The way Brendan Hartranft tells it, the two guys had been lifelong Bud drinkers, but they were curious about the new tavern on the corner of Memphis Street and East Cumberland in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood (which happened to be Hartranft’s Memphis Taproom). So they stopped in— and asked for a Bud. But there was no Bud, Hartranft tells me, as we sip espresso in a coffee shop near his newest tavern, Local 44. “No Bud?” they repeated. Hartranft offered to tell them about the rest of the beer selections listed on the blackboard behind the bar, including beer both from local Philadelphia breweries and from as far away as Belgium. “No way, man,” said one of them, astonished. “This is, like, beer school.” Nevertheless, they ended up with a bottle of Hartranft’s favorite beer, Trappist-made Orval, and to his delight, they loved it. “‘It’s kinda like champagne,’” Hartranft reports one of them as saying. Now the two, plus a third buddy, are regulars of the cheerily retro Taproom.
Hartranft’s story is just the kind that folks involved with the Philadelphia beer scene love to tell because it encompasses so much of what makes the city unique in the world of beer: the importance of the local tavern (or “corner tappy,” as it’s sometimes referred to) and the rise of new establishments in many neighborhoods with a wide variety of local and international brews available. But more than anything, it points to the fact that in addition to the Liberty Bell, Pat’s cheesesteaks (or Geno’s, if you insist), a thriving arts scene, and yes, the 2008 world champion Phillies, Philadelphia is also most definitely a beer town.
Last year, the city sponsored its first Philly Beer Week, a seven-day extravaganza of beer tastings hosted by the city’s taverns and breweries. In hopes of catching up (and preparing for this year’s Beer Week festivities, taking place March 6 through 15), I treated myself to three days devoted entirely to drinking beer and becoming better acquainted with the movers and shakers of the beer scene. In other words, a pub crawl to end all pub crawls.
I begin with smoked salmon and a stout at the sleekly contemporary Triumph Brewing Co. on bustling Chestnut Street with beer writer Don Russell, a veteran newspaperman whose “Joe Sixpack” column has run in the Philadelphia Daily News for the last 12 years. Russell knows beer, having traveled the streets of Philadelphia (and the world) researching his books, “Joe Sixpack’s Philly Beer Guide” and “Christmas Beer” (both published in 2008), and I’m counting on him to fill me in on Philly beer history and places to visit.
What makes Philly different from other beer-centric cities, Russell says, as he tucks into a Triumph IPA and a grilled cheese, is the city’s willingness to drink beer from all over. Some cities are more parochial and drink only their own brews (e.g., Portland, Ore.), but “in Philly,” he says with a smile, “we drink theirs plus ours. We joke about it, but Philly drinks it all.”
And there’s a lot to drink. Aside from a bevy of brewpubs (taverns that serve beer made on premises) like Triumph, Dock Street Brewing, Nodding Head and General Lafayette Inn and Brewery in suburban Lafayette Hill, Philadelphia also boasts several breweries (Philadelphia Brewing Co., Yard’s, Victory Brewing in Downingtown) and a plethora of taverns that specialize in high-quality beers. Some, like Standard Tap, serve only locally made beer. Others, like Monk’s Cafe, have a stupefying selection of Belgian ales.
“The first thing William Penn did was to build a brewery,” Russell points out with a laugh. “And the first true porter was brewed here, made by Robert Hare before the Revolution. [George] Washington himself advocated buying Philadelphia Porter.” Like many cities with homegrown breweries (Baltimore, for example), local production fell off after World War II when Midwestern breweries like Anheuser-Busch built vast operations and started distributing beer nationally. With craft brewing in full swing since the ‘90s, it was around 2004 that Russell noticed that every new business that opened, “opened with local taps. It was astonishing,” he says. “You couldn’t say that eight or nine years ago.”
Next, I head to one of my favorite spots in Philadelphia, Monk’s Cafe, whose owner, Tom Peters, was the first in Philadelphia to champion Belgian ales, the result of a beer epiphany in Brussels in 1984 that was meant to be a one-night stopover. (It’s an undocumented rumor that Philadelphia sells more Belgian beer than anywhere outside of Belgium).
“One night led to three,” Peters says wryly, and when he returned to Philly, he called a local distributor and asked him to bring in a case of Chimay. “There’s no risk,” Peters told the distributor. He said that if they didn’t sell he’d buy them himself. But there was no need. “I sold them all in one shift,” he says.
