Best Beers and Suchlike of 2012

Ampleforth Abbey Beer: tasty goodnessI was lucky enough to try a lot of new and interesting things this year, and having an amazing brewery open up just a short walk away has been especially lovely (but more on Tired Hands in a moment). My highlights this year cover a range of styles, but as always, I have a soft spot for something I can actually have more than one of without quickly reaching stumbledom.

I got in a bit more travel than usual in 2012, and highlights of my trips included discovering The House of the Trembling Madness in York – a quirky medieval building I would happily move into – as well as more modern good-beer-bars like the Holborn Whippet in London. Closer to home, I finally visited Tröegs Brewing Company’s new(ish) Hershey brewery and was pleasantly surprised at the excellent food on offer in addition to the known quantity of the beer. I managed two beer runs – The ODDyssey Half-Marathon, which included a welcome Sly Fox Dunkel at the end, and my usual Dogfish Dash 10K, although I was slower than last year (but the beer lines were faster, so it evens out).

Finally, the pleasure of once again having good beer within walking distance cannot be overstated, and the variety and innovation on offer at Tired Hands Brewing Company is nothing short of amazing. I have yet to have even an ‘average’ beer there, and the fresh-baked bread and other local nibbles are equally wonderful – the setting is glorious as well. I could easily make a ten-best list of their beers alone, but that would hardly be fair to anyone else; long may they continue their fine work.

And so, in no particular order, my ten favorite beers of the year:

Rosie Parks Oyster Stout, Fordham Brewing Company, 5.5% ABV, Dover, DE
This was a very pleasant surprise; I thought it would be something quite good, although not earth-shattering, but it went well beyond my expectations. There was definitely a briney, sea-breeze feeling about it, and it paired very well indeed with the roasty (but not overdone) malts. This would quickly become a go-to if I could find it nearer to home…no such luck yet. Given the recent kerfuffle over what does and does not ‘count’ as a craft brewer (if you worry about that sort of thing), this is an ideal beer to prove that what really matters is whether or not it’s a good beer, not who may be a partial owner of the brewery.

Trauger Pilsner, Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company, 4.8% ABV, Croydon, PA
It can be easy for some beer snobs to dismiss pilsners, given what passes for the style in mass production, but this is a really wonderful beer, one that is well worth seeking out. It’s crisp and refreshing, but has a lovely rounded flavor (I realize we’re getting into slightly pretentious territory here, but bear with me) with a very distinctive maltiness. I hope to see this in wider distribution in 2013 – it would be an ideal summer beer.

Once Upon A Time X Ale – November 22nd, 1838, Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project, 7.4% ABV, Somewhere in MA
This was another in the occasional series of collaborations between Pretty Things and beer historian Ron Pattinson, this time demonstrating that ‘mild’ did not necessarily mean low in alcohol. It was particularly interesting to compare it to the 1945 version (from the records of the same London brewery), which clocked in at only 2.8%, though I rather enjoyed that version, too. Deep gold and lots of hops may not be our modern idea of a mild, but then, that’s what primary sources are for. I look forward to more in this series.

Ampleforth Abbey Beer, Ampleforth Abbey, 7% ABV, Ampleforth, UK
I’d been ‘off’ non-Belgian dubbels for a while; I’d had too many that weren’t quite right – some were too sweet, others were just a bit too ‘homebrewey’ for my taste. But this changed my mind completely – it was everything a good dubbel should be, and then some. This featured lots of malt, complex flavor and just the right amount of sweetness; clearly, British monks are onto something good, just as their Belgian counterparts have been for centuries. This was truly a highlight of my UK trip, and I would love to see someone begin importing it to the US.

Ruby Mild, Rudgate Brewery, 4.4% ABV, York, UK
I do love a good mild – and unlike the Pretty Things version above, this was very much the modern version. I may not often agree with CAMRA, but they awarded this beer a gold medal in the mild category this year, and it was very much deserved. I did not have the chance to try others from the brewery, but I would very much like to – if anyone would like to send me off to write about Yorkshire beers, please just get in touch

Sunshine & Lollihops, Daniel Thwaites Brewery, 4.6% ABV, Blackburn, UK
Another low-key, but thoroughly tasty beer, and very summery – gentle floral hops set against a slightly sweet malt backbone. This is a beer brewed for Nicholson’s Pubs, which was in itself another nice surprise – why had I spent years going to Wetherspoons pubs (though some are fine), when Nicholson’s are better on food, beer and child-friendliness? I’m not normally one for chain pubs or restaurants in general, but some ownership groups get things right.

