more to the Steelworker. It's where I want it."
Great stout, increasingly hoppy pale ale, a good pilsner, brown ale with
real flavor to it...Johnstown's definitely worth a stop for beer.
After our tasting session, I joined the family
down on the deck ("We had to double the size of the deck,"
Ralph told me) for lunch. We were all pretty much knocked out by the
food, and the service was the best I've had in three trips to Johnstown
(including the first visit, where I was sitting talking to Ralph!).
Thomas had a pizza that looked and tasted just like the ones I'd had in
Rome. Nora had an "Old Conemaugh Boro Italian," a collection
of great Italian charcuterie baked till it all melded together, and I
had a sloppy great burger that was everything my burger at the
Knickerbocker should have been. The meals were served with house-made
potato chips that were excellent; thick, crisp, and not greasy or overly
We got back in the car (everyone saying that
they'd be happy to come back again) and headed down the hill towards
town, where I stopped in to visit the Boulevard Grill. Highly
recommended by one guy on Pubcrawler, the Boulevard recently closed and
then re-opened. It was definitely open today, though I was the only
customer; not real surprising when you're in outdoorsy territory on a
beautiful Friday afternoon at 2:00. I asked the bartender for
a glass of Penn Weizen (from a choice of Stella, Pilsner Urquell, Bass,
Guinness, Boddington's, Hoegaarden, Newcastle, Penn Pilsner, Yuengling,
With a couple sips in, I took a look around. Nice
place, honey-colored wood paneling, an upstairs, and...a big space in
back. What's back there, I asked the bartender, and she offered to take
me back and show me the "Warehouse," a larger space for live
entertainment. But just as we started back, partner Don Kasprzyk
walked in, and she introduced me as "a writer." I shook Don's
hand, and handed him a card as I introduced myself.
"We've got your book!" he exclaimed,
and towed me back into the Warehouse. He showed me around, and let me in
on the miserable state of beer wholesaling in Johnstown. He'd love to
get more taps in, particularly of PA micros, but there just aren't any
wholesalers who carry them. (Brewers and importers, note to you:
there's a guy in Johnstown who wants your beer and can sell it. Push it
to him!) But he's trying. With luck, by the time Pennsylvania
Breweries 3rd edition is ready for a book signing at Boulevard
Grill, we'll have more beers to toast the event.
That was about it for the trip. We fired up the
van, drove down through the mountains to I-99 and the Turnpike, my dad
took over driving while I took a nap, and then I drove the kids home. We
had some pasta with the Del Grosso's sauce, and it was real nice.