The Best of 2004
I've been seeing nothing but "Best of" lists in
magazines and newspapers the past week, so why should I be different?
Here are my bests and worsts of 2004. Happy New Year to all of you!
Best beer I had in 2004:
TrŲegs Troegenator Doublebock. Troegenator is a sly dog, a
sneaky doublebock that is dry and even a bit spicy, not the fat happy
style of doublebock weíve become accustomed to. Troegenator is a d-bock
thatís been working out, the better to kick your unsuspecting ass. The
Germans love a sneaky doublebock, one that can steal your balance without
ever making you aware of it...until you try to stand up. Troegenatorís
like that. I found myself drinking it more and more often as the year went
by, and Iím extremely taken by this American brewery that has pegged the
elusive "dry malt" character of the Bavarian brewers. This beer
shows to great advantage the skill and consistency that are the best
characteristics of the TrŲegs brewery. Special mention to Heavyweight
Juhlia: a bizarre, difficult to make beer that was filtered through a
whole juniper bush. Not a beer for everyone, but its spicy, herbal flavor
and bursting freshness were spectacular.
Best NY beer in 2004: Ommegang Three
Philosophers. Blended beauty, this one. Deep, rich, fruit-spiked,
complex. A good indication that things will continue to go well under new
Best PA beer in 2004: Yards Philadelphia
Pale Ale. Hands-down, all-around, this was the PA beer that wowed me
this year. Yes, I know I picked Yards ESA last year. Itís not my fault
that Yards made such an amazing change to the Philly Pale: light, bright,
delicious, drinkable, a three-pint beer. And this yearís Trubbel de
Yards is pretty hot, too.
Best VA/MD/DE/DC beer in 2004: Tie: DuClaw
Devilís Milk and Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA. What a great
name: Devil's Milk, and what a wonderfully frightening beer.
Awesome in power and complexity, eerily smooth and drinkable, Devilís
Milk is just another of DuClaw brewer Jim Wagnerís seriously underrated
creations. 90 Minute IPA kind of got overlooked this year, and I
don't know how. Ripping open a 90 Minute and throwing it down your craw is
like frenching an electric eel while wearing braces. ZAPP!!!
Talk about 'hurt so good.'
Best New Beer I had in 2004: Weyerbacher
Heresy. Okay, I'm adding this after the rest of the awards were out
for a week. I realized there was a hole in my awards. If you don't like
it, start your own damned website. The fact is, Weyerbacher
Heresy is one of the very best of the rash of bourbon barrel beers
that's been unleashed in the past three years; for instance, it beats hell
out of Insanity, the bourbon-aged version of Weyerbacher Blithering
Idiot. It's because of the beer Dan and Chris and Bud put in there, Old
Heathen Imperial Stout. This has always been one of my favorite imperial
stouts, a lean, pared-down hunk of bitter roasted malt, not like the
chubby, sweet impies everyone else does. And when that wiry stout dove
into the bourbon barrel, it came out ripped, buff, steaming with
well-muscled flavor and body. Too many big beers come out of the barrel
with vanilla hanging loose on them. Heresy is a sharp-dressed
athlete. Dan made more. It's back. Get some and see if I'm not
Best PA brewpub: Tie: Selinís Grove
and Sly Fox Phoenixville. I canít think of any brewpubs like Selinís
Grove, and thatís a shame. Excellent beer, real ale, great
food...though you can find that a lot of places. What Selinís Grove has
to ace that is the early American setting, the architecture, the groove
and the mood, and owner-hosts Steve Leason and Heather McNabb. A wonderful
Sly Fox has made itself a completely different place in the past two
years, largely thanks to the obvious efforts of brewer Brian OíReilly,
who has pushed new taps, new beers, new events, and a new spirit at Sly
Fox. But equal credit should be given to the Giannopoulos family, owners
of the Sly Fox, for hiring and empowering OíReilly. It takes a special
owner to recognize talent like this Ė unfortunately Ė and to let a guy
run with what he has. Thank both of them for the new Sly Fox in RoyersfordÖand
step back to watch what happens now.
Best VA/MD/DE/DC brewpub: Man, this
was tough. There are so many good brewpubs in the area. If I did
Honorable Mentions, the list would be as long as the page. But the tough
jobís mine, so Iíll pick one: Brewerís Alley, in
Frederick. Wonderful setting, exceptional bartenders, great beers,
delicious food, the outdoor seating area, all make for a great package in
this neat little town. But don't overlook their sister brewpub in
Gaithersburg, Summit Station. Because while Tom and Jen brew some
real good beers, if I could have Joe Kalishís beer and the food and
setting and service of Brewerís Alley in the same place, Iím not sure
Iíd ever leave.