Farmer’s Glory, Wadworth & Co., 4.7% ABV, Devizes, UK
It’s somewhat amusing by American standards to see a beer like this listed as a ‘strong’ bitter, but there is something to be said for subtlety. Yet again, there’s nothing particularly unusual here, just a well-crafted, very refreshing beer with a solid malt flavor. While we do have some beers like this in the US, I admit I do miss having more of this sort to choose from, especially on cask.

Blonde, Black Isle Brewery, 5% ABV, Munlochy, UK
Lest we think that (BrewDog aside) all British beer is ‘normal,’ Black Isle breaks the mold. This small organic brewery in Scotland is making beers that defy simple categorization, and this beer does that admirably. What looked like an unassuming blonde ale (or lager, depending on your interpretation) was remarkably complex – crisp, but a little sweet; refreshing, but full of interesting malt flavors and a hard-to-place (but very pleasant) finish. Interesting indeed.

Scratch 68 – Zwickel Licker, Tröegs Brewing Company, 5.4% ABV, Hershey, PA
A collaboration between Tröegs and your favorite session beer fan and mine, Lew Bryson, this was one of my favorites in their always-interesting experimental beer series. This beer went up against a saison designed with equally-beloved local beer scribe Jack Curtin, and I enjoyed that as well, but had to give the edge to Lew’s brew. I love a good zwickel beer, and this fit the bill perfectly; I’d love to see it come back as a summer regular.

Good Good Things, Tired Hands Brewing Company, 6.2% ABV, Ardmore, PA
It was incredibly difficult to choose just one from Tired Hands, my new local – as mentioned above, everything has been outstanding, from a kvass made with house-baked bread called Slava Oner to the potent Westy13; in between I’ve really enjoyed things like Deuce, a brown ale with a kick, and Ghost, Goblin and Vampire – Halloween beers the way they should be done. But Good Good Things stood out; it’s a bit like a cross between a Berliner Weisse and a very hoppy IPA; on paper, that may sound bizarre, but in practice, it’s tremendous. Wildly refreshing and very complex at the same time, this is just one of example of how they are doing ‘creative’ right at Tired Hands. I expect to see even more on next year’s list.

So, that’s 2012 in a nutshell (though there’s always more to read)…happy new year to all!

Got $1.25 Million for the General Lafayette Inn?

It would be nice to have the lights back onYes, your favorite defunct colonial brewpub, the General Lafayette Inn, is still on the market, but at least now there’s a real estate listing to encourage potential buyers.  It took a bit of digging to find it, though an ad in the print version of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News pointed the way to the firm attempting to offload the historic-but-lacking-public-transit restaurant.

The listing includes the liquor license, and mentions annual income from a cell tower (or ‘Cell Tower’ as it is given on the site; there is unnecessary capitalization for ‘Micro Brewery’ as well; perhaps it’s quaintly Germanic) – one wonders if that is a more recent addition to the property, since the signal was not what might be fairly termed reliable in the past.  Indeed, had Untappd been available at the last Winterfest, it is difficult to imagine maintaining a consistent ability to check in the many and varied beers formerly available at the annual winter beer event.  There is no mention of the alleged ghosts, though the bed & breakfast outbuildings are pictured.

It has been over a year since the last General Lafayette Inn update, and we are edging ever closer to two years since the unfortunate demise of its last incarnation; for a property with such an interesting history and potential, it seems to have become something of an afterthought.

Pop-up Halloween brewpub, anyone?

Update: March 7, 2013 – news at last!

A Very Brief British Beer Round-up

I could move in here.

