Pa. brewers take aim at Teutonic traditions
Thirsty Philadelphia has more than its share of beer festivals to dive into. But few get to the heart of the region's beer brewing soul - both its history and its future - as much as the Philly Bierfest, being held Saturday, Feb. 21 at the German Society of Pennsylvania.
Yes, the "arm wrastlin' roller girls" are a draw for some. There will be tuba-popping Polkadelphia funk, and beer-and-cheese pairings from nationally known cheese master Max McCalman. But the most pressing focus of this fourth annual event will be an exploration of the state's deepening relationship with the German beer tradition, whose current growth is described by Victory Brewing founder Bill Covaleski as nothing less than "the end game of craft beer."
"When the [craft brewing] wheel turns to lager . . . the revolution will be complete" says Covaleski, who is also the president of the Brewers of Pennsylvania trade association.
We're heading bock to the future, slow but sure. As the growing American craft beer industry cycles through maturity phases, first with British-style IPAs, then expressive Belgian-style ales, a return to the subtlety and crispness of German classics plus many more obscure styles (a glass of lichtenhainer, sie bitte!), is starting to happen.
"It seems obvious to me that the popularization of German styles is going to be the next big wave," says beverage expert and author Marnie Old, who cofounded and organizes Bierfest, which will showcase 22 Pennsylvania breweries alongside 30 from Germany.
She acknowledges that lagers still have an image problem to overcome with the craft beer audience. Lagers are associated with the mass-produced brands that account for about 90 percent of the world's beer consumption, the worst of which is the same weak, generic suds that in many ways inspired the craft beer revolution to begin with. The "end game" Covaleski refers to is reconnecting consumers to quality versions of the genre.
"People think of it as junk," said Old. "But you can do lagers well if they're made with care and good ingredients. And we're already the leaders of making quality lager in the U.S., from the very biggest brewers down to the very smallest."
Cold-fermenting lager takes considerably longer and demands more space than hot-fermenting ale to produce - one reason so many craft beer start-ups first opt for other styles.
But Philadelphia holds a special place in lager history. Bavarian John Wagner brewed the first American lager in Northern Liberties in the 1840s. Lager remains at the core of the success of Yuengling in Pottsville, America's oldest brewery, and the largest that's still American-owned.
On the slightly smaller craft beer stage, Pennsylvania brewers like Stoudt's, Penn Brewery, Sly Fox, Troegs, and Victory have long made some of the best examples of classic pilsners, doppelbocks, and weissbier in America. Not that Pennsylvania gets the credit it deserves vs. better-publicized breweries from California, Colorado, and Brooklyn.
" 'Pils from California? Wow!!' Folks get excited by the unexpected," Covaleski laments. "Not all of us Pennsylvania brewers have the marketing muscle to get our accomplishments known."
What's perhaps most encouraging, though, and what Bierfest visitors will see, is how many of the region's newer small breweries have embraced German inspirations in both traditional and not-so-traditional forms.
On the classic end, there is the remarkably refreshing helles lager, Goldencold, from Susquehanna Brewing Co. in Pittston, which also makes a lighter schwarzbier-like pilsner called Pils-Noir, which gets an American twist of Northwest hops and a novel mashing technique to darken the brew.
At the further end of the creative liberties spectrum, meanwhile, there is an otherwise crisp kölsch tinted tan with ReAnimator coffee by Kensington's St. Benjamin, or Shawnee's infusion of chestnuts into its "Braun" ale, actually an English brown ale Germanicized with German hefeweizen yeast and a German hop.
Such freewheeling interpretations are no doubt bound to stoke a heated philosophical debate, given that German beers are all about tradition, bound by strict style guidelines and ingredient restrictions of the famed Reinheitsgebot purity law. Even Roy Pitz's quaffable Best Blonde, a golden lager, crosses lines with higher fermentation temperatures and the lovely finishing touch of lemon peel to the kettle.
"Don't expect a 'new American märzen' style to emerge full of Mosaic hops or some other darling hop," says Covaleski, "because it won't be a märzen."
For the kind of creativity that American brewers crave, Covaleski says, German brewing offers a trove of lesser-known styles, such as increasingly popular gose (salt, with coriander), smoky rauchbier, or sour Berliner-Weisse, that are fertile for interpretation. Victory's Arso, brewed for Alla Spina, is a lichtenhainer, he said, "an obscure, essentially dead style from Thuringia."
Old believes that such energy in all its guises has the potential to redefine Pennsylvania's brewing industry as a leader in this next wave of craft beer exploration.
"We take German styles so much more seriously here, like we have extra colors in the rainbow," she says. "So we needed to start organizing this event because we don't want to let other regions get ahead of us on something we've been doing right since the beginning."
Fourth annual Bierfest at the German Society of Pennsylvania, 611 Spring Garden St., Philadelphia. When: Saturday, 2-5:30 p.m.; Tickets: $45 to $75. Information: www.phillybierfest.com