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The Buzz

A Beerfly's view. If you see anything here that seems crazy, click here.

Fresh Buzz

Vintage Buzz

2006 Buzz

Dec. '06: 10 Predictions

Nov. '06: Cold November Rain

Oct. '06: Just Because You Can

Sept. '06: It's Worth It

August '06: Messin' With Us

July '06: Break the Chains

June '06: Viva El Hefe!

May '06: Just Like Wine

Apr. '06: Mixed Messages

Mar. '06: We Print the Truth

Feb. '06: The Fairer Sex

Jan. '06: Best of 2005

2005 Buzz

Dec. '05: Look at Me Drink!

Nov. '05: Malt Monsters

Oct. '05: Sweetness

Sep. '05: When to Fold

Aug. '05: Little Nightmares

July '05: American Spirit

June '05: Miller Time 

May. '05: Breathing Beer 

April '05: Now It's Personal

Mar. '05: 7% Ain't Enough

Feb. '05: Down to 18 

Jan. '05: Best of 2004 

2004 Buzz

Dec. '04: Joys of the Dark 

Nov. '04: The Next Store 

Oct. '04: Beer's Image 

Sept. '04: Clearly Insane 

August '04: Love of Lager

July '04: Speak Up!

June '04: Get Drafted

May '04: Shedding Tiers

April '04: Keg Party

March '04: Ultra Madness

February '04: Case Law

January '04: Best of 2003

2003 Buzz

Dec. '03: Wine good!

Nov. '03: Say Anything

Oct. '03: Shots at Saveur

Sept. '03: Pay For It!

August '03: Subtlety

July '03: RIP, Corner Bar

June '03: Screw 'Em!

May '03: Extreme Beer?

April '03: Liquor Taxes

March '03: St. Patrick's

February '03: Coffee

January '03: Taxes


January, 2007

The Best of 2006

Here are my bests and worsts of 2006. Happy New Year to all of you! I'm still working on the list and will be filling this in over the next five days. See you then.
(No New York awards this year: I didn't spend enough time with New York beer to make those awards fair. But...I may be seeing a lot more of New York breweries in 2007...more on that soon.)

Best beer I had in 2006: Sly Fox O'Reilly's Stout. I'll take some crap for this -- even from O'Reilly himself -- but this beer has been my go-to this past year of weight loss. Dry stout, as I've explained elsewhere, has the same Weight Watchers' "points value" as light beer, and O'Reilly's Stout has one hell of a lot more going for it than light beer. I once said I thought this beer was "too dry." Either Brian tweaked it, or I wised up, because I find I just can't get enough of it. I'm seeing it a lot of places locally, and that's a great thing. Dry stout has taken some hits in this area as a style, but this one gives that the lie: this is an all-day, all-smiles beer. Classic session stuff.

Best New Beer: Stegmaier Summer Stock Lager. I spent a very pleasant afternoon drinking this clear, fresh, wonderfully drinkable beer in July, and I bought up more to last me into the fall. Summer Stock Lager fell right into the helles-Export-pilsner continuum in a great sweet spot: hoppier than helles, drier than Export, lighter than pilsner, and just as drinkable as hell, liter-mug drinkable. This is a beer The Lion could not have brewed five years ago: the improvements in their plant and their processes made it possible, the improvements in the market made it feasible. I really hope we see it again this summer.

Best Penn. beer: Weyerbacher Double Simcoe IPA. Yeah, this is the year of session beers, I know, I'm saying that myself. But wow, Dan really hit it with this big green monster. It's big, but it's sharp as a razor. Get some, and don't, for God's sake, let it get one day older. Honorable mention: Belgian Pale Ale at Iron Hill North Wales. If I'd had a chance to get more of this little beauty, Dan Weirback might not be so happy tonight. This was a beaut, the classic "not big, but huge in flavor" Belgian session beer. I could have easily sat and enjoyed two more pints, but I had to go. If you see it again, don't make my mistake: get a growler and enjoy this one thoroughly.