The House of the Trembling Madness

While on our recent trip to the UK we did the usual touristy things – took in a play the Globe as groundlings, went dowsing at Avebury, flew the TARDIS (well, one of us did, and yes, it was bigger on the inside) – we also kept a watchful eye out for interesting (mostly) cask ales that do not usually travel to our shores.

Places and beers we particularly enjoyed include:

The Wilmington Arms
69 Rosebery Avenue, Clerkenwell, London
We went for a very jet-lagged lunch, and it was practically empty, but we were very pleased to find great service, a nice selection of cask ales, all of which we were invited to sample before choosing, and a fantastic jukebox (which was not unlike playing one of my larger Spotify playlists – I cannot complain). The food was good as well.
Best beer enjoyed there: Elgood’s Cambridge Bitter

The Fox and Anchor
115 Charterhouse Street, Islington, London
This was expensive even by London standards, but it was very laid-back and quiet for dinner, with outstanding food. We had a number of beers from smaller brewers in somewhat twee-but-fun tankards) and some other smaller producers. It was nice to find a London pub (well, gastropub) that didn’t take itself too seriously, and – equally if not more importantly – did not feel that accommodating a well-behaved child was somehow below them (redacted West End pubs, this means you).
Best beer enjoyed here: Colchester Red Diesel

Holborn Whippet
25-29 Sicilian Avenue, Holborn, London
Certainly a destination for the beer nerd set, but not in a snobbish or pedantic way. In addition to a fantastic taplist, it boats friendly barstaff and quite reasonable prices, given its location. There was a nice mix of unusual and harder-to-find beers, like the refreshing unique Black Isle Blond, along with more traditional fare, and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
Best beer enjoyed here: Buxton Brewery Moor Top

Nicholson’s Pubs
The Cross Keys
34 Goodramgate, York
The Punch Bowl
7 Stonegate, York
Somehow I never ran across this chain when I lived in the UK (why was I going to Wetherspoons instead?), but they will certainly be on my radar going forward – not only did they have an excellent selection of guest ales on cask at each of the locations we tried, but they had very reasonable prices, fine food options and were very child-friendly. They also have their own combination pub crawl/ghost walk in York, which is essentially my ideal night out.  We will certainly be seeking them out around the UK on future visits.
Best beer enjoyed here: Thwaites Sunshine and Lollihops

The House of the Trembling Madness
48 Stonegate, York
Another must-visit for beer geeks of all stripes, this bottle shop-cum-medieval pub lives up to its hype. Everything on tap and on cask was outstanding, and the bottled selection was well worth exploring. It would have been easy to spend a whole day here, given the variety and the pleasant surroundings – we started off with Rudgate’s Ruby Mild and Durham Brewery’s Evensong, and moved on to some very ‘American’ IPAs from London’s Kernal Brewery (and quite tasty they were, too). The food is also tremendous and featured some of the best breads and cheeses I’ve had (and I am a bread and cheese nerd, in addition to being a beer nerd). Given that I could happily live on good beer and good bread, this ticked every possible box. Also, if you are 7, the fact that the decor includes swords is a bonus point.
Best beer enjoyed here: Ampleforth Abbey Dubbel

Other travel notes: Thwaites brought back Lancaster Bomber, and it’s still great! One thing I never noticed when actually living in the UK is that tattoo parlors close well before the pubs do – surely a more symbiotic relationship would improve business?

You Should Try This: The New York Distilling Company

The still at the New York Distilling Company

Over the holidays, we had the opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the New York Distilling Company, and it’s well worth a trip into the hipster wilds of Williamsburg to get to know this new microdistillery.  For those who have not been paying attention, microdistilling is the Next Big Thing, and if they’re all nearly this good, I believe it – but more on that later.  The distillery is the brainchild of Tom Potter (of ex-Brooklyn Brewery fame) and his son Bill; we got the full Potter Family treatment on our visit, as our good friends are their former neighbours (this is one of many, many reasons I often miss living in Brooklyn, but I digress).  Even the many and various children we had with us enjoyed the tour (again, many thanks to Gail Flanery for keeping them occupied!), even if they didn’t get to sample the wares at the end like we lucky adults did.

