Thursday, March 8, 2007

The Way We Were

Reminiscing … there’s a danger to it, a danger in clinging to the past.

Then somehow gets a rose-colored upper hand on Now, no matter that a cell phone these days effortlessly fits on your ear, while that size-10 Topsider with an antenna and Motorola logo on it you once carried barely fit your mitts.

But glory days are something that go well with a beer. So what the hell, let’s pour one and talk about Then and less about Now, as last Saturday’s Philly Craft Beer Festival slips lower on the horizon and this weekend’s Atlantic City gathering (Celebration of the Suds) gets ready to take the stage …

Go big or not at all

Philly beer columnist Don Russell, dispensing advice for making the most of the 2007 Philly festival, pointed out the 10-plus years since Philadelphia beerfest planners went growler instead of pint to summon the thirsty for a giant mixer.

We checked with Don to see if he was referring to that April 1995 festival at the Philadelphia Civic Center. Indeed, he was.

There were other notable Philly festivals that followed -- the Electric Factory and Poor Henry’s. But the Civic Center bash still stands as a benchmark, as if some gates had just opened to a wider world. The official taster glasses even stirred up the crowd for more, with a teaser to a planned summer Atlantic City festival emblazoned on one side. (New Jersey’s beer police saw to it that a 1995 AC festival wouldn’t get off the ground. But the ball was already rolling in the bigger picture, and Garden State beer fans would eventually gather for festivals at Waterloo Village in Sussex County and elsewhere.)

Sometimes memory lane has potholes in it (there’s a joke in there; think about it). But if you recall, a dozen years ago, the microbrew craze (with the West already in its pocket) was homesteading in the Mid-Atlantic region. The import craze continued to whet appetites, too, and pretty soon you weren’t thinking about the ones you already knew: Beck’s, Heinken or Lowenbräu. St. Pauli Girl, well, you did end up forgetting your first girl.

Your palate was challenged to mature. And British ales were a major reference point, with ESB the call letters. (Seems like ESBs are to Then what IPAs are to Now.) At that Civic Center bash, beers you clamored for included some of the UK’s choice names, Fuller’s … Young’s … Batemans Good Honest Ales (their XXXB was pretty good; honest).

Remember Double Diamond? Forget Foster's, how about Cooper’s Australian stout? U.S craft brewers weighed in, too. Hooked on Red Hook? Get Wicked? Hike the Sierras? And did an in-law sign you up for a beer of the month club? The beer geek in you was being groomed and served.

In New Jersey, The Ship Inn and Triumph would open their doors; Flying Fish would find a lane on the Information Super Highway and go from modem to a glass.

Planet Beer had Boston Beer’s Jim Koch inspiring the do-it-yourself set as a keynote speaker at the American Homebrewers Association conference in Baltimore (where an on-the-road version of the Great American Beer Festival would be held three years later, the same weekend the media would start spreading the news that Sinatra had died).

Speaking of homebrewing, seems like every time you mentioned to someone back then you had joined the brew-your-own crowd, they felt compelled to offer some tale of an uncle and exploding bottles in a basement.

And speaking of uncle, ready to cry it? Too much reminiscing? Well there’s more. But maybe another time, another beer.

(By the way, the Civic Center in University City is gone now, demolished, turned into a memory. Atlantic City Race Course has practically gone condo and shopping mall. Trivia tidbit: Joni Mitchell stormed off the stage during a 1969 pop festival at AC Race Course, pissed off at the audience. Legend has it, the experience soured her enough that she skipped Woodstock. Reality or Wikiality?)

A photo gallery from the Philly Craft Beer Festival can be seen here. And then there’s this photo animation ...

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Eight bells and all is well

Here’s an update from Saturday’s inaugural Philly Craft Beer Festival. (We’re sure the cruise terminal at the Naval Yard has been swept and the deck swabbed by now, no small task when it comes to a building that nearly rivals a football field in length.)

If you’re one of the beer enthusiasts who may have ended up three sheets to the wind by drinking 2 ounces at a time, we hope the hangover was mild, although we didn’t notice anyone totally hammered during the noon-to-4 p.m. session we attended. Buzzed? Absolutely, but hammered, not really. We can’t speak to the evening session (6 to 10).