Okay, forget what I said about no Honorable Mentions. Because I
have to give one to Oliver's/The Wharf Rat in Baltimore for the
amazing number and array of ales that Steve Jones keeps on tap. He's
working with one yeast strain, and one brewery, and the differentiation he
achieves is nothing short of marvelous. Rock on.
Most amazing change in a brewery: Stoudtís.
In one year, Stoudtís completely changed their packaging (and it
looks great) and brought all beer production in-house and into 12
oz. bottles, while juggling demand from wholesalers and breaking in new
equipment and procedures. At the same time they found time to totally shock beer drinkers with two new, out-of-character, and completely
freakiní wonderful beers, the Double IPA and the completely
re-imagined Fat Dog Stout. Hats off to Stoudtís for a huge display of
guts and competence, and best of luck with the planned brewhouse expansion
in 2005: be sure you make it big enough!
Best Bourbon I had in 2004: Evan Williams
Single Barrel 1994 Vintage. There have been ups and downs in this
series, though even the downs have been better than a lot of bourbons. I
sampled this stuff last year, pre-release, and thought it was pretty good;
bottle-polished and stacked against other bourbons, Iím knocked out. The
Evan Williams Single Barrel 1994 Vintage has almost everything Iím
looking for in a bourbon. Itís rich, luscious, packed with corn, maple,
cocoa, and creamy-smooth body, but not sappy: itís mature, properly
aged. This is a whiskey that will impress you with its smooth, sure power,
and have you coming back for more. Thereís more out there, too: plenty
still on the shelves. Get yours: Iíve bought three bottles in the past
Best Bourbon for the money in 2004: Jim
Beam Black. This 8 year old beauty is benefiting from a new push of
promotion from the distillery, and itís long overdue. Itís hard to
pass up the price, and once you have, youíll find a very sophisticated
Jim Beam, the white label 4 year old with a college degree and a few years
of life and travel under its belt. This whiskey could have easily gone
into the Small Batch collection; itís that good. If youíre ready to
start drinking bourbon without the Coca Cola, Black Labelís ready for
Best imported whiskey in 2004: Redbreast
Irish Whiskey. The first sip I ever had of this legendary whiskey was
five years ago, a nip from Fergus Careyís flask at a Michael Jackson
dinner. It was brilliant, it was delicious, it was simultaneously as
delightfully simple as rain and so wonderfully complex with fruit and malt
notesÖbut it was also unavailable in the U.S. Argh! But now itís
so here in the U.S. that I bought a bottle at my local PA state
controlled liquor store (how embarrassing), and Iím enjoying it as I
write. Sweet, light, malty stuff that brings a grin to the face. Don't mix
this with anything except perhaps a single drop, maybe two, of spring
water. It deserves your full attention.
Best non-whiskey spirit in 2004: Cruzan
Diamond Estate Rum. As I said in my Christmas
booze gift suggestions: "Cruzan is finally breaking out of the
cheap rum image it had for Virgin Island vacationers. This is delicious
stuff, a blend of aged rums (five to ten years old) that still retains
youthful notes of coconut and citrus. If youíve never had aged rum,
itís a beautiful way to find out what youíve been missing." Amen,
Why I'm proud to be part of this business: Matt
Allyn of Four Sons Brewing and Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey. Matt
Allyn is a real spark plug. He jumped into the Four Sons brewpub in
Titusville, PA, way up in the northwest corner, and started brewing
triples, Scottish ales, ESBs, and just daring people to drink themÖand
they did! I think Matt is encouraging other brewers in relatively
beer-remote areas to jump right into "real beer," and thatís a
great thing. But heís also taking on Titusville government and
conservative town values to make the town a more fun and exciting place, a
better climate for business overall. Thatís the spirit of brewing that
makes things better for everyone. Cheers, Matt!
Jimmy Russell is an inspiration: 50 years working in the bourbon
business. Okay, maybe I have a special place in my heart for him because
Jimmy was the first guy to take me through the whole distilling process
and the first guy to explain why the proof of a whiskey matters at the
various stages of its life, or because Jimmy learned distilling from one
of the last of the old masters. But mostly itís because Jimmy Russell
does things his way, convinces his French masters to let him do things his
way, and is still one of the most gracious gentlemen it has ever been my
pleasure to meet. There is not an ounce of pretension in him, though there
is still, even after all these years, at least a ton and a half of grins
left in him. Trust me: he wonít ever run out. Thanks, Jimmy.
