Talking Beer with Joe Sixpack
Last Tuesday, I went to the Trolley Car Diner (7619 Germantown Ave) in Mt. Airy for a local beer tasting course taught (in conjunction with the Mt. Airy Learning Tree) by none other than Joe Sixpack himself, Don Russell (pictured above). I attended the event with my good friend Pat who, along with his wife, bought me a ticket to the event as a Christmas present. After reading Tony's account of the February class, I was quite excited for the event.
About 30 attendees sat in booths and shared each bottle/can beer between them. Our table only had 3 so we had slightly larger portions per person than the rest of the class! Each student received a packet for the night complete with a list of all the beers we'd be sampling that night (I had had 5 out of the 11); a list of some of Don's favorite bars and a list, with examples, of various styles of beers. The first thing I learned was that all beers fall into one of two categories: Ales or Lagers. I never knew that. According to the handout, an Ale is "Brewed quickly with top-fermenting yeast at warm temperature." A Lager is "Brewed slowly with bottom-fermenting yeast at cool temperature." Who knew Beamish and Yards Philly Pale Ale were in the same family!
The first "beer" sampled was the most popular beer sold in Philadelphia. The watered down beauty taking this crown is Miller Lite. I thought, for sure, that Yuengling Lager would take #1, but nope. Don served this one first for the class to have an understanding of the baseline of beers in the town was. Moving on to the first real beer... a can of Phoenixville, PA's Sly Fox Pikeland Pils (German Pilsner, 4.9% ABV). The label on the can had a set of hops right on it so I knew I'd most likely not be a fan (not into hoppy beers yet at my young age). It was hoppy, but not overpowering. Don took a sec to explain the aluminum can phenomenon in craft beers these days. Apparently, a Canadian company has found a way to produce small quantities of aluminum cans (relative to the output of the Coors/Busch guys I suppose) at an affordable price. More durable than glass bottles, they end up being easier to transport. He said to be on the lookout for more and more small breweries to produce aluminum can versions of their beers. He added that the cans had a special coating to protect the beer from getting a tinny taste to them, but the psychological tie to drinking straight from the can still remains; he advised us to pour it into a glass instead.
Number 2 on the list was one I've had before, Harrisburg, PA's Troeg's Troegenator (Double Bock, 8.2% ABV). I very much like this beer. A nice malty taste to it without being too sweet. It's a high alcohol by volume (ABV) content, but you don't taste it. Don explained the origins of the double bock beer as being a source of extra calories (in the increased amount of malt in the beer) during Lent. Ha! Religion is good for something, eh?
The third beer of the night was one not on the list, a late addition from Downingtown, PA's Victory Brewing Co: Prima Pils (Pilsner, 5.3% ABV). Another beer with a gigantic hop on the label. The beer was very carbonated and hoppy. This pilsner is said to be one of the top, if not the top pilsner in the country. It's won major competitions for the last 6 years. But it's not for me.
Adamstown, PA's Stoudt's Brewery is, if I remember correctly, the only woman-owned good sized brewery in the nation. Their Scarlet Lady (Extra Special Bitter, 5% ABV) was our 4th beer. I've had this one before as well. It's a bitter beer, but offset by malts well. Don called this "a good session beer" meaning that you can drink it all night and not get too loaded (not one of those really high ABV beers) and still enjoy the taste of it (unlike, say Miller Lite). It wouldn't be my first choice on any given night, but I'd be more than happy to help knock off a case of it.
Next up was Dogfish Head's 90 Minute IPA (Double India Pale Ale, 9% ABV) from Milton, DE. Dogfish Head is probably my favorite local brewery, if not my favorite brewery in general. I haven't had a single beer from their vats I haven't liked. They are true masters of the high ABV beers. They'll all get you loaded within 3 beers, but you won't taste the alcohol like other high ABV brews, this one was no exception even though I normally don't like IPAs. This IPA had a typically bitter initial taste to it, but a very atypical malty-molasses end note coating your entire tongue to relieve it from the initial bitter shock. My personal favorite Dogfish Head offering is Raison D'Etre which, according to their website, is on temporary hiatus.