Incidentally, the festival's website reports both sessions sold out. (Admission was $35 in advance, $40 at the door.) Success!

And with that said, here are some details by the numbers …

Beer: Fifty brewers and 120 beers, more brew than you could possibly drink in two four-hour sessions, but so many different kinds that the beer geek in you might have been tempted to try. And we confess, those figures are what the promo literature declared. In our quest to taste some beer (we sampled from 17 breweries) and support these words with photos, we didn’t have time to check in with the management to see if any breweries were no-shows.

New Jersey beers: The Garden State five were Climax Brewing Co. of Roselle Park (pouring an ESB and an Oktoberfest); Cricket Hill Brewing Co. of Fairfield (a session IPA, East Coast Lager and Colonel Blides Alt Bier); Flying Fish Brewing Co. of Cherry Hill (XPA and Abby Dubbel; special thanks to Gene Muller for some key assistance to Beer-Stained Letter); High Point Brewing (Ramstein) of Butler (amber lager and blonde wheat); and Triumph Brewing Co. of Princeton (and New Hope, Pa., with a Philly location soon; Bengal Gold IPA, and our sincerest apologies for not taking down the other styles poured).

Details et cetera ...

The compass:
Brewers came from near (Philly, Philly burbs, greater Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and of course New Jersey) and from afar (Colorado, Maine, Vermont and Upstate New York, to name a few).

Interesting beer: Origin, a pomegranate-infused beer from New York and San Francisco-based Shmaltz Brewing Co. He’brew brews, the chosen beers; funny schtick, pretty good beer.

with a brew: Pig Iron Porter from Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant (Delaware and Philly burbs). A former co-worker once slipped us a half-gallon of this porter back in the mid-’90s. It was good then and tasty still.

Attendance: Seemed like a battleship-load of people. Again, according to the literature, attendance would be cut off at 1,500 per session, and not oversold so folks could get served easily. Some of the participating brewers, however, marveled at the crowd size, speculating it was an aircraft carrier-load instead.

First session peak attendance seemed to be about 2:30 p.m. That’s when the dissonant drone of a thousand-plus voices chattering at once was the loudest. Also, navigating from port to starboard in the terminal was toughest about this time. Oh the sea of humanity. The lines to the heads were also quite long, but observant folks discovered a unisex head in the side room where the brewers’ panel discussion was held. Virtually no line! Way cool. Overall, a patient crowd, well behaved.

Food: Concession fare, but we must offer some props. It wasn’t bad for an event that had to deal in volume and do it fast to keep long lines moving (24-minute wait when we ate). Sample purchase: Turkey wrap, soft pretzel (this is Philadelphia) and a crab cake sandwich. Pinch to the wallet: 16 bucks, (but we’ve seen worse -- six bucks for a half liter of Deer Park at a Meadowlands parking lot party for the New Jersey Devils’ 2003 Stanley Cup win.)

Music: The Bullets. And sadly, we couldn’t hear them aft. Not their fault, though. We did make a point to move to the bow and actually listen to them. (Caught their cover of the Wallflowers’ “6th Avenue Heartache.” Coincidentally, we listened to “Bringing Down the Horse” during the ride into the city.) Fender guitars (one with the fat headstock, a reissue of an early 1970s model), stand-up bass, fiddle, a modest 20-inch bass drum on the drum kit ("It gets the job done" we were told) ... we'd liked to have spent more time listening, but duty called.

Minor letdown: Keepsake sampling glass was plastic. We prefer actual glass. Some day we’ll get over this hang-up.

Missed opportunity: Dock Street. We liked Dock Street back in the 1990s and used to take a six or two to friends for the Kentucky Derby. Then the brewery closed. We read about a return of the beer, but alas we didn't get a taste before hitting our limit for safe driving.

Cool Display:
Pint and shot glass setup at Raven Beer. With the sunlight filtering through from behind, it sometimes made for a ghostly effect in Poe's visage on the glassware. Quoth the Raven: You break, you buy.

Quotable quote: “Dude, are you Troegenating her?”A metaphoric, wink-wink, nudge-nudge appropriation of Tröegs’ double bock name. We’ll let it go at that.

Look for a photo gallery to go up soon. We’re still editing the nearly 300 frames we shot, weeding out the chaff. Also, if we took your business card and promised to email you some photos, we hope to get that done within a week.