If you haven’t noticed, beer geeks are taking over the world … well, if not the world, then definitely Philadelphia and its environs. For those of us who take our gastronomic pleasures seriously, this is a good thing indeed. After all, why should oenophiles have all the fun?
Last year marked the first Philly Beer Week—an extension of the Philly Craft Beer Festival, which takes place every March at the Philadelphia Cruise Terminal, and a full-on hops and barley tasting extravaganza. In advance of that event, local beer guru Joe Sixpack—aka Philadelphia Daily News columnist Don Russell, author of Joe Sixpack’s Philly Beer Guide and Christmas Beer: The Cheeriest, Tastiest, and Most Unusual Holiday Brews—tagged Philadelphia “the best beer-drinking city in America.” Ever since that lofty declaration, it seems everyone on both sides of the tap are out to prove him right.
With this year’s event scheduled for March 6-15, let us paraphrase Beer Week lore and consider the five reasons why we live in the best beer-drinking city in America:
Tradition. The City of Brotherly Love has been crafting beers for more than 300 years—since the days of William Penn, in fact. Experts report that Philadelphians brewed America’s first lager and “practically invented porter.” So take that, Milwaukee (this from someone who spent four years downing “Old Swill” purchased from the brew-thru).
Diversity. Philly-area brewers produce more varieties of beer than any other region in America. Just peruse the local microbreweries’ websites, and you’ll see that every conceivable style—from bock and pilsner to limit-pushing “extreme beer” and wild ale—is made within 50 miles of City Hall. (As the crow flies, Victory Brewing is 15 miles due west of Center City, and both outposts of Sly Fox are within 17 miles of Wayne.)
Neighborhoods. Our pubs aim to be the real deal (granted, some do a better job than others), and we’ve got an insane number of taverns, old-time corner bars and trendy, amped-up saloons—all in the same neighborhoods where people live and work. To quote Beer Week masterminds: “Beer is not a mere fad here; it is a social lubricant of our daily life.” Even on a Sunday night in Wayne, you’re likely to find a decent crowd sipping Belgian brew and gorging on steamed mussels and frites at Teresa’s Next Door.
People. Philly’s reputation for beer-savvy citizens, with an unquenchable thirst and deep pockets, has vaulted us to the top of the shipping lists of an impressive number of imported German and Belgian breweries, not to mention the American microbreweries that continue to vie for space in our taps and coolers. (A little later, you’ll read about two local beer stops that specialize in unique craft brews and absolutely love turning on customers to new brands.)
Choices. There are at least 400 notable, well-stocked watering holes in Philly and the suburbs serving up some of the best beers in the country—and the world. According to beer expert Jack Curtin, more Belgian beer is sold here than anywhere on Earth. (In large part, you can thank Tom Peters, owner of Monk’s Café in Center City, for this.)
It all started with our Founding Fathers, who—as Curtin points out in his manifesto, Culture? I Got Your Culture Right Here—reveled as much in their beer as they did in gaining their independence. The article offers up a lot of intriguing facts, among them: beer brewing in Philadelphia dates back to 1683; the number of taverns in the city equated to “one for every 25 men in its population”; Philadelphia was home to more drinking establishments than anywhere else “in the English-speaking world.” (Could it be that the term “lush” was coined here?)
“The seeds of revolution were sown and the laws of a new nation written in Philadelphia’s taverns,” Curtin writes. “Never mind what the history books tell you.”
The only time the city was without a working brewery was when the Christian Schmidt & Sons Brewing Company closed in 1987. But shortly after, a bumper crop of brewers sprung up, including Boston Beer Company and Dock Street Brewing Company, helping the city regain its stature as one of the leading brewing centers in the country. Curtin credits the birth of Yards Brewing Company in 1994—and its cask-conditioned Extra Special Ale—with sparking a beer-making renaissance in Philly.
Curtin can rattle off just about every detail of Philly’s beer history, along with all the modern brewers and publicans whose passion, knowledge and drive laid the foundation for today’s current fascination with craft brews. For his writings and insights, visit jackcurtin.com.
So how good is our beer? Pretty darned good in the eyes of plenty.