Don told us of a little one-upmanship which was going on between the brewers at Dogfish Head and Sam Adams of which Sam Adams holds the crown with their Utopias weighing in at 27% ABV - the highest ABV retail beer available today. it sells for $120 per 24oz. bottle. At Morton's in Center City, they sell it by the ounce for $10 a pop. Don described Utopias as not really a beer, but more like a port, but not as good as a port. Sam Adams is pushing the envelope of what a beer is with their Extreme Beers collection; their continued creative push puts them in high regard among even the snobbiest of beer drinkers.
Sixth up was from Cherry Hill, NJ: Flying Fish's Belgian Abbey Dubbel (Belgian dubbel, 7.3% ABV). Another of the beers I've had previously. I had a little anecdote I told to Pat and our boothmate of a night out after no dinner where I polished off 2 goblets of Belgian Abbey Dubbel and then suddenly feeling very, very drunk. After being told it was a 7.3% ABV beer (making my 2 beers more like 4 typical beers) and no dinner, I told my friends I should get home before I started stumbling all over the place. This beer has a mellow fruitiness hidden in it's medium brown coloring. I can't recall what Don said about the cask conditioning of this beer (starting to feel a little tipsy at this point of the night).
Another Belgian style beer was next. From Easton, PA was Weyerbacher's Merry Monks (Belgian tripel, 9.3%) which I had definitely seen on the shelves of The Foodery, but never tasted before. This golden colored beer tasted strongly of fruit and reminded me of lambics. It tasted like fizzy fruit soda with alcohol dumped into it. After letting this sample sit and warm up for several minutes, it tasted much better. I very much advise drinking this one not straight out of the fridge.
Philadelphia's own Yards Love Stout (English stout/Oyster stout, 5% ABV) was the 8th beer of the night. This is a new favorite of mine. I bought a case of it for a party after many people telling me how great it was - they were all right. Apparently, Yards used to brew a special batch of Love Stout with actual oysters in it on Valentine's Day (as per the original recipe). We'll see if that tradition is kept up post split up of the company.
Don mixed in a good deal of history during the course of the night. He told us that home brewing was outlawed during Prohibition and reinstated only during the Carter administration. It was then that the craft brewing in America took off. Sam Adams (est. 1984) is the largest of the craft breweries and their selection of 26 beers yields a deep bench. Apparently Yuengling is right around the same size, but very much lacking in the imagination the team at Sam Adams has.
The big 10 ended up being my favorite beer of the night and the first beer by Victory I actually liked: Baltic Thunder (Baltic porter, 8.5% ABV). It had a good deal of chocolate and fruit to it and apparently made with lager yeast, but brewed in the ale method. This 22oz. bottle was from the first bottling of the run and apparently took the blending of 3 different brews to make this one. Don noted that the final incarnation of the beer would taste very different from this one and he hoped that it would stay as close to true to this bottling as possible.
The final beer of the night was another offering from Dogfish Head: Aprihop (Fruit beer, 7% ABV). Like the name implies, it's a hoppy beer with a heavy apricot flavoring. It seemed to be above average in carbonation. The incredible apricot flavoring takes some getting used to, but it mellows out after a few sips.
I chimed in with a question as to why the breweries disappeared from Philly. I knew that Philadelphia was the brewing capital of America for sometime, but didn't understand how/why all the breweries went away. Don said that there were once about 85 breweries in town. But it was Prohibition that did them in. After Prohibition, production moved to large-scale output factories. Philadelphia's breweries simply couldn't match the output of cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis.
After everything was over, I said hello to Don and bought a copy of his book which he graciously signed for me. He also kindly sat down for a shot with all the beers sampled during the class (minus the Scarlet Lady and Love Stout which were totally cleared from the room at that point). Thank you Don.
If you're into beer or want to get more into beer, I highly recommend this class. The April 22 class seems to still have room!