Best Mid-Atlantic beer: Blue & Gray Brewing's line of great session beers. Boy, talk about not getting any love. Blue & Gray is so far under the radar in Fredericksburg that most geeks don't know they exist. That's a shame, but it's okay with them: Jeff Fitzpatrick and his crew of brewers and cheerful retired military guys are cranking out beer for the local area, and that's the way they want it. I don't know anyone who lives within 60 miles of Blue & Gray, and I don't know any stores that carry it regularly, but I've had kegs of their beer at more parties this year than any other. Part of that's because I get off I-95 and go get it, part of it's the kind of customer service that I got today, New Year's Day. While everyone else was watching football and eating one more big holiday meal, one of the Blue & Gray guys met me at the brewery so I could drop off my empty keg and tap (Stonewall Stout, and not only did this dry Irish/export stout hybrid rock, it made a fantastic addition to my pork and sauerkraut; we poured a quart and a half right in the roasting pan) on the way home to Philly. The Fred Red is excellent, the Lager is clean and balanced, the Oktoberfest makes a great festival. Well-deserved, this award.

Best Penn. brewpub: Penn Brewing. You know I love lagers, and session drinking is my new crusade. That makes Penn Brewing an easy choice for best Pennsylvania brewpub. I lean more and more to the German beergarden model of drinking -- simple food, clean space, good session beers -- and Penn's dead-on the beam. I wish there was a place like this -- just like this -- in Philly, in Harrisburg, in Lancaster, in Reading, in Wilkes-Barre... I think it would revolutionize beer drinking in the Keystone State.

Best Mid-Atlantic brewpub: Calhoun's. I've seen so many isolated brewpubs lose their way; the beer may wander way off beam and develop weird house yeast character or leave the stylistic space-time continuum. When there are no other breweries or good beer bars in the area, people have no benchmarks, no means to compare. Calhoun's is seriously isolated in Harrisonburg, Virginia; any other brewpub is miles away over a geographic or cultural barrier, and with Eastern Mennonite University in town, well...there's not a booming craft beer scene. But thanks to Eric Plowman's rock-steady technical skills, Calhoun's beer has been a beautiful joy every single time I've been in, including the most recent visit, just a month ago: clean, delicious, straight-on stylistically. The service and food is top-notch as well. There's a great little beer selection at the little wine shop down the hall now, too: maybe the isolation is easing a bit.

Most impressive change in a brewery: The Lion. I've been watching this take place over the past five years, and things are coming to fruition. 2006 saw the release of four delicious seasonals under the Stegmaier brand name: Brewhouse Bock, Summer Stock Lager (my Best New Beer above), the Oktoberfest, and the excellent Winter beer, with its deftly handled dry-hopping. Leo Orlandini and Bob Kleintob are pushing as hard as they can, and the response has been solid. Do I wish they'd charge more? Yeah, because under $20 a case for this stuff is just ridiculous. I'd much rather they were making a bit more money on these beers, which would encourage them to do more. Get some for yourselves.

Best Event I attended: Great American Beer Festival. Well, shucks, what do you want? This was my first GABF in ten years, and I'm going to be returning as often as I can. The GABF draws a ton of jackasses -- scary-looking folks in all the bizarre excess of costume that beer geekdom has encouraged -- but it also attracts brewers and their best beers, a panoply of excellent side events, and some wonderful private parties. It's crazy and excessive and way too respectful of over-sized beers...but I love it.

Best Bourbon I had in 2006: William Larue Weller. Buffalo Trace just knocked me out this year with a variety of whiskeys, and with their dogged devotion to whiskey when easy sales of easy-to-make booze (like vodka and gin) beckoned. But the stuff that tasted best was this big, fat, rich member of their Antique Collection, William Larue Weller, an unfiltered, barrel-strength, 12 year old wheated bourbon. This is like eating a glass of bourbon custard, luxurious and stunning. Get you some.

Best Bourbon for the money: Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage I do not understand how this delightful whiskey gets on the shelves for under $25 a bottle, but it's really easy to understand how it gets this award once you open it up and have a sip of this classic corn likker. This isn't just plain old bourbon, it's great bourbon, notable stand-out-from-the-crowd bourbon...and Heaven Hill makes it real affordable, something they're very, very good at.

