The Other Shoe Finally Drops On Old Dominion…

The news of Old Dominion’s impending closure has finally hit the Internet beer sites and I doubt many are surprised. For several months or more, the question of closing the brewery’s Ashburn location has only been one of when, not if. And the only sub-question was, “How long is the company’s lease?” Not quite two months ago I wrote of the closing of the brewery’s pub:

I think at this point the real question for Old Dominion fans is what will become of the brands and the brewery in the future. As Coastal runs another brewery in Dover, Delaware*–one that is large enough with expansion to cover all the company’s brands–the inefficiencies of running two small facilities will inevitably lead to a consolidation of production. As the company’s corporate parents are located in Annapolis, and the pub is now closed, it’s not difficult to see where things are headed. I don’t know how long Old Dominion’s lease on the property runs (a sufficiently long time I would venture from Coastal’s attempt to salvage the pub) but I wouldn’t expect Old Dominion’s Ashburn brewery to remain open any longer than Coastal can control.

So today it was announced that in a “consolidation” of brewing operations, co-owner Coastal Brewing Company will move all brewing operations to the company’s facility in Dover, Delaware, in 2009. At least for the moment, Coastal claims that its full line of beers, including brands under both the Old Dominion and Fordham names, will continue to be brewed, marketed, and distributed throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. This position isn’t likely to continue and the deal, which gave Coastal access to the distribution system of its new partner, Anheuser-Busch, is even more of a head scratcher now then when it went through last year. In the press release, Coastal specifically name-checks the Dominion Ale, Dominion Lager, and Oak Barrel Stout, so I’d expect to see these continue. And Coastal may continue a few seasonal products, perhaps the Octoberfest and the Millennium Barleywine, but I’d get ready to say goodbye to more than 3/4’s of the brewery’s products.

With the closing of the Ashburn facility, Old Dominion’s story really comes to an end. I’ve enjoyed many good times and beers in Ashburn and am sad to see the brewery go, although the passing was a slow and painful one. One thing is clear out of this situation: Virginia is in strong need for a regional brewery and it’s open season for brands from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and other nearby states.

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Is Philadelphia Really A Great Beer City? We’ll Soon See…

So we’re headed to Philadelphia and its northwestern suburbs for a family event next week and weekend, which, of course, I plan to turn into a beer trip. I first became conscious of Philadephia’s craft beer scene when I sampled my first and favorite beer from the town: Independence Brewing Company’s Franklinfest. A malty, toasted Octoberfest style beer, I can still remember how it tasted and how much I enjoyed it. Sadly, Independence didn’t make it but my interest in the town remained.

I first visited Philadelphia for beer a decade or so ago on a circuitous beer tour from Chicago to Wilmington, North Carolina. After enjoying time in Pittsburgh, at Stoudt’s and central Pennsylvania, we made our way through Victory and into Philadelphia proper. Pre-Beerfly days, we only had a well-worn copy of the excellent Beer Lover’s Guide to the United States to guide us. And after an aborted attempt to visit the Northeast Taproom in Reading (Stan and Daria’s guide was excellent but in the days before cellphones, books couldn’t tell you when a place decided to close on Mondays), we spent a fun night in the city. After visiting the well-known places, including Monk’s, we took a book recommendation and headed to McGillin’s. At the city’s oldest bar, we ran into the owners of Flying Fish (who gave my brother handwritten directions to his version of the area’s best bars) and a little known guy trying to give away t-shirts and pint glasses to people who would try his brown ale. Despite his efforts, the guy didn’t get much attention that night, much to our surprise as beer lovers. For that guy was Sam Calagione, founder of the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. We sat down and chatted with Sam for a little while and I still have a snifter the bar gave away for buying one of his beers.

Several years later, after returning from my first trip to Bamberg, Germany, I foolishly opined on some Internet beer group that I didn’t believe Philadelphia to be a great beer town. I was heavily criticized at the time and have spent recent years considering the city’s place in the pantheon of great beer cities of the world. In recent months, I’ve had the opportunity to visit the few great American beer cities I had managed not to hit, including Seattle and Portland, Oregon. While I plan to do a future BeerAdvocate column on the subject of great beer cities and whether designating such a pursuit actually matters, my upcoming trip has returned my focus to Philadelphia.

I have to admit to a certain amount of excitement on my part at getting a chance, after a few years away, to return to Philadelphia. But in reviewing the usual online sites, including the excellent Beermapping.com, I still wonder at the pronouncements of fellow beer writers Don Russell, Lew Bryson, Jack Curtin, and a number of other locals that Philadelphia is “America’s Best Beer Drinking City.? I’ve previously laid out here and in my book my criteria for a great beer city and Philly definitely meets several of those marks, with a handful of top-notch beer bars (Monk’s, Tria, Eulogy) that heavily focus on educating the public. And as I haven’t been there in a while, I’m looking forward to seeing how well craft beer has integrated into regular drinking establishments in the city. But when it comes to breweries and brewpubs, I think this is where I have some pause about claims of Philly’s greatness. For brewpubs, the city offers Nodding Head, Manayunk, and Triumph Brewing. I’ve been to Nodding Head several times and enjoy its quirky environment and solid beers, but have not had a chance to visit Manayunk and relative newcomer Triumph. But that is it for the city, three brewpubs, although I plan to stop by Tom Baker’s new enterprise in Germantown and expect that will add greatly to the city’s brewpub balance. In looking at local breweries, we see even less to support Philly’s claims of greatness. Dock Street is celebrating its one-year anniversary at its new location and has a history almost as twisted as the Concord Brewery’s story. Yard’s Brewing has also had a up and down history and its story continues to unfold. I know very little of the Philadelphia Brewing Company and look forward to trying its beers but doubt it would be touted as a ‘great’ place. In terms of locally produced beer, Philadelphia doesn’t appear to have much of a grasp on the greatest title.

