Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Beer Lover's Mid-Atlantic book awards -- breweries

In a continuing effort to close out 2015, allow me to take a slightly different approach to year-end lists. As 2014 for me was much about researching and writing a book and 2015 was promoting and selling it, it seems fitting to share with you some of my most interesting and best experiences along the way.

As of tomorrow morning, I will have conducted 51 meet-the-author/book signing events to promote my Beer Lover's Mid-Atlantic book. Since, as many of you know, I'm a numbers guy, that I have the following numbers in my back pocket should not be surprising. Some counts to summarize: 9,444 miles driven across DE, MD, NJ, and PA; 379 establishments visited; 12,000+ pictures taken; countless hours of lost sleep; 0 speeding tickets; 0 parking tickets; and a barely-scientific WAG of 8,717 ounces of beer consumed. Add the uncalculated food consumed along the way to mitigate the effects of alcohol and I ended 2014 with an extra 16 pounds to carry around as a result of nearly 6 months of research and very little exercise to offset the intake.

The final product includes 320 establishments mentioned or otherwise included in the book and broken down in the following fashion: Delaware (30); Maryland (62); New Jersey (59); Pennsylvania (169). Or, stated from a different perspective: Breweries & Brewpubs (135); Bars & Restaurants (185).

I'm so grateful to all that have supported me and my efforts along the way, from the initial requests for information, visits, etc. at the establishments to those that supported me by hosting events and the customers that came out to talk beer, drink beer, and purchase my book.

This is a two-part series. I'll focus first here on some of the special brewing establishments that I found on the road to great beer.

Longest Drive - All in Erie, Pa., Lavery at 404 miles from home, nudged out Brewerie (403 miles) and Erie Brewing Co. (402 miles).

Closest to home - McKenzie Brew House under a mile. I couldn't even do the Beer Mile point-to-point from home to McKenzie's.

Biggest Surprise (brewery) - It would be totally disingenous of me to say that there weren't surprises along the way
  DelawareTwin Lakes at first was a pleasant surprise with its decent beers on a beautiful piece of DuPont farmland property. However, they surprisingly also disappointed subsequently with an ownership dustup that has left the brewery, at least temporarily, without a home. Farther south, as far south as you can get in Delaware, who knew that 3rd Wave snagged an Iron Hill alum and built a really nice and tasty brewing business for themselves in Evolution's former home?
  Maryland — For finding beer in Maryland's most surprising places, this award gets split evenly between the farmhouse breweries of western Maryland (Milkhouse, Frey's, Ruhlman), the Shore (Backshore on the Ocean City Boardwalk), and the far stretches of Calvert County (Mully's and Ruddy Duck).
  New Jersey — As with Maryland, surprises await in NJ's far corners. Head to the "top-left" of New Jersey to Angry Erik in Lafayette and Krogh's in Sparta to find very good beer amongst some of the best natural scenery the state has to offer.
  PennsylvaniaStraub surprised me a bit as western PA's Yuengling, complete with history and hometown pride. Not only did they reinvest significantly in the site's equipment and process in the last couple of years, they also did so in marketing, branding, and new recipes to stay relevant.

Biggest Surprise (beer) -
  Delaware —The "other brewery" up the road from that one in Milton is in Milford -- still, I have to remind myself which brewery in which town. I found Mispillion River's Double Chin IPA both at the brewery and represented well around the area both on CO2 and hand pump, impressing each and every time.
  Maryland — Not usually a fan of spicy heat in beer, I found one that not only does it well, but one that I'd be happy with more than one, maybe a few, in one night. The Jailbreak Welcome To Scoville Jalapeno IPA.
  New Jersey —Lest you confuse me with an IPA-hophead, I still can't decide whether I was more surprisingly impressed with beers from the new Rinn Duin in Toms River such as their St. John's Irish Red or the slightly newer Angry Erik in Lafayette and its Three Ball Porter, flavored with cardamom, orange zest, and chocolate.
  Pennsylvania — On one hand, I'd like to cry foul and claim I can't pick one "surprising" beer in the whole of Pennsylvania, given its sheer size and number of breweries. But, I shall. Nah, nevermind, I'm a wimp. Here's what I'll do. In western Pa., Grist House Brewing Company was barely six weeks old when enough people around the 'burgh told me I needed to check them out. They weren't wrong and the Crouching Porter Hidden Chocolate (among others) justly got my attention. My inclusion of them in the book has been well-substantiated in subsequent visits. In eastern Pa., older-by-a-few-years Berwick Brewing Company really shows off a wide spectrum of beers, particularly in the German realm. The Zwickel Pils and the Hondo Keller are two that absolutely must be tracked down (along with the brewery's pizza) when you're along the I-80 corridor near the Poconos.

Youngest brewery - Grist House, across the river from downtown Pittsburgh, opened in May 2014 just barely nudging out Jailbreak in Laurel, Md.

Oldest brewery - Yuengling by many decades. Straub, though nearing 150 years in business, is a distant second.

Most supportive/enthusiastic - For hosting me at their festival (Milkhouse), having me for multiple signing events (East End and Free Will), stocking my book (Flying Fish and Earth Bread + Brewery), and truly engaging me in meet-the-author events (a bellowing dedication on stage at Hofbräuhaus Pittsburgh and a custom-made beer to my recipe at Heavy Seas), their full-circle support was significant and deserves recognition.

