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January '03: Taxes

February '03: Coffee

March '03: St. Patrick's

April '03: Liquor Taxes

May '03: Extreme Beer?

June '03: Screw 'Em!

July '03: RIP, Corner Bar

August '03: Subtlety

Sept. '03: Pay For It!

Oct. '03: Shots at Saveur

Nov. '03: Say Anything

Dec. '03: Wine Good!



January, 2004

The Best of 2003

Everyone does this in January, it's kind of expected. I've been keeping it in mind over the past months, and this is what I've got. 

Best beer I had in 2003: Old Dominion Oak Barrel Stout. This stuff was so good, so rich, and yet so drinkable. Smooth as an old pair of jeans, and just as easy to slip into time after time. Most of the bourbon-aged beers are great, but very few are pint-after-pinters. I could drink ODOBS all night long. I hear the MacTarnahan's bourbon porter is even better; anyone at Portland Brewing want to ship me a sample?

Best beer I had a lot of in 2003: Sierra Nevada Celebration 2003. Cathy and I went through about three cases of this, and, well, we don't buy that much of any beer. We just couldn't stop drinking it. Top marks to what is still one of my very favorite craft brewers, people with an absolutely awesome dedication to their great beers.

Best NY beer in 2003: Wagner Valley IPA (on cask at the Old Toad in Rochester). Damnation. Bracing hop power, svelte malt strength, and coolly refreshing.

Best PA beer in 2003: Yards ESA (on cask at McMenamin’s Tavern in Mt. Airy, Philly). Can’t beat it: superbly alive, great condition, estery, a glowing cloud of EKG hops aroma, and tasting strongly of more. Yes, I love cask ale. Live with it.

Best whiskey I had in 2003: Baker’s. I’ve had it before, God willing I’ll have it again, but the chance to drink as much as I wanted over three days at this year’s Kentucky Bourbon Festival cemented my opinion of this big, solid, overproof whiskey as one hell of a fine drink. If you've spent all of your time on Knob Creek, shake hands with Baker Beam. You'll be glad you met him.

Best non-bourbon spirit I had in 2003: Rittenhouse Rye, bottled-in-bond. (What, you thought I was maybe going to pick a vodka?) Godalmighty, this stuff should be on every bar in America (and the rest of the benighted world, too). Larry Kass was good enough to send me a bottle after hearing me whine about how hard it is to find... You better start bugging your retailer about it, because you have to get some. Big 'n' spicy, toothily sweet, and blastingly overproof enough to stand up to damned near anything. This is the Anti-Vodka, the Whiskey of Massive Flavor. It's so good, you're soaking in it: that's what I'm drinking as I write this page.

Why I'm proud to be part of this business: Tom Baker of Heavyweight Brewing and Dave Pickerell of Maker's Mark. Tom Baker continues to plug away at his one-man brewery, making extreme beers that are not over the top, sliding massively malty beers by hopheads who don't even know why they love them, and thinks deeply and passionately about beer in his own somewhat contrarian way. Dave Pickerell is just so damned happy to be distilling Maker's Mark's fine exuberance that's not always present in distilling. Plenty of people are pleased to be distilling their whiskey, plenty are proud, but Dave, you get the feeling he's walking around the Maker's plant giggling to himself at the pleasure he's getting out of his job. I love that.

Most outspoken interview: Deb Carey of New Glarus Brewing. Normally, Dave Geary would be a shoo-in for this spot, but Deb Carey's "I don't give a damn who hears this, why should I?" style when she talked about the problems with retailer greed that drove her decision to pull out of the Illinois market took the cake. 

Best event: Friday the Firkinteenth. Noisy, crowded, sometimes yeasty beers that run out way too soon... Piff. Details. Every Friday the 13th the Grey Lodge Pub in Philly blows through ten-plus kegs of real ale, and it is completely unpretentious, open to anyone, no cover, no snobbery, and I flat-out love it. (And if you're scared of cask ale...try out the new whisk(e)y collection, selection assisted by yours truly; I think you'll agree it's the best selection in any Philly neighborhood bar).

Best beer or whiskey writing that wasn't mine: Andy Crouch's interview with Dan Shelton in the October 2003 issue of Beverage Business. Sure, it's not really writing, it's transcribing (it's as much Dan as Andy), and Dan tears into the beer biz like a nitro-burning chainsaw choked open on full buzz, completely irresponsible, wild-eyed... Fact remains, this is great stuff.

Best new brewery in the East: Southern Tier. Blazingly clean, delicious beer with recognizable packaging and good consistency of flavor right out of the box, good range, good distribution. These guys know what they’re doing, keep an eye out for them.


Local stuff: the best and worst in my corner of Pennsylvania

Best local brewery: Victory. Like you needed me to tell you that.

Worst jerking of my chain: The Red Bell "brewpub" in Manayunk. Until you're actually brewing beer, just shut up. I don't want to hear (again) that you're going to start brewing "real soon." No one does. Show me the beer.

