No doubt, there are few places where a thirsty Philadelphia beer geek would be more thrilled than in a seat at the Brewvi tasting table, where 28 breweries from across the Philadelphia region had sent their entries in two categories: "new beer" (debuted in 2014) and this year's single-style focus on "saison," an increasingly popular Belgian-style farmhouse ale.
One judge, Michael Ryan Lawrence, actually is the reigning 2013 Philly Beer Geek (the most recent champ of the regional Beer Week competition) as well as the filmmaker behind Beeradelphia - The City of Brewery Love. And along with the others, including guest out-of-town brewer Tim Adams of Oxbow in Maine, three journalists, the cofounder of PhillyTapFinder.com, and a Philly Beer Week board member, there was enough technical banter of yeast and fermentation temps, barrel time, and "lots of bugs" doing funky things, that a casual drinker might wonder what these judges were actually drinking.
Especially given the contentious disagreements.
"That tastes like Robitussin!" said one, referring to a nearly fluorescent red Kriek, a sour cherry lambic from Free Will Brewing Co.
"Are you stoned?" replied a Kriek fan in good-natured disbelief. Other judges apparently agreed, liking the wickedly tart brew enough ("with great cherry flavor and gentle cinnamon notes," noted one) that it tied for fifth place in the new-beer category out of 32 contenders.
Its fifth-place tie-mate? Purple Monkey Dishwasher, an equally controversial porter with chocolate and peanut butter (yes, really) that was clearly Evil Genius Beer Co.'s less-sweet reply to a breakout brew from DuClaw in Baltimore: "Step aside, 'Sweet Baby Jesus,' " said Lawrence, invoking DuClaw's national hit.
"No [obscenity] way!" disagreed Adams, a self-avowed traditionalist. "Doesn't smell or taste like beer."
As always, the region's brewers showed no fear of envelope-pushing ingredients, from chile peppers (Dock Street's Caliente) to prickly pears (Prism's Tex Mex Prickly Pear Wit). Reflecting a year of tremendous growth, six new breweries also put their beers into the ring: Barren Hill Tavern from Lafayette Hill, Village Idiot in Mount Holly, Bucks County Brewery in Pipersville, Conshohocken Brewery, Armstrong Ales from Phoenixville, and the Naked Brewing Co. from Huntingdon Valley.
But the top six prizes - split evenly between the brewery class of 1995 (Sly Fox, Tröegs, Iron Hill) and the upstart class of 2012 (Tired Hands, Forest & Main, Round Guys) - largely excelled with mastery over classic styles. The creamy-textured, fruity, and powerful LaGrave Golden Ale from Tröegs, for example, was a spot-on interpretation of a Belgian tripel. But there was particular emphasis on the Belgian-influenced techniques of oak barrel aging and the intuitive art of wild, souring yeasts.
This was especially true with the saisons, a refreshing and aromatic dry style that has risen quickly from nearly extinct Belgian niche beer to the current national rage. Local breweries sent 20 saisons to the Brewvi's panel this year, versus only 10 pilsners for last year's focused category. Our saison champ, Tired Hands, won with a tart four-grain ale aged in chardonnay barrels called HandFarm that took second prize "new" beer last year from a completely different panel - a convincing certification.
The brettanomyces yeast often used to lend a sour, wild aroma to many saisons was used quite differently by Round Guys Brewing Co. for a clever twist on a refreshing pale ale, Fear of a Brett Planet, that seemed to meld two rising trends (brett, canned beer) with a now slightly fading obsession with hoppy pale ales.
There were still plenty of hops in the Brewvitational's top new beer for 2014, a Russian Imperial Stout called Nihilist from Sly Fox Brewing Co. But that bitterness was only necessary to keep the heady 9.5 percent alcohol and roasty malts of this deep, dark brew tinged with coffee and chocolate notes in such a perfectly drinkable and elegant balance.
"Lush, alive," wrote the usually hop-averse judge Rick Nichols.
"Brian O'Reilly sure knows how to make a big beer taste small!" crowed Hartranft about Sly Fox's master brewer.
But Hartranft and others were dying to know the identity of this year's fourth-place "new" beer, a hefeweizen that wowed some with a textbook interpretation of the refreshing style. When the bottle was revealed, a collective gasp - "Holy cow!" - echoed through the room. It was the new Summer Wheat from D.G. Yuengling & Son. This expert panel so preoccupied with the latest offerings from the region's new artisan beer movement had just been reminded by the unbiased thrill of a blind tasting that one of the big guys - and America's oldest brewery - still had some crafty moves.