Philly Beer Week 2014 – Varga Bar, Tria, Monks and Nodding Head Brewery

When we last saw our intrepid craft beer bloggers, they had survived another Philly Beer Week Open Tap.  And for most years that would have been enough for us, but the next day I woke up to find that Co-Admin Patrick Huff of the Delaware Craft Beer and Wine Lovers was getting together an event to travel into Philly for Varga Bar’s Craft Beer Block Party.  It sounded like a fun crowd was going and, quickly getting the nod from Tracey, we decided to tag along for the day.

This was our first time at Varga Bar, a well known craft beer haven on Spruce Street, and we were  not disappointed. True the “block party” was a little smaller than I had anticipated, it filling only a little more than the length of the bar’s outside facade. The street area contained some tents and tables (and a dunking booth, only the second beer event I’ve ever been to that had one) but for the most part served as an area for people to mingle and converse.

The energy was nice, with people eagerly heading to the beer tent that was selling the likes of 21 First Amendment, Sly Fox, Otter Creek, Sam Adams, Abita and Round Guy’s “The Inquire’s Brewvintational” third place new beer winner, Fear of a Brett Planet – all in cans (No bottle snobs here please); or to the bar itself, which although crowded, was pouring awesome drafts (heavy on New Belgium) of beers we don’t normally see in Delaware like Avery’s “White Rascal” Witbier and Left Hand “Nitro” Milk Stout, which was REALLY good. We made several trips inside to partake of their offerings.

As always click on any picture to see them full size in gallery mode.

After a few hours we were ready to move on and Patrick was keen to walk down to the Tria Cafe.  We only stayed for a couple of beers but figured some snacks wouldn’t be a bad idea after a few hours of drinking so Robert and Patrick ordered a plate of figs and cheese; and Dana ordered some rosemary potato chips.  There are several potato based provisions that I hold in high esteem; the garlic fries at Brewer’s Art and the Pommes Frites at Monks (more on those later) just to name a few, but you can add Tria’s rosemary chips to the list.  Serious snackage.

But this isn’t The Dogs of Chips, so lets talk about the Dock Street Summer Session, The Deschute Black Butte Porter and the Doctor Fritz Briem’s 1809 Berliner Weisse, that all got passed around.  Or better yet,  lets just look at more pictures! Oh, and a nod to the most courteous staff I’ve encountered in a long time.  Really, these guys were just great!

Remember the subtitle for my previous post, “Wrong Turns, Great Beers and Mussels”, well here we go. We left Tria with the intention of finding another place to call our temporary craft beer home when Tracey pointed out that we were only about five blocks from Monks Cafe and, reminding me that we had been denied mussels the night before, suggested we stop there for dinner. Unfortunately this wasn’t just Monks, it was Monks during Philly Beer Week and we had to admit that getting a table might be damn near impossible.

Luckily, while we did encounter an hour and a half wait (time we killed at the Fox and the Hound), we finally did get a table and after some seat shuffling, and menu scanning, Dana enthusiastically stated, “Hey Ed, they have Damnation on draft!” (I was wearing my Damnation shirt).  My eyes quickly found the beer but quickly got pulled to the beer below it, “They have Pliny the Elder on draft!”.  And after a few more seconds Dana responded, “They have Blind Pig at the back bar!”

While it doesn’t require anything to make a meal of mussels better, two Russian River beers I’ve never had (Damnation, Pliny), and one that I had and really enjoyed (Blind Pig) would certainly do just that.  Once we got confirmation from the waiter that the beers were still available, we sent him away with a request of two each of the Damnation and Pliny, plus a couple of orders of pommes frites. – sadly to the bewilderment of Rob, who somehow had been forgotten in the ensuing commotion of ordering.

And I told you we’d get to the pommes frites, or Belgian fries, a classic (and some say original) take on the well known French fry.  Monks makes an awesome pomme frites (sadly not served in the classic newspaper cone, but still) that is served with a culinary condiment that is probably made from ingredients that represent the most vile and unhealthy things found in creation – you know, things like mayonnaise, lard, Justin Beiber melodies and the tears of unloved puppies, yet stills manages to taste really good on a finger full of fried potatoes. So in other words, good eats!

I wish I could give you a mouth watering description of this mussels/frites/Russian River beers feeding frenzy, but unfortunately at that time we were all too focused on our hunger and talking about the beers.  We destroyed three orders of frites, two pots of mussels, and multiple beers in what just may have been a record time. If Monks kept track of those sorts of things. Which they should. But they don’t.

But I will say this about the fabled beers of Russian River, they are VERY good.  I personally favored Damnation, an awesome golden strong ale which thrilled me to no end; and not just because of the shirt, although I’ll admit that being able to say “yes” to the continued question, “Did you like Damnation”, is a great relief.  Next I’d go with the Blind Pig, which I’ve had thanks to a bottle gift from tDoB co-founder Chuck.  Chuck and the Beer Goddess were both very adamant that Blind Pig was a better beer than the fabled Pliny the Elder.  And I’d agree with them – but damn is it close!  The Elder is nothing to sneeze at.  A finely made DIPA to be sure.  I’d love to try this line up again at the beginning of a day of drinking instead of more towards the end. Probably would appreciate them more, if that’s even possible.

