With spring training beginning today, it seems a splendidly ironic time to talk up an essential winter beer. Many a beer connoisseur will tell you to cellar The Old Horizontal for weeks if not months before drinking it - aging a barleywine tends to “mellow” it out a little and bring out it’s “character”. But I’m just not that patient - this is a beer that’s so immensely delicious that I can barely resist popping it open the minute I get it home. As for the arrival of baseball season, I’m equally chafing at the bit for Phillies world domination 2011. Perhaps, though, the Flyers, playing right now, are the surer thing.
Who's NOT excited about baseball season? My wife. But for a person who hates watching baseball, she has an uncanny perception of the sport. Some of her observations (Chase Utley is too much of a pretty boy, Pedro Feliz's beard looks like pubes) are merely hilarious. But sometimes she flat-out nails it. Scoffing at a local sportscast’s terming of this year’s Phils starting pitching rotation as potentially “one of the greatest of all-time”, she asked me who the Phightins would have in the bullpen this season. I had to admit that the relief corps would be comprised largely of whatever journeymen, has-beens, and unproven prospects they could scrounge up. So my beautiful wife, who would lead you to believe that she can’t stand televised baseball, proceeds to identify all the returning components of the Phillies’ bullpen - some by name (Brad Lidge), others by nicknames she has invented to keep everyone straight (setup stud Ryan Madson is “giraffe”; contending lefty specialist Mike Zagurski is “kielbasa” ). She then tells me that there’s no point in having great starters if your finishers can’t get it done. I surely could not argue with such a keenly spot-on analysis of today’s pro game. Gone are the days when a Major League bullpen was built from the scrap hear of the starting rotation. You simply can’t win today without quality dudes in the ‘pen. Six of eight playoff teams last year had bullpen ERAs in the top 10. Only one team in the bottom half in bullpen ERA - my Phillies- even qualified for the post-season. The eventual champion Giants ranked 2nd. And it’s not like the Phillies, with the upstart, relief-rich Braves hot on their heels, did anything to bolster their ‘pen this winter. With probable 20-game winners Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee heading the starting rotation, it’s hard to fathom this team not winning 90 games at least. But 105 or even 100? I don’t know! If we’re coming clean, this team still strikes out too much, lacks an elite leadoff man, is counting on two star power hitters coming off career-worst years, must replace Jayson Werth’s formidable five-hole production, and seems likely to blow more than a few late-inning leads. Doesn’t exactly sound like the stuff of world championship inevitability, eh?
Two predictions, then. The Braves, not the Phillies, will take the NL East. But Philly still gets a parade, because the Flyers are steamrolling their way to their first Cup in 36 years. The spring sport, baseball, may offer unprecedented thrills in the summer to come. But the winter sport, hockey, is what it’s all about right now. Not far from the city of Philadelphia, Victory Brewing Company makes a winter beer worthy of a championship cup of its own. At 11 percent alcohol by volume, Old Horizontal warms body and soul quickly and delightfully. But where is all that alcohol in the taste? Barely noticeable beneath all those rich piny hops, dark candied fruits, and delicious caramel malts! Mmmmm! Victory is well-known for cooking up beers that are big on both hops and malts (HopDevil, Yakima Glory), and Old Horizontal is absolutely of the same caliber. Crazy smooth, warm on the throat, and perfect for sipping by the fire on a blustery and frigid night, this barleywine is a wintertime must. Would it taste even better if I aged it for nine months? I might have to try and find out. I’ll pick up a six-pack, drink two bottles, and cellar the rest. Or maybe I’ll drink three and cellar three. Far from just a gimmicky “It’ll get you drunk in a hurry” novelty beer, the super-tasty Old Horizontal easily stands up to the hype. Now if only the Phillies can do the same.