Best interview I got this year: Andy
Pherson of Long Trail. Andy Pherson has been too busy for
interviews for eight years of building Long Trail. In all that time, I
believe he's given two interviews: one to the AlstrŲm brothers of BeerAdvocate,
and one to me. I got an indication that Long Trail was reaching out to the
press, and went for another interview. It was excellent. We developed a
rapport quickly, and Andy answered anything I asked with candor and good
humor. The Victory interview you saw here
on the site was another good one, and if you haven't read it, you should.
Best new brewery in the East: Keegan Ales.
BANG!! Tommy Keegan came out of the gate running flat
out with his Hurricane Kitty Pale Ale and Mother's Milk Stout, two very
bold releases for a new brewery. If you haven't heard of this production
brewery with the big beers and big plans from Kingston, NY, or had
their beers, you better get up the Hudson and get educated.
Best new brewpub in Pennsylvania: Johnstown
Brewing Company. Okay, technically Johnstown Brewing opened in
2003, not 2004. It's my site, these are my awards, and I say they're
the best new PA brewpub in 2004. Why? New brewer Barrett Goddard
started in February, 2004, and he may well have saved the place. Johnstown
was not getting the geek appreciation it needed under first brewer Brian
Neville, a much more cautious brewer. Goddard's changed that, and will be
changing that more. Plus the site is tremendous, the food is excellent
(almost to the point of absurdity), and I'm just wild about the way
central and western Pennsylvania is suddenly exploding with good brewpubs:
Marzoni's was a very close second choice in this award, and you can
count on plenty of gushing words once North Country opens.
Local stuff: the best and worst in
my corner of Pennsylvania
Best local brewery: Victory. For
this year yet, still a slam dunk. But boys, you better look to your
laurels: Stoudtís, TrŲegs, Sly Fox, and Dogfish Head are hot on your
heels, and Weyerbacher and Lancaster are not far behind them. Things are
getting real good around here.
Worst jerking of my chain: Okay, not really
local, but... North Country Brewing Company. Sorry to say it,
because this place is gonna be great when it opens, but come on,
Best food in a bar: Larry Melisenís menu
at McMenaminís Tavern, Philadelphia. Larry Melisen has fingers the
size of hot dogs, but he consistently turns out delicate and beautiful
food that fills your belly without emptying your wallet. Six years ago my
wife and I went to McMenamin's for dinner on my birthday: we had ham
sandwiches. In 2004 we had stuffed squash blossoms and seafood risotto,
prefaced by some of the best wings I've had outside of Buffalo. When I
die, I want Larry Melisen doing the buffet at my wake, because he does
beer food that is both plain and fancy, and he doesn't skimp on the
portions. Cheers to the big guy and to PJ McMenamin, who gets out of his
way and lets him work.
Worst example of Pennsylvaniaís gutless, worthless
legislature: The continued existence of the case law.
And if these simple boogers pass the keg registration law that's
being considered in committee, I am going to lose my mind. Write
Best brewpub that you people just don't get:
General Lafayette Inn. I'm hearing a little bit more buzz about
this splendid place, but not the agog wonder I would think it should
engender. Okay, it's smoky, okay, the service is still occasionally snarky,
but that's getting better, and the beer, mein lieber Gott, the beer!
Colonial-era building, wowser beer, absolutely beautiful in the snow,
perfect bar for small groups to take over, you have got to get on this!
Worst area brewpub: Valley Forge.
You guys need to start giving a damn. Seriously. You've got a good
heritage there, and a good history, but when I've been in lately, things
have just been lackadaisical, and the beer's been at best mediocre. I hope
that the hiring of new brewer Ryan Michael indicates a willingness to step
up to the plate.
Best beer that you people just donít get: Legacy
Reading Pilsner. I don't understand why this excellent pilsner is not
on tap in every bar in southeastern Pennsylvania. It's every bit as good
as Stoudt's Pils...better, on some days. Get out there and find
Best Local Beer Event: The Royal Stumble
at Nodding Head. Brewers dress up in silly outfits and chase
you with beer. Sometimes they even bring along pretty young women to chase
you with beer. Everyone brings their best session beer...unless they
decide to just be crazy and bring something else, and they chase you
with it. Why the chasing? Because whosoever's keg kicks first, wins.
It's fast, it's furious, it's funny, and bartender/originator Brendan
Hartranft said he thinks it's big enough and hot enough to go to a bigger
venue next year, maybe --what else? -- the Blue Horizon. Mothers, hide
Worst beer coverage in local press: Philadelphia
Magazine. Congratulations, guys, you win again! Marnie Old is great at
writing about wine, truly she is, but you'd be better off subbing out the
beer writing to someone who's as passionate about beer as she is about
Best beer coverage in local press: Tip of the
hat to my friend Don Russell, aka Joe Sixpack in the Philadelphia
Daily News. Donís been on this beat for years, and Iíll admit that
Iíve taken a few shots at him, even though I do really like the guy.