After a meal of great food and beer it was, of course, time to call it a night and head home, which of course means that instead of walking to the car, we walked over to Samson Street’s Nodding Head Brewery.  I’ve always enjoyed going to Nodding Head, even back when the space housed the Samuel Adams Brewhouse.  Unfortunately they didn’t have the beer on draft that bears one of my favorite names, Monkey Knife Fight, but they did have their Grog, an English brown ale (so good), and their Ich Bin Ein Berliner Weisse.

Now it really was time to go home.  Tracey and I would like to thank DCBaWL members Patrick for putting the event together, a huge thanks to Rob for being the driver for the day (and getting us in and out of Philly with no wrong turns) and Dana, for well, just being Dana.  Without this event, the Opening Tap would have been the only time we spent at Philly Beer Week, and thanks to it, we know we want to spend more time in Philly for next year’s.

The Menus at Varga Bar
The Final Sip: Last year at Philly Beer Week I touched the Hammer of Glory and it end up “disappearing” for several hours the next day.  This year I attended Varga Bar’s block party and later that night, a fire broke out in the basement and the bar and the apartments in the building had to be evacuated (no damage was done, no beer was lost, and the bar was open again several days later).  Maybe PBW2015 will send me three or four sampler cases to just stay home next year.






The Local Tap: Philly Beer Week Opening Tap

If this post had a subtitle it would be, “Wrong Turns, Great Beers, and Mussels”.  You’ll see why.

Walking into the 23st Armory served very quick notice that this was not a venue like last year’s.  Gone were the multi-floor, stylish trappings and educational exhibits at the Independence Visitor Center, replaced by a totally open three story building with an unassuming brick interior.

The floor had obviously just been spray down or power washed, standing water still pooled in spots around the floor.  Yes, a little different.  But perfect.  Big and open works well for a brew fest, allowing one to quickly scan the surroundings as they empty their glass making it ready for the next beer.  And let’s be honest, other than a burning boat or a Siberian forest in 1908 , is there really a bad place for a beer fest?  I didn’t think so.

And this is no ordinary beer fest, this is the Opening Tap Festival for Philly Beer Week.  Through the generosity of others (who I will thank later), and some craft beer God smiling (I’m not worthy), Tracey and I once again made it on the media list for the awesome event.  Ok, I know what you’re thinking, “Ed, it’s just another beer fest.”  True.  Guilty.  Almost.

Opening Tap has one thing going for it that sets it slightly (OK, not so slightly) above the rest – It’s Opening Tap.  I know.  Cryptic.  Opening Tap is the “green flag”, if you will of Philly Beer Week, the first and possibly largest city wide, 10 day event dedicated to all things beer (that’s right, a mere 7 days can’t contain Philly Beer Week) which means that for this particular event, brewers come out and breweries bring some of their best beers, including a few “rare extras” now and then.

I want to highlight that – BREWERS come out.  I know it seems like such a little thing, but as someone who attends a lot of festivals where beers are poured by volunteers, it’s nice to chat with the guy who actually brewed the beer for a few minutes while he fills your cup.

We left home in what we thought was plenty of time, and after making the requisite number of wrong turns once we entered Philly (stupid G-Maps), we found ourselves at the Armory only 15 minutes late for the VIP session.  That’s practically punctual for us when it comes to Philly.

While a blocked off part of a hallway served as last year’s VIP tasting room, this year the whole venue was open to the craft beer lovers who bought the upgraded ticket.  The new open venue certainly made the VIP tasting seem less crowded, and we took the opportunity of having a few minutes of relaxed tasting and conversation with DE craft beer locals Rob Pfeiffer (Head Brewer) of Twin Lakes; and Tom Knorr (Owner) and Megan Moore (Rep NJ, DE, PA), of Delaware prodigal son Evolution Brewing.

Soon the flood gates opened, and the hordes stormed the armory.  A good horde though.  As always, I can’t give you and in depth analysis on all the beers I tasted.  It’s just a task too immense for my simple palette.  However, a short list of beers Tracey and I found ourselves in front reads like this:

Citra Belgian IPA (Barren Hill Tavern),Dreamin’ Double IPA (Manayunk Brewery), NJ350 (Flying Fish) Lowercase IPA (Free Will Brewing), 30 West Helles Lager, Southern Cross Hog (Lancaster Brewing), Kiss Off IPA, Fear Of A Brett Planet (Round Guys), Hop Five IPA (Susquehanna Brewing), LaGrave (Troegs), Lot No. 6 (Evolution), Grog (Nodding Head), Brotherly Suds 5 (Victory,Flying Fish, Yards, Sly Fox, Iron Hill, Nodding Head and Earth Bread + Brewery), Liberty Bell Ringer DIPA (Victory), Purple Monkey Dishwasher, I Love Lamp (Evil Genius), Philly Triple (Dock Street, Brouwerij Dilewyns), Puddler’s Row, Double IPA (Conshohocken Brewing), Smoked Amber (Saint Benjamin). Molasses Porter, Maple Mistress (Saucony Creek).  Beers in bold are ones that impressed us the most.

