Sweet success of a sour beer

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IT’S EASY TO ignore industry awards for fine beer-making. After all, someone once gave Pabst a blue ribbon.

But here’s why you should pay attention to the raft of medals area breweries brought back from the World Beer Cup in Seattle last weekend:

The variety of awards, for eclectic styles ranging from Belgian sour ale to Russian imperial stout, is an important sign of Philadelphia’s growing reputation for edgy diversity.

Other regions are known for distinctive trademarks – the fruity Cascades hops of California, the aromatic IPAs of the Northwest. Though this city’s historic beer-making roots are in everyday lager, those strict, Germanic constraints are long gone.

Today, anything goes. And, more importantly, our brewers are doing it all pretty damn well.

Case in point: Nodding Head Brewery & Restaurant’s Ich Bin Ein Berliner Weisse.

Berliner weisse is a low-alcohol, light-bodied wheat beer that is intentionally soured with Lactobacillus bacteria to create what beer expert Michael Jackson once described as “an acidity worthy of Dorothy Parker.” This mouth-puckering glass is such a highly acquired taste that it is commonly served with fruit syrup to sweeten it up a bit.

In the whole world, there might be fewer than a dozen breweries that make it regularly.

Right now, nobody makes it better than Nodding Head.

At the World Beer Cup, the brewery won a bronze medal for the beer, finishing behind two German-made wheat beers in the German-style pale wheat ale category. (Neither of those beers was a Berliner weisse.)

This is the third major medal the beer has won since its introduction in 2000, following Great American Beer Festival awards in ’03 and ’05.

It’s safe to say the brewery wouldn’t have won those awards year after year if its customers weren’t actually drinking the stuff. Brewpubs, whose small size limits the number of serving tanks, can’t afford to serve any beer, world-class or not, that no one will drink.

Philadelphians, though, are drinking this thoroughly obscure style by the bucket. Brewer Gordon Grubb makes so much, he believes tiny Nodding Head is now “far and away” the largest producer of Berliner weisse on this side of the Atlantic.

“It’s definitely one of those beers that’s not for everyone,” Grubb said. “It’s a love or hate situation. But once they get to know it, they often love it.

“What I’ve learned here is that if you do anything outside the norm, here in Philadelphia people are willing to try different kinds of things. Whether it’s beer or different restaurants, people want to experience different things with an open mind.”

The result, Grubb continued, is that Philadelphia “brews a really great range of beers. It’s not like, say, California, which puts out some very hoppy beers and maybe a few Belgian styles. We run the whole gamut here.”

Which is diversity at its best. When people are open to different ideas, when they embrace instead of fear, they’re frequently enriched with a treasure they never would have discovered otherwise.

The region’s performance in the World Beer Cup is solid evidence of that.

More Winners

Below are the local winners. I suggest you clip this column and use it as a map, to discover some of Philadelphia’s beer treasures.

Iron Hill Cannibal.

  • Medal: Silver (no gold medal in category), Belgian-style pale strong ale.
  • Brewer: Chris LaPierre.
  • Available: Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant (3 W. Gay St. West Chester).

Iron Hill Russian Imperial Stout.

  • Medal: Bronze, Russian imperial stout.
  • Brewer: Bob Barrar.
  • Available: Iron Hill (30 E. State St., Media).

Iron Hill Abbey Dubbel.

  • Medal: Bronze, abbey dubbel.
  • Brewer: Larry Horwitz.
  • Available: Iron Hill (1460 Bethlehem Pike, North Wales).

Midas Touch.

  • Medal/category: Silver, honey lager.
  • Brewer: Bryan Selders.
  • Available: In bottles year-round, from Dogfish Head Brewing, Milton, Del.

Dogfish Head Festina Lente.

  • Medal: Bronze, Belgian-style sour ale.
  • Brewer: Bryan Selders.
  • Available: No longer brewed, but old, drinkable stock may be found in area coolers.


  • Medal: Bronze, German-style bock.
  • Brewer: Chris Brugger.
  • Available: Year-round in bottles, from Troegs Brewing, Harrisburg.

Stumblin’ Monk.

  • Medal: Bronze, Belgian-style pale strong ale.
  • Brewer: Ric Hoffman.
  • Available: Stewart’s Brewing Co. (219 Governor’s Square Shopping Center, Bear, Del.).

Ich Bin Ein Berliner Weisse.

  • Medal: Bronze, German-style pale wheat ale.
  • Brewer: Gordon Grubb.
  • Available: Nodding Head Brewery & Restaurant (1516 Sansom St., Center City).

Bill Payer Ale

  • Medal: Bronze, American-style pale ale.
  • Brewer: Gordon Grubb.
  • Available: Nodding Head.


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