With this said, I’m still excited about visiting and drinking in Philadelphia because it actually reminds me of the best drinking city this country has to offer: Chicago. My home town may not be able to lay claim to being the greatest beer drinking city, although I think it could put up a fight, the character and quantity of its drinking establishments, in my opinion, is unmatched anywhere in America. My visits to Philadelphia and its drinking establishments, as well as reviewing descriptions of other Philly beer bars, reminds me so much of Chicago. I’ve never been to several of the city’s best drinking establishments (at least as they are described online), including The Grey Lodge and the Standard Tap, but I am expecting to thoroughly enjoy them. But I wonder whether a handful of great bars can be enough to raise Philly to the top echelon of great beer drinking cities in America.

When local guys such as Don, Lew, and Jack tout Philly’s beer drinking prowess, I get the sense that their definition of ‘Philadelphia’ is probably a lot broader than mine. I expect that they include places like Victory (35 miles west), the Sly Fox and Iron Hill establishments (15-20 miles outside), Flying Fish (15 miles east in New Jersey), and other outlying establishments. With all that the northwestern suburbs of Philly have to offer, I’m not going to argue with designating Eastern Pennsylvania as a classic and great beer region. And I’ll be stationed in this area and will be visiting the Earth Bread + Brewery, Victory, and probably the General Lafayette Inn, as well as a few other places (with any luck, the Drafting Room in Exton). But as to the city itself, I have my doubts.

In any event, local beer lovers clearly have a lot to brag about in Philadelphia and its outlying areas. And we cannot overlook the achievement that is the Philly Beer Week project, one I plan to attend this year. I’m looking forward to the trip and to putting the Philly propaganda line to the test.

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A Brief Recap and Review of the 2008 Great American Beer Festival…

The annual Great American Beer Festival has just concluded another eventful run in Denver and I just returned back to Boston after an early morning flight. During the trip, I spent time in both Colorado Springs and Denver, with attendance at two of the 27th annual festival’s sessions. This year’s incarnation continued to build upon the event’s successful history, if with some troubles. There is no question that with more than 2000 beers available on the floor from more than 450 breweries, the GABF remains an impressive logistical undertaking and a feat of coordination. This year’s event sold out for the second straight time and did so two weeks before the opening session. With all of its success, the festival stumbled in one critical area: crowd management. In giving access to the 46,000 people who attended the event, several thousand were forced to stand in line for more than an hour before entering the festival. Inside the convention hall, the festival was packed, even during the normally light Thursday session. Despite its gains, the GABF may have reached its tipping point in terms of population.

The festival gives attendees, especially those in the industry, an unparalleled opportunity to hob-knob with other beer lovers, brewers, and pub owners and this year didn’t disappoint. For those interested, there were countless side events and late-nights at the GABF’s unofficial headquarters at the Falling Rock. For my part, I especially enjoyed meeting Don Younger and getting to spend some time with my old friend Toshi Ishii of Japan (and England, Norway, and countless other brewing locales).

Beyond the usual events and overwhelming number of beers present, the festival this year appeared to lack a bit of the enthusiasm and sense of wonder that it has in the past. It’s a bit hard to put your finger on exactly the cause, be it the down economy or some other reason. In any event, brewers were in shorter supply at their tables and in attendance during the event itself than in years past. The focal point of the week appears to have shifted away from the convention floor itself and into the city and state more generally.

Without question, where the brewers left off, the burgeoning new media picked up. Bloggers were omni-present, with many reporting directly from the festival floor or the adjacent media room. For those who weren’t able to attend the event, you could read near-contemporaneous accounts from a wide variety of sources. I was particularly impressed with Draft Magazine’s work during the event, including its video interviews with a dozen or more brewers and other beer folks directly from the festival floor.

And while I’ll have more on the GABF here and in Beverage Business in the future, including on Anheuser-Busch’s strong specialty releases (excluding its oddly British ‘American Ale’), the Siebel Institute’s sensory evaluation course, and the somewhat surprising announcement of the return of SAVOR, I wanted to offer a few thoughts on the event. By the numbers, the BA handed out 222 awards out of more than 2900 beers entered in the competition, rounding out to about 7.5-percent of beers entered picking up a medal. Stop to think about that number for a moment. We often hear beer geeks complain about the GABF and nit-pick particular selections. But in the end, fewer than 1 in 13 beers received a medal and just over 2-percent received the much-coveted gold. When you think about the breweries that win multiple medals, fest after fest, questions about the judging process have to be laid to rest.

Attendance at the GABF by New England brewers, even where the Brewers Association’s Board of Directors is presently chaired by Rich Doyle, CEO and founder of the region’s largest craft brewery, continues to be poor. Of the 472-plus breweries in attendance, only 16 attended from New England. Of those in attendance, New England brewers managed to take home only 3 GABF medals, with Cambridge Brewing winning a gold in the highly competitive experimental category for its Arquebus, a bronze for Amherst Brewing Company’s Ryeteous Red, and a bronze in the aged beer category for Boston Beer’s Samuel Adams Utopias 2003. All told, New England brewers took home just over 1-percent of the total medals awarded. When you compare that to the impressive showings of a town like Philadelphia, let alone the Mid-Atlantic or California and Colorado regions, and New England’s performance is very disappointing.

As a final note, I want to extend congratulations to the winners of the Brewers Association’s Michael Jackson Beer Journalism Awards, including Lew Bryson in the Trade and Specialty Beer Media category. While I personally disagree with journalists participating in the awards, Lew is a good and thorough writer and I look forward to reading his winning piece.

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