Favorite glassware - The shape of Yorkholo's glass may be standard but yet meets my criteria for a perfectly good beer drinking glass and has the striking cobalt blue brewery logo of owner Jarrod York's grandfather, Ralph York, emblazoned upon it.

Most accompanying beer returned home - Burley Oak and Union Craft. There's Sour and Gose. Double IPA and Pale Ale. Altbier and Barleywine. What's going on in Maryland, you ask? Read the book!

Best food program coinciding with great beer - Tröegs. I get a kick out of how they still refer to it as a "Snack Bar". It may be self-service, but when it serves up such standout items such as oysters, escargot, pork belly, charcuterie, exotic cheeses, duck confit, mussels, and an incredible porchetta, it deserves recognition for some of the most creative food found in a brewery tasting room.

In Memoriam - Rich Palmay at Village Idiot Brewing in Mount Holly, NJ died suddenly in August 2015. He was extremely supportive in my requests for information and accommodating my visit to his young brewery. My only regret is that we were never able to sync up schedules do a book signing event as he had offered up.

Best tour - Yuengling. History, caves, and beer. Since 1829. A must-do tour for any bona fide beer lover.

Highest/lowest latitude - in Erie, Pa., Lavery Brewing gets the nod at just 0.011 degree north of Brewerie at Union Station and Erie Brewing Company. A mere 500 miles southeast, Burley Oak in Berlin, Md. took me just 0.0135 degree farther south than across the Bay at Ruddy Duck in Dowell, Md.

Highest/lowest altitude - I was certain that Straub at 1,685 feet above sea level would rank as the highest altitude until a search for Mountain State brewpub out near Deep Creek Lake in western Maryland near West Virginia apparently rises to the top at 2,594 feet above sea level. Speaking of sea level, Backshore on the Ocean City, Md. boardwalk is barely (and I'm guess barely - it must be the boardwalk that adds some extra feet) 19 feet above sea level while Eastern Shore in St. Michaels, Md. and Cape May Brewing in NJ both show up as 16 feet above water.

Best re-use of brewery space - 3rd Wave in Delmar, Del. (think about its location spitting distance from the Maryland boarder and can you probably guess how the town got its name) is in Evolution Brewing Company's original location. Some mojo left behind there should bode well for the current occupants.

Best re-use of church space - Church Brew Works is obvious in Pittsburgh, but what do you know about Breaker Brewing in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.? It's in a converted church school with reminders from the door plaques to the school bell.

Best re-use of firehouse space - Dock Street in West Philly. Is the second version of the Philly brewing early adopter in West Philly better than first? Many would say so.

Best kept secrets - 2SP and Sterling Pig in my own backyard of all places. Yet, throughout the entire process of getting to publication, no one would fess up and commit facts to paper for me to document in the book. Nonetheless, they both appear to be off to a blazing start. Not surprising given the veteran industry talent behind them both - Bob Barrar from Iron Hill at 2SP in Aston, Pa. and Brian McConnell from Rock Bottom-King of Prussia at Sterling Pig in Media, Pa. Honorable mention goes to Brewer's Alley in Frederick, Md. for closely guarding information as to the status of a long-promised, new on-site brewing operation. You know, speaking of Iron Hill, they always do a very good job of keeping secrets, even keeping Huntington Valley (their 12th location, soon to open) identity from me even though it would be public knowledge when the book was released. On the other hand, I've already got some inside information about a few other locations on their drawing board.

Best urban/historical property, brewery - I can't recall hearing of any brewery-based ghost stories, but I'd be shocked if the ghosts of brewers past aren't still lingering around the mash tuns at Penn Brewery and Philadelphia Brewing in gritty Pittsburgh and Philly neighborhoods, respectively.

Best non-urban property, brewery - Pick a farm property, any farm property, where the concept of beer as an agricultural product is best put on display. Milkhouse in western Maryland, Mountain State in almost as far western Maryland as you can get, and Sprague Farm in northwestern Pennsylvania (pictured below) are three that are growing the ingredients and serving it — all very well as a matter of fact.

Best strip mall space - Both in Delaware, older Stewart's and newer Argilla both give tasty reasons (both food and beer, by the way) to visit the dreaded suburban strip mall.

Best contract/alternating proprietorship space - Peabody Heights in Baltimore is turning out some very solid beers with the names of Full Tilt, The Raven, Monument City, and several others on the bottle labels.

Batting average pretty good, eh? - For a manuscript that was finished in August 2014 and last changes were accepted in December 2014, only one brewery closure out of all that I included in the book has been noted thus far. Gamble Mill in Bellefonte, Pa. closed "temporarily" in January 2015 is reportedly up for sale. Their last Facebook post in January 2015 included "...we will be back..."

Return from ashes - Blue Canoe suffered from a devastating fire in 2014 and is making their way toward a return in early 2016. Nearby in NW PA, Straub dealt with a fire in early 2015 that damaged a utility/storage facility but did not interrupt brewing.

Across all those miles, I touched down briefly in West Virginia in between going to the first town in the first state, home of the Boss and the Babe, places with great road names, sketchy hotels, share-the-road policies, phone booths, cheap on-street parking, elk, groundhogs, where they hit on your wife using buses, where they have raffle guns, road signs are road artwork, learned where John Heisman was from and that wood is good, and where you can buy human hair. Would I do it again? You betchya -- well, maybe except for the sketchy hotel.

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