You enter through The Shanty, an industrial-cozy bar (yes, such a thing exists) with gin-inspired light fixtures and a view into the distillery, which at present is essentially a large, industrial space that would certainly be familiar, though not identical, to anyone who has been on a brewery tour.  The difference, of course, is the sparkling new still, custom-made in Germany.  Eventually, rye whiskey will begin here, but in the meantime, there are two varieties of really rather wonderful gin being produced: Perry’s Tot and Dorothy Parker.  The former, were it made in Plymouth, would carry that town’s name, while the latter is a more ‘American’ gin, with a few unusual botanicals like hibiscus in the mix (and isn’t it nice to see a drink named after a woman famous for her wit, rather than her other attributes?).  After touring the distilling operation, we repaired back to the bar, where we got to sample both to fine effect, both alone and in some of the unique cocktails developed by the team there. While I’m normally just a beer drinker, gin is one of the few spirits I do enjoy from time to time, and it was certainly a pleasing experience to taste two that really had a definite (and very distinct) flavor and character (especially on the ‘botanicals’ front).

Future plans include some collaborations with the Brooklyn Brewery (at least insofar as using some of their barrels for aging projects), and the long-term goal, as mentioned above, is whiskey. The gin is certainly much more than a stopgap measure, and while The Shanty is no 30-tap beer bar, it does reserve the beer taps for the good stuff; on our visit, there was a Brooklyn Brewery special release as well as a one-off from a smaller Long Island brewery.

You should most definitely get on the small batch distilling train now, so you can say you liked everything before it went mainstream – and if you’re a cocktail bar, you should be ordering the gin now – it’s tremendous.

Halloween Music & Beer Pairing

Wychwood HobgoblinThere are a number of great beers that seem made for Halloween – Wychwood Hobgoblin, The Lost Abbey’s Witch’s Wit or just about anything from Brasserie Fantôme can work well.  But to really encourage a spooky bring-on-Samhain mood,why not try pairing an autumnal beer with some seasonal music? Thanks to Folk Alley’s Halloween Scream Stream and Spotify, I have a constant rotation of traditional and not-so-traditional Halloween tunes going in the background, and have selected a few music and beverage options below.

Tam Lin – Fairport ConventionTraquair House Ale
I could have chosen any version of Child Ballad 39A – I have something approaching twenty in my own collection (considerably more if you include print), and there is a seemingly endless supply beyond that – but I’m a big fan of this particular one. As you are probably aware, the song tells the story of Janet (also called Margaret in some versions), who must rescue her lover, Tam Lin (insert many variants here as well) from the Queen of the Fairies, who has been keeping him captive at Carterhaugh, a wooded area near Selkirk in Scotland.  Appropriately enough, there is fine beer to be had locally – Traquair House Brewery’s excellent House Ale and Jacobite Ale are both perfect tie-ins.

Witches [sic] Hat – The Incredible String BandMoorhouse’s Pendle Witches Brew
Veering toward the more psychedelic end of the of the psych-folk band’s canon, this 1968 track presumably owes more to chemical experimentation than to the folk tradition, but its trippy lyrics and music are still atmospherically-appropriate for Halloween.  Pair it with Moorhouse’s Pendle Witches Brew for some malty goodness, and raise a glass to the real-life Pendle ‘witches,’ executed in 1612.  Moorhouse’s Black Cat, a mild, is also a fantastic beer.

Lord Of The Ages – Magna Carta / Weyerbacher Old Heathen
Perhaps you have friends who aren’t quite sure what prog rock is.  In response, you might have gone easy on them, offering up some Jethro Tull, but why hold back? This track, released in 1973, has everything: lyrics that might have been borrowed from Tolkien-inspired fan fiction (‘Lord of the Ages rode one night / Out through the gateways of time / Astride a great charger / In a cloak of white samite…’ – you get the idea), a ‘rocking out’ section toward the end, a little chanting and a nearly 10-minute running time.  You may need a strong drink after listening to it, so a Weyerbacher Old Heathen should be just the thing.

