Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Colorful Night of Beer with Prism Brewing Company's Rob DeMaria

A couple years ago, a few friends and I met a guy named Rob DeMaria. He was just an average working stiff at Merck. But he had big dreams. Dreams of owning his own brewery. We met him at the General Lafayette, a formerly awesome brewery and restaurant in Lafayette Hill. You see, they had somehow run an incredible establishment into the ground. No idea how. But on this night they had invited several "friends of the General" out for a brainstorming session on how they could keep the place afloat. Basically, they were trying to hit us up for money in exchange for...well, nothing. The good feeling of knowing we helped some other a-hole keep their business from tanking, I guess? Anyway, after they tried unsuccessfully to con us out of our money, we headed into their bar area for a drink. Or six. So did Rob DeMaria. At some point in the night, he approached our table. He said he was working on opening his own brewery and he wanted our opinion on what we thought was a good name for his IPA. He gave us two names. One was Bitto Honey IPA. The other was...something that we have already forgotten. In any event, we gave him our opinion: Bitto Honey was a better moniker than...whatever the other name was. That is the name that DeMaria went with. And now, lo and behold, he has his own brewery. It's called Prism Brewing Company, and on Thursday, Feb. 9 he had a very successful beer dinner at Chap's Taproom in Norristown.

Enough nostalgia. Let's get to the actual beer event. Before I get into how tasty the beer was and how delicious the food was, I would like to address the way in which the beer dinner was conducted. We had been to a beer dinner before at Chap's. It was hosted by Don Russell, also known as Joe Sixpack, a writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and a major catalyst in the movement that resulted in Philly Beer Week and the taking-off of the beer culture in th City of Brotherly Love. It was a very good event, but it was also a bit stilted. Mr. Sixpack sat in front of the audience as they drank their beer and ate their food. He talked about the making of the beer. He gave wonderful details on its origins. He was very eloquent and certainly an exceedingly knowlegeable man. His presence at the mic, however, also made it feel as if you might seem rude if you actually, you know, drank the beer he was talking about while he was talking about it. Perhaps this idea made it into the comment cards offered up by Chap's because, for the Prism Brewing Company event, the mic concept was scrapped. DeMaria simply went around from table to table, talking to the patrons about the beer and answering any questions they might have. It should also be said that the food service was different as well. Gone was the idea of servers bringing plates to each individual as if we were at a wedding and not a get-together the point of which was to down delicious suds. In lieu of this set-up, Chap's simply set up off to the side and allowed the patrons to retrieve their food buffet-style. They also allowed for second servings, which would come in handy later when I get to their Bacon Mac and Cheese.

But before I get to that, let's speak of Mr. Demaria. When I last saw the gent, he looked like the typical corporate guy who had just got out of a meeting where he was forced to listen to a blowhard go on about innovative, creative ideas that were neither innovative nor creative and were actually quite stupid. He was wearing a button-up long sleeve, a pair of khakis, and a well-trimmed goatee. However, these many years later, freed of the confines of white-collar fashion mores, he was putting out a much cooler vibe. He rocked a black Prism polo over a long sleeve T, a Tom Waitsy pork pie hat, and a full black beard that screamed "Boy, am I glad I don't have to listen to douchebags go on for hours about 'synergy' and 'best processes' anymore." He didn't know us at first so he spoke in slightly cliched terms about the making of the beer. But once reminded of the time when we had first met him, he opened up. He shared with us how his operation had started as a home brew, where he would take kegs of his creations to people's parties. He gave us some wonderful inside baseball regarding the rise and inexplicable fall of the General (although we knew plenty about some of the reasons why that place took a dive, not least of which was the fact that their Buffalo wings went from gourmet to garbage and their servers morphed into insufferable jackarses). He didn't even take it personal when one of our buddies suggested that Bitto Honey would have been better served with a name like "Juwanzalicious." He was a fun, sociable guy and he seemed totally comfortable shooting the breeze with the hoi polloi, something that I have to imagine could be difficult in the wrong hands ("I'm sorry, can you put down your chicken skewer? I'd like to speak to you about hop fermentation for a spell.").