One of the first local brews to capture national and international attention was Victory Brewing’s Prima Pils, which was named Grand Champion Pilsner six times at the United States Beer Tasting Championships from 2002 to 2008. It was named Top Lager Worldwide by Men’s Journal in July 2005, and in 2006, it was featured in Details magazine as one of the 10 best summer beers.
At the 2007 Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver, Royersford’s Sly Fox Brewing Company took home a gold medal for its Pikeland Pils in the German-Style Pilsner category, and a bronze medal for its Instigator Doppel-bock in the Strong Bock category. Last year, its smoke-flavored Rauch Bier earned brewmaster Brian O’Reilly yet another gold medal.
Last year’s GABF also featured big wins for a number of other local and regional breweries—including Victory, which earned a bronze for its Prima Pils, and Iron Hill, which took home six medals. There were golds for its Media brewery’s Lambic de Hill (Belgian-style lambic or sour ale), Phoenixville’s Roggenbier (rye beer), West Chester’s Saison (French- and Belgian-style saison) and Newark’s Vienna Red Lager (Vienna-style lager); a silver for North Wales’ Cherry Dubbel (wood- and barrel-aged sour beer); and a bronze for Wilmington’s Cassis de Hill (Belgian-style lambic or sour ale).
Clearly, our mugs runneth over locally and nationally. Beers are tasting better and better, and even the most generic restaurant/pub chains have pushed aside big-name brews to make room for the growing number of micros. And some of those mega-brewers have added craft beer lines of their own. Coors’ Blue Moon Belgian White and Anheuser-Busch’s Beach Bum Blonde Ale are two notable examples of this trend.
Suburban brew aficionados don’t have to go far to nab a memorable pint or bottle. For those west of Wayne, there’s Victory, the Drafting Room, McKenzie Brewhouse, the Flying Pig Saloon and TJ’s Everyday. The King of Prussia Mall has Rock Bottom Brewery—which may have the area’s most underappreciated beer. And Rock Bottom is conveniently located near Route 422, the road that leads to Sly Fox in Royersford (they have another outpost in Phoenixville) and the almost-brand-new Craft Ale House in Limerick.
After you hit those, turn straight back around, head toward the Main Line, and belly up to the center of Wayne, home of several great resources: Landis Deli (their beer case is amazing; visit on a Friday afternoon for a few tastes); The Beer Yard, owned by connoisseur-at-large Matt Guyer; and the thriving Teresa’s Next Door, the burbs’ answer to Monk’s.
And don’t forget Gullifty’s, where owner Gene Johnson has been serving up a noble selection of draught and bottled beer for more than three decades. His best idea yet: “Mix Your Six” to-go packs—complete with a suggested menu (for those of us who haven’t passed “Beer 101”) that includes his and hers lists.
Farther east is Flanigan’s Boat House in Conshohocken, yet another hotspot known for its superior beer selection, and Manayunk Brewery, home to a variety of environmentally friendly (the place is 100-percent wind-powered) brews like Bohemian Blonde, an American-style pilsner that made it to the final judging table at last year’s GABF.
Over in Lafayette Hills, the General Lafayette Inn—a seven-barrel brew house and the fourth oldest tavern in the country—is best known for its Chocolate Thunder Porter and kick-your-butt Raspberry Mead-Ale. For the past three years, General Lafayette has hosted its own craft beer extravaganza, Winterfest, featuring fellow local breweries and a bounty of beer-friendly food. So start planning for next year.
In the meantime, mark your calendars for Philly Beer Week, and start training now. To quote comedian Steven Wright, “24 hours in a day, 24 beers in a case. Coincidence? I think not.”
Local venues hosting events:
Gullifty’s, 1149 Lancaster Ave., Rosemont; (610) 525-1851, gulliftys.com
Sly Fox Brewing Company, 519 Kimberton Road, Phoenixville, (610) 935-4540; 312 N. Lewis Road Royersford, (610) 948-8088; slyfoxbeer.com
Teresa’s Next Door, 124-126 N. Wayne Ave., Wayne; (610) 293-9909, teresas-cafe.com
TJ’s Everyday, 35 Paoli Plaza, Paoli, (610) 725-0100, tjseveryday.com
Victory Brewing Company, 420 Acorn Lane, Downingtown; (610) 873-0881, victorybeer.com