Widdicombe Fair – The City Waites / Hambleton’s Nightmare Porter
The most well-known version of the comedic West Country folksong was collected in 1888 by  the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, whose career as an antiquarian, songwriter, correspondent, novelist and folklorist is, perhaps, the classic example of why being a wealthy 19th century churchman was pretty awesome. In the song, a number of stock characters (possibly or possibly not based on real 18th century people from the town of Widecombe in the Moor) borrow a horse to visit the eponymous fair; the mare dies from the effort of hauling a goodly portion of the village around, and returns as a ghost with all aboard. The song, as interpreted by The City Waites, puts the emphasis on the comedy. Although hailing from an entirely different moorland (Yorkshire rather than Devon), Hambleton’s Nightmare Porter still works, and rather nicely too.

Damn These Vampires – The Mountain Goats / Great Lakes Nosferatu
I know, vampires are presently extremely uncool, given their sparkly associations with teenage girls who fear actual boys, but this song recalls a time (not so long ago) when they were still dangerous as well as glamorous (and, frankly, a lot more interesting). Luckily, there is a beer than can help you forget the Twi-hards (or could be employed with caution in a related drinking game, though one suspects that it would be easy to see such a game reach Withnailian proportions) – Great Lakes Nosferatu. This big, red beer is one to look forward to every fall (rather unlike Twilight movies, unless your capacity for ironic viewing is unparalleled).

In the Company of Ravens – Maddy Prior / Black Raven Brewing’s Tamerlane Brown Porter
This spare, haunting tribute to the oft-misunderstood bird, from the Steeleye Span singer’s 1999 solo album, Ravenchild, is a great mood-setter for Halloween, and  Black Raven Brewing’s Tamerlane Brown Porter keeps the spooky theme going with a liquid nod to Edgar Allen Poe.  Appropriately enough, in addition to their porter, the Seattle brewery makes a great IPA called Trickster – also raven-approved in Native American lore.

Happy Halloween! For more on beer and hauntings, check out my story on the Lemp family over at Serious Drinks, or go back a bit further for my pumpkin beer history.

Beer Events: Dogfish Dash 2011

Pre-race hijinks

Another year, another Dogfish Dash – and another PR.

This marked my fourth (and fastest) time competing in the event; it’s easy to stay motivated mid-race when you know that a good finish will ensure a shorter line for great beer (even if the hill at the end of the course seems steeper than it did the first time around). As has become our usual routine, we arrived at the brewpub the afternoon before, shortly before packet pickup was officially set to begin; like last year, they were already handing out packets, but there were not yet long lines. Pro tip: send one member of your party in to put your name on the list while you retrieve your bib, bag, t-shirt and wristband – we do this annually and have never had to wait longer than about half an hour (though of course it’s always much more crowded than on a typical Saturday afternoon in the off season – a major reason we usually try to get down to the beach more often in the fall and early spring). This year’s bags were particularly nice – collapsible, but capacious. The free Chicory Stout posters were a pleasant surprise as well.

Once inside, we enjoyed the Repoterroir – a pentagon-shaped collaboration with ingredients and brewing magic from Dogfish Head, Allagash, The Lost Abbey, Sierra Nevada and Avery. It was especially pleasing to find a ‘special’ but not terribly strong beer on tap – perfect for sampling and carbo-loading! Without going into a full review, the beer really showcases a number of unusual flavours, with the mint and ‘beach’ wood really standing out; it’s a bit of an Everlasting Gobstopper in a pint (and that’s a good thing). This year’s Punkin Ale is very fine indeed as well, and late lunch/early dinner was enjoyed by all.

The next morning, we arrived at the brewery early; parking seemed easier than it had in previous years, so it seems that lessons from previous years have been well-learned. I would suggest a bit more organization at the start for next year; there are pace markers, but they were largely ignored, perhaps because the race was so well-attended – while it was a nice ego boost to be passing some of the slower runners (and walkers) in the early miles, it was a bit traffic-jammy, and might be worth separating out the 5K and 10K in the future – but it’s a minor quibble.