This year Don stepped up to the plate and hammered some serious shots for
Philly beer, blowing away any other local coverage. Praise also goes to my
good friend John Hansell, who has been doing some excellent spirits
writing for Allentownís Morning Call. And a final note in the Happy
To Eat My Words Department: Craig LaBan has indeed developed a better
palate and sensibility for beer, and is doing much better work writing on
beer in the Inquirer: congratulations.
Worst change to a beer: The latest batch
of Dogfish Head Au Courant shocked and frightened me. That's right,
I said 'frightened me.' Last year's delicately pink strong golden ale with
its delicious tinge of fruit is now passion purple and gagged with bitey
currant flavor. Wha' happened? I'm hoping this was just a 'fun' batch for
the brewpub (what I had was from a growler bought there).
Best local beer website: Easy: Jack Curtinís
Liquid Diet. Don't believe me? Go
look. Although it could be argued that if you want more solid local
beer info, you should go to the website where Jack submerges his
personality and just writes beer news, the Beer
Yard website, so we'll make that an Honorable Mention.
Worst move for a portfolio: Yuengling
Light Lager. Did someone forget to tell Dick Yuengling that he
already had a light beer? And that it wasn't really selling either? I
haven't seen this beer selling anywhere, and I can't say I'm terribly
surprised. Focus, guys, focus: the Lager is the deal. People love it. Why
mess with it?
Best beer scene: Monk's Cafe? Ludwig's Garten?
Sly Fox? The Drafting Room? Yes, yes, yes, but the groove is on at Isaac
Newtonís, out here in my own back yard. I'm not sucking up, and I'm
not being a homer: to tell the truth, I generally skip Isaac's when I'm
thinking about where to go for a beer. But I happened to drop in back in
November, and I've been back almost every week since. Great beer is on tap
all the time, and the bottle selection -- taken as a whole -- is
the equal of any in the area. But the coolest thing about Isaac's is that
these people aren't geeks. They just like drinking these beers, and they
drink all across the range without making a big deal about it. I love
Worst food in a bar: Steamed Edamame beans
at North Third. Just because I hate those damned tasteless
Best local brewer: Brian OíReilly.
Last year's winner, Marc Worona, has done amazing things at Stoudt's this
year. Chris Firey is shaking things up something fierce at Manayunk. Bob
Barrar rocked the GABF with his beloved big beers. The crew at Yards
turned Philly Pale into a wonder and brought us a new sack full of Trubbel.
The Dude continues to ably follow in the big footsteps of mentor Phil
Markowski. Brandon Greenwood left us with a lot of great memories. Jeff
Fegley has made some amazing stuff up at Bethlehem Brew Works. And poor
Ric Hoffman always gets ignored at Stewart's.
What I'm trying to say is that lots of brewers deserved this award.
But only one gets it: Brian O'Reilly of Sly Fox. Is Brian a good
friend? Yeah, he is. Do I spend a fair amount of time at Sly Fox? Yeah, I
do. But you gotta give it to him. Look at what the guy has done: a
brewer who has ram-rodded major events at his brewery, brought about a
plan to build a production brewery masquerading as a second brewpub,
mastered the full range of beers from stouts to lagers to Belgians, and
outdone the West Coast by throwing a 10-tap all-house-brewed IPA festival.
O'Reilly did all that, and still managed to be a cheerful, useful front
man for Sly Fox, brew great house beers, and keep collegial contact with
some of the best brewers on the east coast. What's going to happen in
2005? It remains to be seen. Watch the big brewery in Royersford.
Most surprising Philly area bar I was in this year:
OíFlahertyís. This is a blockhouse alongside Rt. 413 in
Bristol. It's the kind of place you wouldn't even look at and think
"Not on your life," you'd just drive by without noticing it. Big
mistake. O'Flaherty's has one of the best tap offerings in the
Philly area. The first time I stopped in, they had four different
Victory taps, a Heavyweight tap, two Stoudt's taps, two Flying fish, a
couple Dogfish Heads, and a Legacy Duke of Ale, among others. Then I
ordered up a bacon double cheeseburger (huge) and fries (hot and plentiful
and crisp) with a Heavyweight StickeNJAB: $8.25. Who drinks all these
beers, I asked the bartender. "Oh," she said, waving a hand
around, "Everyone, these days." I've been back, and it's true.
O'Flaherty's, like the Grey Lodge, and like Carl's Tavern in Monroeville,
is one of the places where upscale beer is going blue collar these days.
It's about time. Come on down and take a look. You'll be sure to be