Courage and hope for a depressed nation

Wanderings Walter Brasch

PHOENIXVILLE - Plenty of haggis was served and the Gang Aft Agley Scotch Ale flowed as an estimated 325 lads and lassies celebrated in style at the Fifth Annual Robbie Burns Birthday Bash at The Sly Fox Brewhouse & Eatery at Pikeland Village Square Friday night.

The birthday of poet Robert Burns is a Scottish national holiday, and locally it has gained in popularity every year of being honored.

According to Sly Fox owner Peter Giannopoulos, crowds began filing into the brewhouse around 5 p.m., just prior to the 6 p.m. start.

"It didn't take long for the parking lot to get filled," said Giannopoulos, as he greeted customers walking into the door. "We always plan for a huge crowd, and the response every year has been phenomenal. This year is no different. The customers are great and have been taking good care of the staff."

With Scottish music provided by the band Celtic Spirit, the good cheer and merriment was fueled by several popular brands of Sly Fox beer.

Award-winning brewer Brian O'Reilly tapped the first of 30 kegs of his whiskey barrel-aged Gang Aft Agley Scotch Ale at the bar.

"I made 30 kegs of this, plus numerous kegs of our other brews," said O'Reilly. "Sometimes it's hard keeping track of how many I've brewed. This is another successful birthday party we're having here."

The bartenders behind the bar were keeping all of the lads' and lassies' glasses filled with the traditional scotch ale.

"This is one of the busiest nights of the year," said Corey Reid, bar manager. "People have been steadily in and out all evening. We've already been through several kegs of scotch ale. It's a great ale and extremely popular. Everyone's asking for it and we're more than glad to pour it."

Along with the scotch ale on this night was the sound of bagpipes, while the traditional carrying-in of the haggis (a dish consisting of a mixture of the minced heart, lungs and liver of a sheep or calf mixed with suet, onions, oatmeal and seasonings and boiled in the stomach of the slaughtered animal) commenced. During the ceremony, "Ode to the Haggis" was read by the evening's host, Ian Turnbull, of The Celtic Glen, Pottstown.

O'Reilly introduced Giannopoulos, who began the evening's poem readings with one of Burns' favorites, "On Politics."

Once he was finished reading, O'Reilly and Giannopoulos toasted with a wee dram of aged single malt Scotch whiskey.

Several other patrons throughout the evening read selections of Burns' poetry, to then be rewarded with their dram of whiskey.

Towards the end of the event, the crowd was led by Turnbull into a rousing, hand-holding rendition of Burns' "Auld Lang Syne."

Burns died at 37 of rheumatic fever. Born on January 25, 1759, the oldest of seven children, he began writing as a young man and his poems were circulated widely in manuscript, but none were published until 1786, 10 years before his death. Once published, his works became an immediate success. In 1787, he released a second edition of his poems, which made him prominent throughout Scotland.

In honor of this special occasion, Giannopoulos said O'Reilly's Gang Aft Agley Scotch Ale always makes its return to the pub.

"The name comes from one of Burns' famous poems," he said. "It goes, 'The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley'. A lot of our customers have tried it and gave their approval."

While holding a glass of scotch ale, Giannopoulos agreed with the popularity of the evening's main brew.

"This year's version is absolutely wonderful. We've had some great versions in the past, but this year's is absolutely extraordinary," he said. "I'm going to keep recommending it to everyone as they come in."

Gang aft agley means, roughly, go often awry.

Along with the various ales and whiskeys served, Chef Luis Diaz and Robert Cooper prepared an excellent Scottish menu featuring the haggis, along with specialties such as Soup Du'Jour Cock A Leekie (prune, leeks and chicken stock soup), chicken tikka masala, cauliflower with cheese & whiskey, tri-colored wee potatoes, biscuits and homemade cheesecake. This special meal sold for $21.99 and filled the bill for quite a few customers.

"We made sure we had quite a bit of haggis this year, as it always sells out quickly," Reid said. "We knew it would be popular with the customers."

Karen Peters of East Pikeland first tried haggis several years ago at a Robbie Burns Bash at the Sly Fox. She said she remembered not being a fan of it then, but has since tried it again.

"I had another helping of it tonight, and it is an acquired taste," said Peters. "I don't think about what it's made of and just eat it. The first time it was a little shocking but this year's was good. It wasn't as spicy as I remember it being."

Peters, along with Caesar Muzzioli and several friends, are regulars at the Sly Fox and look forward to the bash every year.

"This is such a wonderful night," said Peters. "I love this event and we always have a great time. We see so many people we know here and it is a fun night."

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