Rehydration (Punkin Ale & 60 Min IPA)

Once things were underway, the race volunteers were fantastic, as in previous years – water (in eco-friendly cups) is plentiful, and the split where we 10Kers leave the 5K folks was well-marked. The 10K course loops around Milton, taking in much Victorian architecture and some interesting old graveyards, before finally coming back through town – and back to the brewery. The water  bottles (like the bags, collapsible) at the finish were great – I’d been thinking of buying one of that variety anyway – so getting one just for running 10K seemed a reasonable exchange! This year, there were two beer tents – one with some of the ‘lighter’ beers (including Lawnmower Light and Shelter Pale Ale and My Antonia, with the other tent offering Indian Brown and Punkin – the 60 Min IPA was available at both. The beer lines definitely seemed longer and slower than in previous years, but that is no doubt simply further evidence of the race’s popularity – hopefully next year there will be more capacity in that regard, but again, it’s another reason to train hard and finish strong! My only other suggestions for future improvements would be to run shuttle buses from the brewpub to ease the parking (and driving) situation, but that’s largely because it would be incredibly convenient for me to walk from the beach house to the brewpub – still, I’m sure it would be helpful for others as well, if something of a logistical challenge.

We took the short version of the brewery tour again after obtaining beer – it seems there’s an entirely new part of the building every year – and there were many wonderful things for sale in the shop. Back outside, we wandered around for a bit, checking out the best of the costumed runners; perhaps next year, I’ll even get around to doing the keg sprints.

Once again, it was a great race, with money going to a great cause…I’d love to do a half-marathon that finishes at the brewery some time. March would be perfect…

An Update: Want to Buy the General Lafayette Inn?

It would be nice to have the lights back onThe fate of the General Lafayette Inn seems to be of ongoing interest to beer drinkers and potential business owners far and wide – our previous post on the topic is constantly receiving heavy search traffic and many return visits.  And if you are one of those looking to re-open the bar, your chance has come at last.

After much legal wrangling, the General Lafayette Inn (and its outbuildings) are featured in a sheriff’s sale scheduled for August 31.  Sovereign Bank is aiming high – the amount they’d like to get is $1,081,376.98 (plus another number just north of $3500 in costs).  One presumes the high sticker price comes from loans they made to open the ill-fated Tied House in Philadelphia proper – it’s hard to imagine the Lafayette Hill location commanding that sort of value, even with the brewing equipment and liquor license – but it’s also possible that a much lower bid might be accepted on the day.  (A slight aside: there used to be a streetcar line from the city that stopped right in front of the General Lafayette – having decent public transit would make its location much, much more attractive – but alas, the prospective buyer will have to make do with the parking lot).

Two parcels make up the current property – the houses behind the main colonial building that were once used for bed & breakfast accommodation are separate from the restaurant and liquor license – it’s also possible that those could be divided, though given the layout, it’s difficult to see how that would be usefully accomplished without some fairly heavy redevelopment which could further detract from (or possibly destroy) the historic context (and, potentially, fabric) of the main building.  As discussed before, the site has great potential, but it needs some careful planning and thoughtful management.

Hopefully someone with a respect for history, knowledge of great beer and some business creativity will be at Courtroom A at the Montgomery Country Courthouse in Norristown by 1 pm on August 31st with a view toward taking on docket #201017050 – local beer fans (and, one might guess, the resident ghosts) will be grateful if the General Lafayette ends up in safe hands.

Update (August 31, 2011): The property was sold for costs – if you know the buyer, we’re all ears…

Update (October 5, 2012): Still on the market

Update (March 13, 2013): A new hope

…Said George Pal to his Bride

Beer! Racing! Together!Finally, two of my favorite activities are coming together, not unlike an existential Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup: a festival celebrating local beer is being held at the racetrack. The brains behind Philly Beer Week and TrackPackPA, the quite-entertaining people who have been working hard to raise the profile of Pennsylvania horse racing, are holding the first annual (so it is hoped) PA Craft Beer Fest at Parx (née Philadelphia Park) on September 10th.

In addition to beer from 20 Pennsylvania breweries, there will be local food galore (though, unlike many festivals, you are also welcome to BYO food) as well as music, a little volleyball and, of course, a prime spot along the rail. Given that racetrack food and drink is beyond appalling most of the time, this is a unique opportunity – it is a prime opportunity to enjoy a day at the track without starving (or overpaying for a suspicious hot dog).