Peters opened Monk’s in 1997, when the only other bar in Philly that served Belgians was Brigid’s, another of Philadelphia’s bar/restaurant treasures with its homey menu and its gravity-powered “down draft” tap dedicated to Yard’s beer. Today Peters has holdings in a handful of Philadelphia taverns, including the Belgian Café and Nodding Head Brewery (which makes a deliciously tart Berliner Weisse in the summer). He’s held beer classes for restaurateurs and the general public and, along with Don Russell, is one of the architects of Beer Week. “This is the most beer savvy town,” he says, while we toast with a glass of the extremely rare Isabella Proximus. “People are adventurous. They’re willing to try anything.”
After talking with these two experts, I’m ready to embark on my own adventures. Prohibition Tap Room offers me deep fried string beans and Stoudt’s Oktoberfest in a newly renovated but still slightly old-fashioned space just south of Spring Garden. With its neon “beer” sign and damask wallpaper, it’s the kind of place you expected your just-off-the-boat uncles would visit in their flat caps, though the bar’s jukebox is unquestionably contemporary.
Standard Tap in North Liberties serves only local brews in its deep red-walled space, and I watch jean-clad hipster couples with children, as well as an Episcopal priest with his formally dressed family, parade through the bar to the dining room while I devour a brunch of smoked fish and a Troeg’s Porter. I leave Standard Tap’s dark and cozy space for a trip across town to Dock Street Brewing, all light and industrial, with a huge woodpile for the brewery’s wood burning oven stacked in the hallway. Its pilsner makes me swoon with its balanced crispness— utterly refreshing, even on a cool day.
The next evening I meet friends for dinner at the General Lafayette Inn and Brewery in Lafayette Hill, where we sample Sunset Red Ale and Abbey Brune, a heady Dubbel, along with some very tasty fish and chips, in a nook of a booth between the beamed low-ceiling bar and the colonial dining room, which is warmed by a giant fireplace. They convince me to stop with them at Earth Bread + Brewery in downtown Mount Airy, where we try its Terra Fume, a smoked wheat beer that’s delightfully fragrant, at its upstairs bar while a jazz combo plays downstairs to the folks enjoying the restaurant’s signature flatbreads.
I devote my last day in Philly to visiting two of its breweries. Yard’s, brewer of the Extra Special Amber and other English-style beers, has a spanking new facility just north of the Ben Franklin Bridge. Philadelphia Brewing Co., one of Philadelphia’s newest, is housed in an 1885 building that’s been home to several breweries.
“Selling beer in neighborhoods here is my wildest dream,” owner Chris Morris tells me as we sip Kenzinger, the beer named after Kensington, the neighborhood in which the brewery is located, while the two brewery “guard cats” wander through the airy expanse. He’s also enthusiastic that taverns, like Hartranft’s Memphis Taproom and the bar/concert venue Johnny Brenda’s, have made strides into neighborhoods that traditionally might not have supported craft beer. “It’s changed a lot of neighborhoods for the better,” he says, “and there’s still no lack of pioneers.”
Eager to experience my own beer epiphany, I drive the few blocks from Philadelphia Brewing Co. to Hartranft’s Memphis Taproom. Settled in at a high table, I’m charmed by the squash-colored walls, the black-and-white floors, the warm hum of contented voices. As a plate of meat pasties and a Monk’s Sour Flemish Ale is set before me, I make note of all the places I have yet to visit, and raise a toast to the bounty of the City of Brotherly Love and Beer. Cheers.
SAMPLE FOR YOURSELF If you want to taste what the Philadelphia beer community (and the rest of the beer world) has to offer, there’s no better way to become immersed in the scene than the second annual Philly Beer Week, March 6-15, 2009. Activities include meet and greets with brewers from 13 local breweries and around the world, pub crawls, food and beer pairings, historic tours, beer trivia contests, home-brewing demos, even a chance to attend Fermentation School. And don’t miss Zythos America, the festival devoted to Belgian Beer and culture, held at the end of Beer Week at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. For more information, reservations and tickets for individual events go to phillybeerweek.org.
2331 E. Cumberland St.
Philadelphia, PA 19125
4333 Spruce Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
Triumph Brewing Company
117 Chestnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19106
Dock Street Brewing Co
701 S. 50th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19143
1516 Sansom St
Philadelphia, PA 19102
General Lafayette Inn and Brewery
646 Germantown Pike
Lafayette Hill, PA 19444
264 S 16th St
Philadelphia, PA 19102
501 N. 13th St.
Philadelphia, PA 19123
Yards Brewing Co
901 North Delaware Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19123