Atlantic Ale Trail
by Jack Curtin
With a foot of snow still on the ground and no assurances that more wasn't on the way, we were looking for any harbinger of spring that we could latch on to here in the City of Brotherly Blizzards. The fifth annual Main Line Brew Fest on the first day of March fit the bill quite nicely. It was held at the Desmond Hotel in Malvern, about 20 minutes outside the city, and it drew all the Usual Suspects among local breweries.
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Truth be told, by the time we're a month or two into festival season, I grow weary of tiny glasses and two-ounce pours. But the one aspect I never tire of is the opportunity to get a sense of who's hot and who's not, of which breweries are exciting the beer geeks at this point in time. In that vein, my jaunt out to San Francisco for the Celebrator Beer News 15th anniversary bash raised an interesting question in my mind. Given that Victory Brewing Company of Downingtown, Pa., and Dogfish Head Brewery of Milton, Del., are now rather solidly established nationally as our region's best-known and best-respected breweries, which one will ride the wave next and catch the spotlight?
Walking around the festival floor, I came up with an answer to that question. We'll get to it a bit further down, but first let me bring everyone up to date on the state of craft brewing in the Philadelphia region, at least as it applies to our full-scale breweries.
Basically, the guys who brought the microbrewing revolution to the city back in 1995-96 (a special nod here to Stoudt's in Adamstown, Pa., which was created in that magic year of 1987 and just keeps rolling along) have survived the storm. The big shakedown at the end of the last century (does it still seem as weird to you as it does to me to write that?) took out the stockbrokers at Independence Brewing (gone) and Red Bell Brewery (under new management and retrenching, at least in terms of outlandish promises of brewpubs which never materialize) and the overextended Ortlieb Brewing Company (gone).
In short, the folks who wanted to create memorable IPAs outlasted the folks who were mostly interested in creating profitable IPOs.
Most of the remaining breweries made major moves during 2002, except for New Jersey's Flying Fish Brewing, which is expected to do so in 2004. Victory Brewing in Downingtown expanded into an adjoining 23,000-square-foot space to create a brand-new packaging area for its beers; the brewery now offers 750-ml corked bottles, which were introduced in late 2002. Yards Brewing (now the only full-scale brewery within Philadelphia city limits) moved its plant into the former home of the Weisbrod & Hess Brewing Company, which closed its doors in 1939. The 40,000-square-foot facility in the city's Kensington section will allow the brewery to increase production to over 10,000 barrels per year.
Weyerbacher Brewing Company in Easton, Pa., moved from the old livery stable where it was founded into a new, modern plant in an industrial center, where there is room to expand production to 15,000 barrels. And in the most significant upgrade of all, Delaware's Dogfish Head purchased the entire 50-barrel brewery and bottling facilities of defunct Ortlieb and moved the equipment to Milton, about seven miles from the old brewery in Lewes. The new capacity opens the door for increased production and distribution of the brewery's highly sought-after beers. Dogfish Head also added a microdistillery to its Rehoboth Beach brewpub.
Joining the fun earlier this year, tiny Sly Fox Brewhouse & Eatery in suburban Phoenixville purchased the 20-barrel brewhouse and brewing equipment of the defunct Hoster Brewing Company in Ohio and moved it into the historic and recently renovated foundry building in its hometown. The 115-year-old foundry -- the last remaining vestige of the Phoenix Iron and Steel Company -- will house the Schuylkill Valley Visitor Center and a new Sly Fox brewery and restaurant if negotiations with the Phoenixville Area Economic Development Corporation go as planned. Late 2003 or early next year are likely dates for an opening. The existing Sly Fox brewpub with its 12-barrel system will remain in place.
(Caveat emptor: Sly Fox is my "local," and I currently maintain its Website, so keep these facts in mind whenever I write about the place.)
All of which brings us back to my pick for the next local brewery to have you folks out there clamoring for its beers (this, by the way, is what we used to call "burying the lead" in the newspaper game): Tom Baker and Heavyweight Brewing Company.
Heavyweight Brewing is located in Ocean, N.J.,, essentially in the middle of nowhere. It's a classic micro, a one-man operation founded in 1999 in a small leased space. The original plant consisted of a 7-barrel brewhouse with an oversized mash tun and two 15-barrel fermenters. An expansion this February doubled the space, and two more fermenters were added. Baker does all the brewing and packaging in-house with help from a band of eager and loyal volunteers and wife Peggy Zwerver, who also handles the detail and money stuff that drives most new brewers to distraction.
Baker is committed to big, bold beers. "There are already a lot of wonderful pale ales and traditional lagers and good basic beers being made out there. I'm still a homebrewer at heart, and I want to make unusual beers or at least create interesting interpretations of classic styles." He absolutely refuses to produce anything close to a "summer beer," despite the pleas of publicans. "I tell them there are people who want strong beers in August as well as in January," he said.
Year-round Heavyweight beers are Lunacy Belgian-Style Golden Ale (7.7% abv), Perkuno's Hammer Imperial Baltic Porter (8.3% abv) and Baltus - O.V.S. (8.2% abv). ("Baltus has been called a Belgian-style brown, a dubbel and a weizenbier. We just call it O.V.S. - Our Very Special," said Baker.) Seasonals include Cinderbock Lager (7% abv), Two Druids' Gruit Ale (6.7% abv), Stickenjab Alt Bier (6.4% abv), Old Salty Barleywine (9-12% abv), Biere d'Art (7.7% abv) and Turbidity Wheat (6.8% abv). Baker originally said the last two would be one-offs but has already relented and will brew Biere d'Art again this year.
Heavyweight exists below the radar of most people outside our area not only because the brewery is small. Baker has an aversion to beer judgings and competitions and chooses not to participate. However, he did send Perkuno's Hammer to the Great British Beer Festival in Olympia, London, U.K., last year, unaware that there would be a judging. Perkuno's won second place as "Best American Beer," behind Victory's HopDevil Ale. (Interestingly, Victory also tends to eschew competitive beer events and was also unaware that this was one.)
More evidence that I didn't just pull this one out of a hat? Heavyweight expanded its market into Massachusetts this year, and the results have been, well, more than anyone could ask. "They're selling everything I can send them," Baker told me. "It's unbelievable how well we're doing."
Victory caught everyone's eye because the beers are just so damned good, world class in a lot of instances. What's not to like? Dogfish Head did it with unusual, creative beers and, especially, big beers. True, Sam Calagione's charm and wit didn't hurt either, but they wouldn't have taken him very far without the beers to back it all up.
Tom Baker makes good beer. And he makes BIG beer.
Remember, you read it here first.
Jack Curtin lives, writes and drinks beer near Philadelphia. You can find more of his beer opinions and commentary at www.jackcurtin.com/liquiddiet.
Copyright 2003, Celebrator No material herein may be reprinted without permission of the Celebrator Distributed On the W3 For personal, non-commercial enjoyment and use only. Cheers!
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