If you’ve never played the ponies before, it’s entirely possible that sampling a few of the region’s finest beers could improve your odds. Of course, you are more than welcome to tap seasoned, and, occasionally, lucky, handicappers like this writer for advice; I’m always willing to hand out a live longshot if it involves a (good) drink. And don’t worry about being in unfamiliar surrounds at Parx – it may have been the home of  Smarty Jones (now plying his trade in Uruguay, at least for part of the year) it’s no Saratoga or Churchill Downs, so don’t look for ladies in hats or men in late-season seersucker suits (though you are more than welcome to develop a drinking game based on spotting them). Do expect to see people poring over their copies of the Daily Racing Form before heading to the windows to place bets, and feel free to ask for ideas on the finer points of pedigree analysis or to discover which jockeys are on hot streaks; racetrack people are friendly people.

What could be more fun (and appropriate) than cheering the horse you’ve backed home while enjoying something from Victory? And how many beer festivals give you the opportunity to win back your entrance fee?

It’s a day not to be missed.

Beer Events: Project Venus

Whitney Thompson represents!

Whitney Thompson represents!

While American Craft Beer Week may not get people as motivated around these parts as Philly Beer Week, Victory Brewing Company chose this week to host their first all-women event: Girls Just Wanna Have Suds, featuring the female-brewed collaboration beer, Project Venus.  At the appointed hour, the brewpub’s back room was quite full – there’s obviously demand for gatherings like this one, and the attendees are a largely punctual bunch.

Food and beer pairing stations were set up around the room; an endive and jicama appetizer went with Summer Love (in a slightly different formulation from last year’s offering), a goat cheese appetizer joined with Helios, pistachio-encrusted turkey (strangely, wonderfully compelling) was paired with Headwaters Pale Ale, and mussels played a supporting role to Project Venus, the star attraction. Only one keg of the featured beer made its way from Cambridge to Pennsylvania, but its origin there is worth mentioning. Devised by Megan Parisi of Cambridge Brewing Company, Laura Ulrich of Stone and Whitney Thompson of Victory, the beer marks the first female-driven collaboration brew at a commercial American brewery, although anyone who knows their beer history knows it marks more of a return to How Things Always Were.

The beer was brewed in Cambridge on their fifteen barrel system; it’s a dubbel, but quite unlike your typical Belgian offering. The recipe included blood oranges and saffron, and the resulting ruby-brown beer packs something of a wallop (though not, it must be said, a Hop Wallop) at around 9% ABV. My initial concern was that the beer might be quite sweet, given its base style and the addition of fruit, but the oranges impart a pleasant, slightly tart citrus flavour, while the overall taste remains a rounded maltiness. The finish is rather chocolately, though a relatively dry chocolate in my opinion – certainly not syrupy or overly sweet. Brewer Whitney Thompson described the finish as ‘like a Tootsie Roll’ and that was very apt.

The Project Venus concept is catching on worldwide; in the UK, Sara Barton of Brewster’s Brewery (one of my favo(u)rites) joined up with Sara Carter of Triple fff Brewery, Michelle Kelsall from Off Beat Brewery, Kathy Britton from Oldershaw Brewery and Gráinne Walsh of Metalman Brewing Company in Ireland to create Venus Jade, a hoppy but very sessionable ale. The group aims to create more beers together in the near future. In Canada, Claire Connolly of Big River Brewpub led a team of brewsters to create something a little Belgianesque, with some cherrywood-smoked malts, just in time for Vancouver Beer Week, and other projects are in the works elsewhere. With the Pink Boots Society bringing women in the industry together, it stands to reason that we’ll be seeing many more similar projects in the future.

As female drinkers of craft beer, we’re spoiled for choice in this region – In Pursuit of Ale and West Chester Beer Ladies offer local women a chance to get together to enjoy and learn more about great beer, while Seattle and Portland have recently welcomed Barley’s Angels chapters (Rogue has even ‘recognized‘ them as part of Rogue Nation) – indeed, there are groups as far afield as Buenos Aires and Sydney. Women Enjoying Beer, Girls Pint Out and Ladies of Craft Beer all offer camaraderie and learning opportunities for the distaff drinker.