One of the activities that adds a little pomp and circumstance to Opening Tap is, well the Opening Tap (again? sorry) – in this case referring to the tapping of the keg of Brotherly Suds, the annual collaboration beer brewed especially for Philly Beer Week.  This year brewers Victory,Flying Fish, Yards, Sly Fox, Iron Hill, Nodding Head and Earth Bread + Brewery worked together to bring about Brotherly Suds #5, a golden bock (which did not disappoint in its malty goodness) with a touch of German hop.

The instrument of tapage (tappage?  Whatever..) for this occasion is the HOG, or Hammer Of Glory as it is called on official occasions, which besides Mjolnir and MC, is probably the most well known Hammer (note: always capitalize that) in the Philadelphia area.  And why not, leading up to the Opening Tap the HOG makes an annual media covered trip through and around Philadelphia, with fanfare and fervor only to be rivaled by the Olympic Flame.

And who get’s the honor of wielding the Hammer?  Why none other than the current Mayor of Philadelphia, the honorable Michael Nutter.  Michael?  Hmmm, apparently although advertised Michael couldn’t make it so he sent a suitable replacement.  One that Tracey immediately picked out of the crowd and drew attention to me by pointing and shouting, “Hey look! There’s that guy on TV that you don’t like!”

OK, it’s not that I don’t LIKE former Mayor and PA Governor Ed Rendell.  I honestly don’t know him well enough to like or dislike him.  I just wish he’d shut up when Ray Didinger is talking on Eagles Post Game Live.

After the tapping, it was time to announce the winners of The Inquire’s Brewvintational, an annual beer competition that tries to find the best of this sea of amazing beers.  First up in the new beer category was Nihilist Russian Imperial Stout, from Sly Fox.  We happen to be lucky enough to be standing right in front of the Sly Fox booth when this was announced, and lucky enough to get to taste this awesome beer.  Troeg’s came in second with their LaGrave a very nice Triple Golden Ale, and third was Round Guys with their very drinkable Fear of a Brett Planet,

The other category was Saisons which was lead by Tired Hand Brewing with their HandFarm Four-Grain Saison aged in Chardonnay barrels. Saison Wood from Iron Hill Brewery (Maple Shade) came in second with Solaire,  a Grisette/Saison from Forest & Main Brewing.  Sadly, Tired Hand and Forest & Main were not in attendance that night.

A little personal blog business from me, this was my first event with my new camera.  I’m going to be honest, I didn’t spend a lot of time over thinking anything here, I mostly set the camera on full auto and let it do the thinking for me, so most of these pictures are still just “snap shots” for all intensive purposes, but for the most part I’m already enjoying the upgrade in picture quality I got.

Sadly, the time to go had come.  We always like to leave beer fests a little early, you know, beat the rush traffic with people who have been drinking as long as we have.  Tonight we had a little extra incentive though because the parking garage next to the festival closed exactly at 10pm and the attendant informed us that since the garage wasn’t open during the weekend, if we didn’t get Tracey’s car out by 9:59, we’d be without it for the weekend.  I’m not sure if that was 100% true, but there are certain things you don’t want to roll the dice on, and I’m pretty sure your girlfriend’s car is one of them.  Just sayin’.

Remember how I said, “Wrong Turns, Great Beers and Mussels?” Well, after leaving Philly (accompanied by the requisite amount of wrong turns trying to get back on I-95) we decided to get something to eat.  Suddenly Tracey was in a mood for mussels so that meant a trip to Jessup’s Tavern in Historic New Castle.  Unfortunately by the time we arrived the kitchen had been closed for a while, but Justin was nice enough to set us up with a couple of decent beers to help alleviate our disappointment.  Why is this important?

Well, the next day we woke up to find out that “Delaware Craft Beer and Wine Lovers” co-founder Patrick Huff was putting together a trip to Philly for the Varga Bar block party, and Tracey and I decided to tag along.  The day was awesome, but Tracey still had that hankering for mussels from the night before and made mention that we were only a small walk from Monk’s Belgian Cafe.  What followed was an awesome dinner with a beer list that we were very excited to be ordering off of.

But that, of course, is another post.

I’d like to thank everyone who always makes this event possible.  First of all to all the brewers, representatives and volunteers that make this event the amazing time that it is.  To G-Lo and gang from It’s Just The Booze Dancing, whose generosity got us on the list last year.  To Jennie Hatton for adding us to the list last year and getting us in touch with Michael Greger, who added us to the list this year.



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