Thursday, March 12, 2009

PBW Round Two: Bell's Brewery at Jose Pistola's (Complete Edition)

The following text is at least somewhere along the wines of what I’d originally hoped to have time to write before posting yesterday’s little slideshow from the Bell’s Brewery dinner at Jose Pistola’s on Sunday, part of Philly Beer Week (PBW). Let’s do it again and see if things don’t make at least a little more sense this time ‘round.

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I’ve been nursing – and quite enjoying – a variety case from Bell’s Brewery for the last couple of months. So last Sunday, when I finally rolled into a motivated enough frame of mind to peruse the Philly Beer Week schedule for the day, the beer pairing dinner with brewer Larry Bell leapt off the page. And I leapt into town.

My adventures at Nodding Head and Tria behind me, I headed over to Jose Pistola’s shortly before six to scope things out and snag a decent seat. Going into it, I knew I liked what I’d tasted from Bell’s but I had no idea just how many different brews they, well, brew, nor quite how large the business had become. With the help of his 100 employees, Larry Bell now turns out 111,000 barrels of beer annually, with seven beers in year-round production and another 10-12 in seasonal rotation. The above stats add up to make Bell’s the 21st largest brewery in the United States, though they’re still very much considered a craft brewery.

"It's wonderful. It's terrifying. It's fun." Larry Bell's words about Philly Beer Week, which he feels is already a tremendous event that, within the next five years, will become an unstoppable force. Larry regaled the small dinner audience with tales of starting his business with a birthday present of $200 from his mom, and topped off the evening by reciting Baudelaire in his toast to the crowd.

Currently distributed in 15 states, Bell’s, like some of the other most successful craft brewers in the US, finds its beers in the enviable if difficult situation of being in greater demand than their current production levels can satisfy. I ran into two distributors who’d come to the tasting ostensibly to court Larry into markets where his brews are not currently available, and I wouldn’t doubt that others made similar advances at any number of the other events Larry hosted around town on the first weekend of PBW.

Mike Burmil, Key Account Manager for S.K.I. Beer Corp. in Brooklyn, NY, was among the distributors hoping to lure Larry (and his beers) into their fold.

On this night, though, Mr. Bell was clearly in the house just to share his beers and have fun while doing it. Larry’s seasonal and specialty brews were the focus for the evening. Light they were not, with only offering slipping in below the 7% ABV threshold. Flavorful they were. A firkin of Hopslam was tapped for our first round. It turned out to be one of my personal favorites of the evening, along with Lager of the Lakes (the aforementioned lower alcohol offering) and Consecrator Doppelbock.

Nima Hadian, proprietor of the famous Emmaus beer distributor Shangy's, is Bell's distributor for the eastern Pennsylvania market. He considers Bell's, in solid company with the likes of Dogfish Head and Stone, to be among the four or five strongest brands in American craft brewing.

During his introduction, Larry mentioned that Bell’s owns and farms 140 acres of land planted to various types of barley. I’d really like to have had more time to discuss that with him, as I’ve often wondered how many breweries out there do much if any farming of their own raw materials. Maybe that’s just a wine guy kind of a question, as I’m so accustomed to looking at the close connection between land, vine and wine.

Casey Parker, with more than a little help from the rest of the crew at Jose Pistola’s, did an admirable job of keeping things flowing, both from the taps and the kitchen.

Larry also spoke energetically of “playing with” various yeast strains, not just in terms of driving fermentation but also of delivering flavors and aromas to his various beers. While I didn’t love every beer poured, I respected the quality and care that clearly went into crafting each one. It left me pondering the roles of winemakers versus brewers, and pondering why the types of manipulative techniques that so often repulse me in the wine world don’t bother me nearly so much when it comes to beer.

That’s a quandary I may have to investigate in more depth at a later date. But I’d welcome your thoughts on it now.

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