’96 a vintage year? Not in a beer column

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To hell with doctor’s orders. I’ve been jabbed, probed and dosed, and they still can’t knock this flu. After three weeks of phlegmy coughs and other horrible bodily secretions – a period in which I faithfully avoided all malt refreshment – I’m plunging head-first into the Joe Sixpack Winter Blahs Treatment, certain to cure whatever ales you:

Take one bottle of beer, remove childproof cap, empty contents into glass, chug three times daily.

Ahhhhhh . . . It may not fully relieve the symptoms, but it helps soothe the pain – the pain I must share with you as I admit one huge personal failure for 1996: I did not drink enough beer.

Last January, I publicly boasted of my intention to taste 500 different brews in ’96. It was rash bombast, I now concede; at the time, I assumed I’d have little trouble sampling 1.366 different beers every 24 hours (this being a leap year, I’d get an extra day).

I visited specialty delis and warehouse-sized distributors, nabbing local newcomers like Gravity Pale Ale and Red Bell IPA. I knocked off dozens more at beer festivals. A trip to New Orleans scored me Abita Turbo Dog and Rikenjak Muscadine Lambic – a pair of brews that are virtually impossible to find in the Northeast.

By May, I was on track: 200 beers copiously logged on my laptop, and all those wonderful Oktoberfests and holiday ales ahead.

But my lofty goal would not be reached.

I suspect I tasted over 500 beers this year. But, dammit, I lost count!

I’d forget what I had last night. I’d draw a blank when, the next morning, I tried to decipher scribbled notes on a cocktail napkin. The porters and stouts ran together, and attempting to remember the names of all those red ales gave me headaches.

I failed. And I’m ashamed.

But ’tis a bittersweet feeling, for 1997 is right around the corner, and I’ve got many new brews to consume. Before ’96 is past, however, here’s my Beer Year in Review.

BEER TRAVELS

Discovering the microbrew capital of the East Coast, Portland, Maine . . . Sipping warm New Amsterdam ambers during a rain delay at Yankee Stadium (the pennant-drive game never re-started, but we hardly cared) . . . Nearly proposing to the soon-to-be Mrs. Sixpack while half-crocked in a Bowery bar (I waited till I was fully crocked, later that night) . . . Finding three different brewpubs within walking distance of my hotel in Atlanta after spending the day chasing the suspected Olympic park bomber . . .

DRAFT-DODGING

Watch out if you see a guy load a cold keg onto the bartop and pound an ale-splattering tap into the bung. You’re apt to get a face full of beer spray.

It’s called a firkin – a keg that drains by gravity alone. With no CO2 or even air pressure to pump the beer out of the keg, the brew seems flat but fresh and extremely tasty. It’s not for everyone, but the whole bizarre scene – toting a heavy keg across the room and hammering it atop the bar – is a wonderfully silly diversion. Firkins are on tap at a few local pubs, including Sugar Mom’s (225 Church St., Old City) and Dawson Street Pub (Cresson and Dawson streets, Manayunk).

In Fairmount, at Bridgid’s (24th and Meredith streets), local beer guru Jim Anderson has taken a good idea and given it the Rube Goldberg treatment with a contraption they call the Down Draft. Upstairs, in office space that is otherwise used for his Beer Philadelphia newsletter, a keg of Yards ESA is tapped. The beer line runs through a hole drilled in the floor, down 10 feet of PVC pipe to the bar below. It’s the same idea as a firkin, with gravity moving the beer, but Anderson has the windows open upstairs to keep the keg properly chilled to 55 degrees.

3 TOP BEER EVENTS OF ’96

  1. Victory Brewing Co. in Downingtown went into full production. Their Hop Devil ale was the best new beer of the year.
  2. Belgian beer on tap. Philadelphia now has more Belgians than anywhere outside Brussels.
  3. Distributors started accepting credit cards.

TOP BEER EVENT (PERSONAL)

It had to be the summer morning I spent in the tiny Manayunk building where Tom Kehoe and Jon Bovit make their Yards. A fresh ale in my hand by 9:30, I spent three hours talking about women and beer while I watched Jon clean out the brick-encased brew kettle.

These guys are the envy of Gen-X brewer-wannabes: They scraped up just enough cash to buy a bunch of used equipment, tested a few recipes and almost immediately blew everyone away with their English bitter. They made it look easy, but I’m here to tell you slackers that they bust their tails, often working 18-hour days.

Three months after that morning, their bitter ale was my wedding beer. If I forgot in all the commotion, here’s a toast to Jon and Tom for a Happy New Year. And good luck in ’97, as they move into a new, larger brewery down the hill.

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