Best food in a bar: Adam Glickman blows me away every time I go to Monk’s Cafe for a beer dinner. The man’s a genius with seafood, has a deft hand with sauces, and a real feel for pairing Monk's great beer with his imaginative food. The everyday menu is delicious; the special dinners are excellent. The exhilarating beerlist is icing on the flourless chocolate cake. Honorable mention to Abbaye, where the family and I had a casual meal that was fantastic; hope to repeat that soon.

Worst idea for balancing the state budget: Governor Rendell's beer tax increase proposal. Thank God this stalking horse didn't go through. Bad idea, regressive tax, and an unfair concentration of the tax burden. What, PA wineries don't deserve to get screwed like PA breweries? We'd better not see this again next year.

Best brewpub that you people just don't get: Nodding Head continues to make really great, drinkable beer that is dead-on well-made; I shake my head and grin every time I sit at their bar (although I really wish they'd forget how to make woodruff syrup). And I am absolutely sick of hearing about "boring beer" and "all tastes the same" and "bland English ales." The fault is yours, you extreme-beer types. Good God, grow up.

Worst disappointment of a beer: Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA. Look. 60 Minute IPA in the new bottle-conditioned version was a very close second to the OD Oak Barrel Stout for my year's best. 90 Minute IPA is blazing glory, one of the best big hoppy beers out there. So I had real high expectations for the 120 Minute IPA. But whatever was good about this beer was buried in a fake sumo suit of flabby malt, like a champion boxer gone to fat. Somewhere inside 120 Minute IPA there's a great beer, waiting to go on a diet. (And yes, as a fat booger, I know the feeling.) Message to Bryan and Sam: put this beer on a diet. Knock it back to 16% ABV or so, and lean it down. You'll have a killer.

Brewpubs that get it: Iron Hill. I know they’re full of yuppies and shiny happy people. They gotta drink too, y’know. Meanwhile, Iron Hill's pubs are clean and beautiful to look at, the staff is knowledgeable and polite and motivated, the food’s great, and I love the beer. I've heard complaints that "the beer's dull during the week." Not when I've dropped in; there's always something good on. Rock solid beer, rock solid business.

Worst beer coverage in local press: Philadelphia Magazine, for its continued clueless reporting on the fantastic Philadelphia beer scene. What will they do now that Jim Anderson's not around to hold the hand of the latest "I don't really even like beer" neophyte? Painful as it is, I also have to mention Craig LaBan's recent beer writing in the Inquirer. LaBan is an excellent writer, but his lack of depth when it comes to beer is obvious. He has the wine-drinker's passion for Belgian beers...and the wine-drinker's  ignorance of lagers and British-style ales. Perhaps the worst thing about both of that 99% of the people who read it know so little about beer that they think they've learned something valuable. Wasted opportunities! 

Best beer scene: Tough call: Standard Tap, the Grey Lodge, Monk's Cafe, maybe Isaac Newton's or the Drafting Rooms out here in the 'burbs? I'm going to contradict my usual stand ("Beer bars are more interesting than brewpubs.") and go with Sly Fox, because of the great beer atmosphere engendered by the accomplished genius of Brian O'Reilly, the zany brilliance of Jack "On-A-Stick" Curtin, and the genial encouragement of the Giannopoulis family (who were smart enough to realize what a treasure they'd found in O'Reilly, unlike the boobs at New Road). Sly Fox is a beer destination, it has a strong regular clientele who are motivated and beer-centric, and it's a place you can go and be as beer-headed as you like...and you'll fit right in.

Worst food in a bar: pickled chicken gizzards at the Kempton Hotel. Do people really order this stuff, or is it just there to scare visitors? Mind you, the pig stomach stew is delicious.

Best local brewer: Marc Worona. Stoudt’s Weizen and Pils are two of my favorite beers, and Marc has them dialed in, beautiful examples of how a beer can be soft, subtle, and completely blow you away. Marc's not just passionate, he's technically accomplished, committed to his position (after years of brewer-of-the-month at Stoudt's), and simply happy with what he does. Cross your fingers when they take 12 oz. production in-house this year, but my money’s on Marc to come through big on this.

Worst Philly area bar I was in this year: Coyote Ugly, on South 3rd, at the old Jake & Oliver's. 'Pathetic' pretty much sums this up. I was in here on a slow night, we were outnumbered by the help, but...they didn't know how to act other than frenzied, and when the music came on, they still got up on the bar and shook their butts and boobs. Get a life.

Best new brewpub: McKenzie Brewhouse. Scott "The Dude" Morrison brings all kinds of talent and connections to our area, not to mention his own great personality. McKenzie seemed to get off to a slow start with some people, but Scott's coming on like a house on fire now, and people are digging his award-winning beers. This guy, this place, is on a tear. 

Worst thing I had at Monk's all year: Sake. Sweet, pretty one-dimensional. Tried it several times, tried it with the food, and I just don't get it -- apologies to Fred Eckhardt. Fair's fair: this was also pretty much the only thing I had at Monk's all year that I didn't like.

Best bourbon selection: Jack's Firehouse. It must be personal. I love going to Jack's on a cold, cold night and warming up with a good belt of something other than what I can find in every other damned bar in town. Honestly, does every bar specialize in vodkas or tequilas? 


Copyright © 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: February 04, 2004