Best non-whiskey spirit: Berentzen Apfelkorn. "Schnapps" is perhaps the most degraded term in booze, an unfortunate catch-all for a sad variety of artificially-flavored, sugar-drenched cordial-strength gut-bombs in garish packages that are the paint-by-number bases for fumble-fingered "cocktails" at nightclubs. Reclaim the category with this noble rendition: Berentzen is made from 100% wheat spirit, real apples, and a minimum of sugar, and has a delicious tart edge that makes it an excellent fill for my Dalvey flask. I've opened a lot of eyes sharing this one from my hip; get a bottle and make some friends.

Why I'm proud to be part of this business: Tom Baker. Tom Baker and Heavyweight Brewing brought an impressive run to a very classy close this year. Tom opened Heavyweight to make big beers, but when alcohol levels started to climb in the craft brewing market, he quickly re-focused on big flavored beers. Wise choice, as were most of the decisions Tom made, beer-wise. Tom's Heavyweight beers lent credibility to things other folks were doing and would try, they pushed the envelope further than most folks would try...and they did it successfully, for the most part. Tom tried to keep things interesting, and exciting, but after a while, even brewing great beers like Lunacy and Perkuno's Hammer too often got to be a drag. He decided to go out on top, and called it quits with a beautiful series of events and plans to open a brewpub/beer bar that will feature true "one-time, one-place" beers of his own along with great beers from other breweries. It's a novel idea -- what else? -- that sounds like a winner. Looking forward to your return, Tom.


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

Best local brewery: Tröegs Brewing. What did Tröegs do this year that earned them best local brewery status? Nothing special. Just the same old excellent, consistent, perfectionist job that they've done since the day they opened their doors. They remain obsessed with consistency, an obsession I heartily applaud. They try to do one-off specials, but it seems like every one they make  -- Nugget Nectar, Dreamweaver, Rugged Trail -- is so damned popular that they wind up adding it to their line-up. I can't get enough Sunshine Pils over the summer, Troegenator is ready to hand when I want big lager action. They're firing up a new expansion that will see them up to about 30,000 bbls., and they're not sure they want to get bigger. Keep it real, guys.

Best food in a bar: the bar menu at the Speckled Hen. I stopped at this Reading snuggery with some friends recently and was just wowed by the place. Great beer, expertly served, in a truly cozy, warmly comfortable setting; a restored 1700s era log home in the heart of Reading. And the bar menu was delish. We got the "Phenomenal Fries" with a pesto dipping sauce and the waffle fries with roasted garlic sauce, and they were both awesome. I'm thinking up new excuses to go to Reading. 

Worst example of Pennsylvania’s gutless, worthless government: The I figured the case law would be in this slot till people finally rioted in the streets over it. But Ed Rendell's cozy little pat on the back for former state senator Joe Conti (who decided not to run again after happily grasping the infamous midnight pay raise the legislature voted itself), a brand-new $150,000 job as "CEO" of the state liquor store system -- apparently awarded on a no-compete basis -- is simply disgusting. If this doesn't show people what's wrong with state control of booze sales, I just don't know what will. The state liquor "control" system is a farce, and it should be broken up immediately. 

Best brewpub that you people just don't get: Bethlehem Brew Works. To be fair, the folks in the Lehigh Valley do get it: Bethlehem Brew Works is a great place to go, to hang out, to drink delicious beer. But I just don't hear anyone else talking about it. New brewer Beau Baden is an accomplished craftsman (and a fun guy, as well), the food at a recent beer dinner I attended was first-rate. Bethlehem is a very cool town, with some excellent shops within five minutes' walk of BBW. They're finally moving on the new Brew Works in Allentown, after a few years of false starts (hey, let's talk Triumph Red Bank...). Get on this, folks: Bethlehem Brew Works is happening!

Worst area brewpub: Not Crabby Larry's. And I think that's almost all that needs to be said. Okay, almost. See, I went to Crabby Larry's yesterday, and ordered up a beer. I got the IPA, and while it didn't knock my socks off, it was better than okay; it was good. Hats off to new brewer John Stecker, who's honed his brewing skills while working at Keystone Homebrew; he's finally coaxed good beer out of this system. But the real news is: with this development, there are no bad brewpubs in the area. And that is damned good news. 
(Note: I got a number of e-mails urging me to name McKenzie Brewhouse in this category, as some kind of punishment for Scott Morrison's termination. I appreciate the fervor, folks, but that's not fair to his former assistant Ryan (who's now brewing) and it's not really fair to Scott, either. But mostly, it's not what this is about: it's not about politics. These notices are about the beer, and the place.)