It almost seems a bit unfair to the male beer drinker that he can’t always join it at some of these events, but I certainly won’t complain. We’re here, we’ve beer – get used to it!

Beer Destinations: The Farmer’s Cabinet

The Farmer's CabinetIt might seem a bit premature to anoint a venue that has been open only a few short weeks a must-visit for craft beer fans, but The Farmer’s Cabinet is simply that good – in fact, it’s really quite amazing, and not just for the beer.

The restaurant and bar is latest venture from the team behind Fork & Barrel and a number of highly-regarded other establishments beyond Philadelphia, and they’ve done it in a distinctive style.  The detailed interior might best be described as having a slightly steampunk, yet rustic, Weimar Republic theme (minus, of course, the smoking and proto-Nazis) – and this is a very Good Thing.  The sense of age is carried through with the lighting (low, but by no means too dark, with many  candles) and music (1920s and ’30s jazz, blues and more).  The staff are dressed in similarly ‘anywhen’ attire, and they are without question the most knowledgeable and well-trained bartenders one is likely to come across – it’s obvious that they are very familiar with even their more obscure products (more on those in a moment) and they are happy to offer small tasting glasses to the indecisive customer.

There are four distinct sections to The Farmer’s Cabinet; the beer bar is near the front, complete with piano, a more domestic cocktail bar, and two dining areas (though dining at the bar is certainly a handy way to ensure frequent refills).  The first dining room, containing long wooden communal tables would not be out of place in a traditional German bierhall, while the other offers more intimate seating toward the rear of the restaurant.  Another advantage of sitting at the bar is access to the delicious free popcorn: it’s both sweet and savoury, but quite unlike kettle corn.  In contrast to many other bars, The Farmer’s Cabinet doesn’t skimp on the water – there are handy carafes that are always kept full.

And so we arrive at the beer – and a more well-curated selection of smaller European breweries would be difficult to imagine.  This is perhaps best illustrated by this anecdote: I love Leipziger Gose – its salty goodness makes it one of my favorite beer styles, and its relative rarity means I typically jump at the chance to have some, especially on tap; the same goes for just about any Berliner Weisse, and there were classic examples of both available. But at The Farmer’s Cabinet, there were so many other intriguing options on offer that I never got around to my beloved German beers.   Instead, we sampled hard-to-find beers from Norway, Denmark, Austria, Italy and England (with two cask ales from Thornbridge) – and while ex-Bullfrog Brewery helmsman Terry Hawbaker will shortly be overseeing on-site nanobrewing operations, the United States was represented in the meantime by Ballast Point.  There is also a unique bottle list, but given the rotating tap list, it’s easy enough to overlook it.  One hopes that the balance currently maintained on the tap list will be maintained – there was a nice mix of lower- to medium-strength beers as well as a few higher-octane brews, which made it easy enough to try a number of different choices without a rapid progression to extreme tipsiness. Each beer on tap is offered in two sizes, which also helps make sampling simple.  The cocktail list is just as well-crafted as the beer menu, but I will leave that to mixed-drink experts to evaluate properly – it made very interesting reading.

The food is just as varied and fantastic – it encompasses everything from house-baked breads (including an outstanding sea salt/olive oil sourdough) to great meats and cheeses, to a variety of small plates, sandwiches and interesting entrees.  One imagines the desserts are equally tremendous, but clearly more strategy will be required to leave room next time. Even the more ‘pedestrian’ fare is worthy of close scrutiny: the burger was a house-blended mix of brisket and bacon.  Let me reiterate that point: the burger had ground bacon mixed into it – it was phenomenal. Everything is made with real ingredients; the farms the meat and produce came from are name-checked on the menu.

None of this comes cheap, but the blow of receiving the check is softened somewhat by its appearance in an old-fashioned cigar box, accompanied by a sea salt caramel.  It’s worth every penny, and The Farmer’s Cabinet deserves to become a true destination.