One hundred years before it was even a state, Pennsylvania began brewing beer. In 1685, William Frampton opened the first brewery in Philadelphia. Just two years later, in 1687, Anthony Morris built Philadelphia’s first commercial brewery, which remained in operation as a family business until 1836. Being the largest populace in the time of the American Revolution, Philadelphia also became an important location in the construction of the United States. Many delegates involved in the Constitutional Convention resided in local taverns, which also doubled as boarding houses and allowed travelers a place to sleep, eat and drink. This tavern – delegate link allows some historians to proclaim the importance of beer in the founding of the country. One such story is the formation of the Connecticut Compromise, which defined the structure and representation each state would have in the Constitution. The story goes that the delegates staying at the Indian Queen tavern met over beer in the evenings to hash out the compromise. Sure, this logic requires a few leaps: delegates met at taverns, taverns sold beer, therefore delegates drank beer while they constructed the plan. True or not, it makes for great barstool conversation.
In our great town there is an able man that has set up a large Brew House, in order to furnish the People with good Drink, both there and up and down the River
— William Penn, Founder of Pennsylvania, 1685
Pennsylvania’s brewing history did not stop with the forming of the country. While none of the breweries from the colonial days exist today, Pennsylvania can still lay claim to the oldest brewery in the U.S. — Yuengling. Located in Pottsville, Yuengling was established in 1829 by a young German immigrant, David G. Yuengling. Though there were stumbles, a fire, and a few failed attempts at expansion, Yuengling continues to survive. Their largest test of survival came in the 19th century with the ratification of the eighteenth amendment, the national prohibition of alcohol. Unlike most of its competitors, Yuengling endured the 13 years of prohibition through the production of near beer. This adaptation and continued usage of their production line allowed them to continually modernize their process, while other brewers let their production facilities fall behind, preventing them from a quick reentry into the market when prohibition ended.
Being from Pennsylvania, I have had many opportunities to drink Yuengling. Most places in the state usually had multiple varieties available on draft, my favorite being their dark brewed Porter, Black and Tan; however, their Traditional Lager is its most prominent brew.
All beer can be classified as either an ale or a lager. The major difference between these two families of beer is the type of yeast used during the brewing process. Ales are brewed with a top-fermenting yeast, while lagers use a bottom-fermenting yeast. After the primary fermentation process, lagers undergo a period of maturation, also called lagering, that can last from a few weeks to several months. During the lagering process, the beer develops the characteristics and flavors associated with a lager.
Depending on whom you ask, Yuengling is or is not a craft beer. As a brand, it really has grown in name recognition over the past years (example: President Obama using it in a bet with Canada). While the intent of this blog focuses on craft beer, the vague craft beer status had nothing to do with Yuengling missing out on this week’s samplers. I can only blame a complete lack of foresight on my part. I completely forgot it is not available in New England, and did not grab any while I was in Pennsylvania. It is all about the distribution.
That brings us to this week selections. This week, we will get to sample brews from three different eastern Pennsylvania breweries: Victory, Tröegs and Weyerbacher.
Of the three Pennsylvania breweries getting sampled this week, Victory is the first one I heard of, and that was through a collaboration they did with Dogfish Head. It wasn’t too long afterwards that I started to see Tröegs appearing in my local stores. As far as I can recall, this will be my first tasting of anything from Weyerbacher.
We started the night off with Tröegs, a central Pennsylvania brewery that has been in operation for about 16 years. From Tröegs, we sampled their Mad Elf Ale, a seasonal Christmas ale. Christmas ales are usually brewed around the holiday season and can contain a variety of fruits, herbs and spices. Another feature of the christmas brew is its high alcohol content, and the Mad Elf, is no exception, coming in at 11% ABV. Brewed with honey and cherries Mad Elf presents dark red in the glass, with a nice thin white head.
The smell is distinctive sweet and cherry. However, the taste is thick, and much too sweet and syrupy in my mouth. In the Oxford Companion to Beer, they state that “honey adds a distinctive sweetness and roundness, although in excess it can be perceived as rather cloying on the palate.” I sure had that feeling with this beer. In the end, there wasn’t a person in our group that enjoyed this beer, all struggled with the same issue, too sweet and syrupy.
About 60 miles east of the Tröegs brewery resides an old mill town, Downingtown. Located in Downingtown is another small Pennsylvania brewery, Victory Brewing. Started in 1996 as a restaurant and a full-scale brewery, Victory has steadily grown their operation from 1725 barrels brewed in the first year to 82 thousand barrels produced in 2011. I have tried a few different beers from Victory over the years, most notably Hop Devil. For this weeks sampling however, I chose Golden Money, mostly because it was the only product from Victory I could find on the shelf at one of my local stores at the time. Golden Monkey is a Tripel, a style of beer that was first commercialized in Belgium in the 1930s and has an excellent “origin story”. The story goes that in the medieval times, when most people were illiterate, casks of beer were marked with X’s to indicate the strength of the beer: X was the weakest and XXX was the strongest, where strength was a rough translation of alcohol by volume. The triple X morphed to the word, “tripel.” I had always assumed the casks in the old cartoons were full of whiskey, but maybe they were actually drinking a nice Tripel beer instead.
When poured, the first thing we noticed with the Golden Monkey was the high-level of carbonation. Tripels are often bottle conditioned. That means that when the beer is bottled, there is a very small amount of carbon dioxide, but sugars called priming sugars are added to the bottle to allow the yeast to continue to ferment in the bottle. This process produces a well-carbonated beverage.
Because of the remaining yeast, drinking the sediment on the bottom of a bottle conditioned beer is not advised. Golden Monkey even provides directions about this right on the bottle. This beer had a lot going on. Some of the comments heard were, “honey taste” and “spices“. As with the previous tasting, this beer took some time to warm up to and wasn’t well loved in the group. Unlike previous beers, this one didn’t get abandoned, but I would be surprised if anyone of us sought out this beer in the future.
I did come back and try the remains again later in the evening, after the bottle had warmed up some, and I enjoyed it more. While still not on my top list, it was my favorite of the night.
Sticking with the southeastern corner of the state, we next sampled a brew from Weyerbacher, located in Easton. Like the others breweries sampled from Pennsylvania, it started production in the mid 90s. I had seen Weyerbacher on the shelves of some stores in Pennsylvania when I was last there, but I didn’t expect to find it in my town. Last week, while browsing about, I was pleasantly surprised to see a bottle of Double Simcoe IPA, and decided it should be part of the sampling.
The Simcoe name comes from the type of hop used in the brewing process. Simcoe is a proprietary hop favored among craft brewers, especially in double IPAs. In The Oxford Companion to Beer, Matthew Brynildson describes Simcoe as having a:
unique aroma profile composed of piney, woody, and grapefruit citrus notes mixed with slightly dank and spicy notes of onion and garlic.
With the Double Simcoe IPA, we could immediately smell and taste the hops. It wasn’t of the strength of the 90 minute IPA, but it was strong. The smell was sweet, and I could easily detect the citrus notes. I did not however detect any essence of onion or garlic.
This beer had an awkward, and strange aftertaste (maybe from the onion notes?) that made it hard to become something I would look forward to enjoying.
In the end, I was really regretting my lapse in purchasing Yuengling while in Pennsylvania. While not the best of beers, it is very consistent and enjoyable. It would have been a nice ending. Everything sampled this evening left the tasters craving something else to cleanse the palette. Some even choosing 107 proof bourbon.
Overall, I think the Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA is still my favorite of all the sampled brews so far.
See you next week for New Jersey.