Best beer that you people just don’t get: Everything at Stewart's. Okay, yes, this is just another award for "best brewpub you people just don't get." Stewart's rocks, Ric Hoffman brews excellent beers -- from his session strength dry Irish stout to the awesome bourbon barrel beers he's been doing -- and the food's great, whether it's the excellent pub grub (no, really, it's just burgers 'n' stuff, but it's outstanding burgers 'n' stuff) or the dinners where things get crazy. Bear's not that far away. Go. Drink.

Survivor Award: Union Barrel Works. Who the hell ever thought Tom Rupp would actually open a brewery, after years of looking for the right backers and the right location? Well, he's days away from opening Union Barrel Works in Reamstown. I can't wait to see what happens, but this is truly one of those cases where just opening the doors constitutes a win. Welcome back, Tom.

Best Local Beer Event: The Michael Jackson mass tasting at The Book and The Cook. Yeah, yeah, I know: it's loud, hell, it's raucous, there are a ton of folks there who know nothing about beer, Michael's often behind the beers on his comments, and sometimes he drinks a lot at the first of three tastings and the third one gets a little weird, the open tasting in the rotunda can be a zoo... Folks, this thing is great, it's unique. This beer tasting is the biggest event at The Book and The Cook, it has been for years, over a thousand people every year for over 15 years. I met Jackson at my first one (in the men's room...don't ask), thousands of people have first encountered the variety of beer at these events, and the open tasting is tremendous: beer in respectable surroundings, malt among the ruins. Amid disturbing news about the health of both Michael and The Book and The Cook, I have to worry about the future of this event. Hope it all comes right.

Worst local beer coverage: Man, did I ever fall down on the job this year. I didn't get much wrong, but only because I didn't get much out there at all. I'm sure the folks at PhillyMag were disappointed not to win this one four years running (like they noticed), but their beer coverage was sharply improved this year: congratulations
New Year's Resolution:
I'll get more local news, interviews, and stuff up here on a timely basis. 

Best local beer coverage: Jack Curtin. Jack scooped a number of stories on his own Liquid Diet website and did solid news reporting at the Beer Yard site he writes for Matt Guyer.

Best beer scene: The Drafting Room, Exton. If only this place were closer. We had a long discussion among a variety of geeks about where the best place to go for American craft beers is in Philadelphia. The near-simultaneous conclusion was this year's winner. I've written about the beer here numerous times this year, I've enjoyed myself on numerous occasions (though not enough), and I've marveled at what they've managed to bring in. Patrick Mullin is the Tom Peters of the Burbs. And believe me, Tom should feel good about that comparison, too. 

Best local brewer: Tom Baker. Look, put aside all the stuff I said up above about Tom's classy behavior, and the impact he had on the area brewing scene. The guy simply brews amazing beer. The semi-official "last Heavyweight day" at the Drafting Room back in August, when I debuted my seersucker suit to a stunned beer geek crowd, featured a display of brewing prowess that has not been equaled in the Delaware Valley. Tom Baker's beers put all the "extreme beer" ballyhoo in a very small can and toss it in the Schuylkill. Tom's beers are unique, they are well-made, they are well-balanced, and they are wildly flavorful. Genius. I cannot wait for him to settle on a spot and start brewing again.

Most surprising Philly area bar I was in this year: Eulogy. After giving Eulogy the shit for years -- and from my experiences, they deserved it -- I had a great time there this year, on three different occasions. Good beer selection, reasonable prices, great service, and yes, excellent frites. Impressive. With Triumph opening across the street in early spring, and a local constellation of beer spots that includes the Khyber, Brownie's, Race Street Cafe, City Tavern, and the Society Hill might even be worth parking in Old City. Cheers, Michael!


Copyright © 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: January 31, 2007