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
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 whisky...an 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
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
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
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
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 these...is
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?