WITH MORE than 2,000 labels registered for sale in Pennsylvania, it’s hard to believe there’s room for more.
But in the past three months, Philadelphians have seen the biggest surge of new taste since they added pig snouts to scrapple.
I can count at least a dozen out-of-town microbreweries that have suddenly hopped into the local market, some lugging in as many as 10 different beers. Add them to yet another batch of obscure imports from Belgium, England and Germany, and it’s almost impossible to keep up with the new tastes without completely abandoning the world of sobriety.
De Proef Flemish Primitive . . . Mount Desert Island Ginger . . . Lagunitas Hairy Eyeball . . . Ubu Ale . . . Isle of Skye Wee Beast – the names are as exotic as the flavors.
Since October, 106 new labels have been registered with the state Liquor Control Board.
Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but what’s going on here?
Part of it is a happy convergence of maturing start-ups looking for savvy beer drinkers (us!).
Some of the local newcomers, like Cricket Hill, of Fairfield, N.J., and Lagunitas, of Petaluma, Calif., have been operating for years. But now that they’ve stabilized business on the homefront, they’re expanding into distant territory.
Chris Ericson, owner of Lake Placid Pub & Brewery, in upstate New York, has been making brewpub beer for nine years.
It wasn’t until his company began bottling three years ago when it purchased a second plant in Plattsburgh, N.Y., that it started looking seriously beyond the Adirondacks.
“We made sure we could supply our home market first,” Ericson said. “What we’ve done is almost resisted expansion along the way. “
Which is remarkable, considering the demand – especially for its very fine and peculiarly named Ubu Ale. The brew is said to be a favorite of former President Clinton, who once ordered a shipment of three cases to the White House, according to the company.
When it came time to grow, Philadelphia was an obvious target, Ericson said, and not just because beer drinkers here are already familiar with a wide range of craft-brewed flavors. Name recognition, he believes, will help Lake Placid cut through the abundance of labels.
“We think we put out a top-quality product,” Ericson said. “But we also feel we can take advantage of name recognition. A lot of people from the [Philadelphia] area vacation up here and already know our name. “
As Lake Placid and other micros have stretched their legs, they’ve been welcomed by local wholesalers who’ve aggressively sought new labels. Shangy’s in Emmaus, Pa., which boasts more than 2,000 beers, is always adding new micros to its portfolio. Even the local Anheuser-Busch importer, Penn Distributing, has been picking up out-of-town micros, including Magic Hat.
Lately, they’ve been joined by a new player in town, Stockertown Beverage in Northampton County, just north of Easton.
The small firm recently grabbed rights to distribute labels in Philadelphia from a handful of tiny craft brewers from upstate New York and North Jersey. It’s also tapping into the seemingly endless supply of European specialties from the highly regarded Shelton Bros. importers in Massachusetts.
A newcomer to the beer business, Stockertown co-owner Chuck Greenstreet said it didn’t take long for him and partner John Beljan “to be of the opinion that the niche was under-served for specialty beers. “
Like I said, that might come as a surprise to anyone who has spent an hour trying to decide among the 50 IPAs available on any given day at the Foodery in Center City. Moreover, the region is blessed with a dozen or so established micros who bottle scores of beer styles in our own back yard.
But if you’ve ever paged through beer-trade publications, like Ale Street News, you know it’s a big world out there. Greenstreet and Beljan read the articles and ads about hundreds of beers that never make it across the Delaware and wondered why they’d never tasted them. “We researched it, found they were available and decided to give it a go,” he said.
Yes, there’s plenty of competition, but Greenstreet said, “Philly is a terrific beer town; there’s a great interest in beer, all different kinds. We feel that interest is only going to grow. Folks who have a love for fine beer are always eager to try new products. “
Indeed, Eddie Friedland of North Philadelphia’s specialty importer Edward I. Friedland, says experimenting with new flavors is part of the fun of being a beer lover.
Yeah, we support locals like Yards and Victory and Flying Fish. But, Friedland said, “Drinking a beer from outside our local market is like a minivacation. And it’s a lot cheaper to buy beer than an airplane ticket. “
The locals, too, are flooding our town with new brews. Stoudt’s Brewing in Adamstown is producing its first Double IPA and a reformulated Fat Dog imperial oatmeal stout. Troegs is about to release Nugget Nectar Ale, the Harrisburg brewery’s latest single-batch brew. And Flying Fish is expected to bottle a new one called Hop Fish, an IPA . . .
Meanwhile, keep an eye out for yet another out-of-towner: Russian River, the award-winning Northern California brewery, known for its hoppy Pliny the Elder, should be showing up soon . . .
Coercion appears to be Heavyweight Brewing’s latest marketing tactic. If you want a taste of its delicious One Time Our Place series of beers, you’ll have cruise up the Garden State Parkway for a sip. The Ocean Township brewery is the only place you buy the one-of-a-kind, 750ml bottles. First off: Saison, available in February . . .
Jan. 14: Robbie Burns Night at Sly Fox Brewing (Pikeland Village Square, Phoenixville). Wear your kilt to the third annual tribute to the Scottish poet. BYOB (Bring Your Own boxer shorts). No cover. 6 p.m. 610-935-4540.
Jan. 14-16: The Spirit of Belgium 2005, presented by BURP (Brewers United for Real Potables). This celebration of Belgian beer is worth the drive down I-95 to Arlington, Va. Everything from lambics and yeast to monks and frites is on the agenda. $25 (for one session) to $175. Info: www.BURP.org.
Jan. 15: Open house at Heavyweight Brewing (1701 Valley Road, Ocean Township, N.J.). Tour this colossal micro’s plant and grab a taste of its smoky Cinderbock Lager. No cover. Beer pours, 1-4 p.m. 732-493-5009.
Joe Sixpack, by staff writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Schell Caramel Bock.