I don't care how swell Mr. DeMaria is. If his beer was wack, the evening would have to be declared an utter fail. Truth be told, I found Prism's offerings to be enjoyable, but there were some fairly wide variances in quality. The first offering was a last-minute add. I have to think that maybe Chap's felt that three beers and three small plates was a bit light for $25 and angled for a fourth thrown into the mix. I'm glad they did (IF they did) because Prism Red Zone was probably my favorite beer of the night. Served sans food accompaniment, the opening beer fired off a bunch of different flavors. There was some pumpkin, some cinnamon, and a hint of maple syrup, which helped give the beer an excessively smooth finish. Now I am not usually a fan of overly spiced beers. Some pumpkins can go awry for me when they are laced with the flavors I mentioned earlier. However, this one seemed to walk up to that line and stride it well, never quite falling into the area of the sickeningly sweet and sugary.

Next up was the beer that we helped name, Bitto Honey IPA. Chap's served it with an Asian Chicken Skewer with a delicious glaze. While the chicken may have been a tad bit dry due to mass serving, I did not find it to be egregious. Also the plate was fairly sizable with two skewers inserted through large meaty pieces. Bitto Honey, however, had its limits. It's tough for me. You see, India Pale Ale is my favorite beer genre. I mean, I pre-gamed the event with the unbelievable Firestone Walker Union Jack IPA! So Prism's flagship IPA didn't quite do it for me. I found it to contain some fine hops and of course large hints of honey, but nothing that put it over the top. I found the scent to be none too pleasing and I felt that a friend made a nice point when he said that rather than advertising it as an IPA with hints of honey, maybe it should be sold as a honey beer with IPA-style hops. For it was the sweet taste that jumped out more to me than the hops, and that is just not an ideal IPA in my view.

Fortunately for me, however, DeMaria upped the hop quotient with his next featured beverage. The 10% ABV Felony IPA had a great floral scent, a fine golden color, and hops that generated a lasting kick. It did not have the flavor complexity of the Red Zone so I wouldn't call it my favorite, but it would probably be the one I would pick up if I were to go back to Chap's for a growler of Prism beer. With Felony, Chap's served a tasty but slight Flank Steak Crostini. Accompanied by melted gorgonzola and a wonderful buttery bread, the item was very good. But even at two pieces I felt it was a little small. The next morning, I woke up in my undies with my socks still on, and when you consider that an item so limited in heft was served with a beer whose alcohol volume was in the double digits, it really shouldn't come as a surprise (although it may have been the Unibroue Maudite that I finished the night with).

The final pint is one that I really don't feel qualified to judge, but I will do it anyway because, well, I am the author of this here review. It was called Insana Stout. It was served with a piece of chocolate-covered bacon, which...uh...kind of ruled. This being said, I wouldn't get this beer again, pig product or no. I just don't like Stout. It wasn't huge on the Stout feel. The coffee/chocolate scents did not overwhelm. This is good for me, I guess. I imagine that a big Stout fanatic might think it was a little light. Who knows? They might love it. Take my review with a grain of salt because I would probably diss Russian River's Imperial Stout. One thing I do know though: the beer was served with Bacon Mac and Cheese. Ummm...delish! How good was it? I swear to you, I don't use ridiculous shortenings of words like "delish," and I felt compelled to do so for this one. I went back for seconds of this dish that explains itself and the only notes I have on it are "tasty business." I was fairly toasted by that time, but I have to assume that I was too busy stuffing my face to get truly analytical on this food choice.

All in all, the night was a success. The food was very good and the beer, while offering major hits and slight misses in this author's opinion, more than lived up to the price tag. He's come a long way since that night at the General and the series of concoctions I sampled at Prism's tasting mark "mad scientist" Rob DeMaria as a serious up-and-comer on the Greater Philadelphia beer scene.

The Pizza Project
Just a nibble:
Single slice:
The full pie:

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