I've been drinking Ithaca Beer Company beers since before I started the research for New York Breweries, back in 2001. They started off with some fairly standard offerings, including the Apricot Wheat that's their best-seller (approximately 45% of total sales), but they've turned it up; Flower Power IPA is a blossoming beauty of hop flavor and aroma (and way too drinkable at 8% ABV), and their Excelsior series is awesome: White Gold, a slightly funky ("Ithaca wild yeast," executive brewer Jeff O'Neil told me, from a small pilot batch that was being carefully blended in) big spiced wheat ale; Caffeinator, a coffee doppelbock; and TEN, a massively whomped-up version of their Cascazilla red ale that took first place at the TAPNY festival tasting this year, propelling Ithaca into the New York State championship, winning the F.X. Matt Memorial Cup.
So it's not surprising that after a successful foray into the hot beer market of Pittsburgh, Ithaca decided to test the waters in Philly. They launched Tuesday night at McGillin's Olde Ale House, and I drove down to Standard Tap, unloaded my bike (free parking in NoLibs, baby), and rode down to have a taste. I was sweating in the 97° heat, but you know, there were a lot more bikes on the streets than the last time I did this. Interesting.
Anyway, it was cool in McGillin's, and though I was early, Jeff was good enough to hammer home the tap in a pin of Flower Power. It was a beautiful pour, a healthy billowing flower of foam over a cool apricot-hued beer. The aroma was mighty and wonderful, hop-twisted and estery, and deep under it was a beer that was West Coast-hoppy but East Coast-balanced. "I'm not so much on bitter," said O'Neil, "but I love hop flavor. Sorry it's not as "session" as you'd like, though." I managed to choke it down, quite quickly, and ask for a half-glass more.
I asked owner Dan Mitchell, why Philly? "We've done very well in Pittsburgh," he said. "We started talking to people (wholesalers) in Philly about two months ago...the guys at Penn (Distributers) seemed to get our beer the best." That's who they went with, and Penn was out in force at this launch. Dan was particularly impressed by the way Philly folks already were aware of Ithaca's beers, thanks largely to beer-trading efforts engendered by beer websites.
The market's ready to show some love to Ithaca's bigger beers, it appears, and we'll be getting regular -- small, but regular -- shipments of cask ale as well, starting with another pin of Flower Power and an Oak-aged Nut Brown (that Jeff says is spectacular) that will be at Friday the Firkinteenth tomorrow (only one in 2008, weather's looking good, whoo-hoo!!!).
I think that Ithaca may actually find a solid market for the Apricot here as well. Philly is well-known as a hot-spot for Belgian-type beers, and a love for lagers, but we don't have a regular fruit beer...and I don't think it's because there's not a market for it. I just think no one's offered it year-round. Apricot may go big here, in which case I suspect you'll see some local brewers bending to the buck and sniffing around the fruit. Could happen.
Anyway, I thanked Dan and Jeff for coming down and for the invite to the launch, strapped on my Camelbak (with two Excelsior bottles stuffed in there, Old Habit Rye and TEN, thanks again, guys!) and helmet, saddled up and headed north, eyeing the ominous clouds. They weren't quite ominous enough to stop me from nipping into Standard Tap for a quick cold pint of Kenzinger (and it was quick, I'm telling you, after that hot ride; it barely touched the sides on the way down) before strapping the bike to the back of the Passat and heading home. I beat the rain by about ten minutes.