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Jan. 3, 2013 | Joe Sixpack's 2012 Beer of the Year
WHEN HISTORIANS - or maybe just the hungover - look back on 2012, they'll remember it for the biggest expansion in Philadelphia-area brewing since at least the 1800s.
About 10 new area breweries opened during the year, and a half-dozen breweries either launched or completed major expansions. We saw new brewpubs (Tired Hands, Forest & Main, Iron Hill, Vault and McKenzie), new production breweries (Round Guys, Free Will, Neshaminy Creek, Susquehanna), and bigger facilities from thriving operations (Flying Fish, Sly Fox, Troegs, Weyerbacher and, now under way, Victory and Yards).
In that quickly expanding landscape, a brewer needs a niche. Often, it's with a so-called extreme beer - something high in alcohol with unusual, palate-challenging flavor.
Jeremy Myers, brewmaster and co-owner of Neshaminy Creek Brewing Co., hit that mark with Leon, a Russian imperial stout with 11.6 percent alcohol that's flavored with homemade marshmallow fluff, graham crackers and chocolate.
"There was a line out the door, and we sold 142 [half-gallon] growlers in two hours," Myers said. "It was ridiculous - nothing we could ever foresee - not for a brewery that was open for just two months."
But Leon is something of an attention-getting gimmick - hardly an everyday beer that can sustain a brewery. So Neshaminy Creek is flowing in a different direction.
Namely, toward a bright, clear and satisfying lager called Trauger Pilsner, Joe Sixpack's 2012 Beer of the Year.
This is a beer that can comfortably stand alongside the Philly's powerhouse lineup of pilsners, including Prima Pils from Victory, Stoudt's Pils, Sly Fox Pikeland Pils and Troegs Sunshine Pils. Like Jever Pilsener, the northern Germany classic upon which it was modeled, Trauger Pilsner snaps the palate with the dry bite of Hallertau and Tettnang hops. Its light, sweet Pilsen malt provides a soft, clean mouthfeel.
It's worthy of being savored. But you can't help but drain the first glass in big, thirst-quenching gulps.
The pilsner is remarkable not just for its character, but also for the painstaking manner in which it's brewed.
Consider that most start-ups do not attempt to make lager-style beer. They opt for ales, which ferment more quickly, freeing up tank space for increased production. Many experts also say ales are easier to make, because they generally depend on assertive flavors that can be adjusted with (as in the case of West Coast IPAs) more and more hops.
Lager - and especially pilsner - ferments slowly at a cool temperature with a specialized yeast strain that produces a delicate, balanced flavor. There's no easy way to hide an off-flavor in a pilsner.
Myers, who trained at Chicago's prestigious Siebel Institute of Technology and cut his teeth at New Jersey's River Horse Brewing, told me that when he founded Neshaminy Creek, "I didn't want to be afraid to make lager."
But he and his assistants, Steve Capelli and Rob Jahn, faced a serious challenge: Neshaminy Creek's steel fermentation tanks were not designed to maintain the consistent, cool temperature needed to properly ferment a pilsner.
Their solution: Three horizontal tanks were outfitted with heavy-duty casters so they can be rolled with a forklift into the brewery's giant refrigerated cold box. There, the beer rests for 10 weeks till it is properly conditioned.
Yes, it's a bit of hassle. But the result is a pilsner with exceptional clarity and absolutely no yeast bite.
Trauger Pilsner is named after Christen and Henry Trauger, Myers' 18th-century ancestors who were among the earliest German immigrants to Bucks County. Its name is a fitting tribute from what is the county's first production brewery since, like, forever.
Apparently they were thirsty up there.
When Neshaminy Creek opened last June, Myers had hoped to brew about 500 barrels (equal to 124,000 pints) of all brands in 2012. Instead, the brewery will hit about twice that amount - a remarkable figure for a newcomer in a year of unprecedented expansion among established competitors.
Bottles and cans are coming, but for now it's all draft beer.
Which means that, with city bars rotating so many different brands on their tap handles, there's no sure way of knowing exactly when and where this excellent pilsner will pop up. Somehow, that makes it even more special.
But you don't have to wait for a taste. Hike up I-95 to Neshaminy Creek's tasting room (909 Ray Ave., Croydon) for growlers, samples and tours. And while you're there, try some of its other brands, including Tribute Tripel, Croydon Cream Ale, County Line IPA and, through the holidays, The Neshaminator wheat bock.