<P>As my username suggests, I have lived in and enjoyed the beers of
Philadelphia. But alas, as I have left that great beer area, I feel moved to pay homage to the beer culture that helped make me a
true beer geek.
<P>We all know about those ultra-hoppy IPAs from the Pacific Northwest, or the endless number of breweries in Colorado and California. Many of us are probably also familiar with the notably English-inspired brews of New England. What many may not know, however, is the fact that Philadelphia possesses one of the richest beer cultures in the US.
<P>So what about Philadelphia beer culture is so special? For starters, it was an early brewing center in colonial times. Founder William Penn had the foresight to know that a local brewery/tavern was an important part of any city in those days, and made sure to recruit several brewers when planning the town. Decades later the Founding Fathers enjoyed locally made ales at places like the City Tavern, which still exists at the corner of 2nd and Walnut. Then in the mid-1800’s, Philadelphian John Wagner became the first brewer to make a lager beer in the US. Even today, ales based on George Washington’s and Thomas Jefferson’s homebrew recipes are reproduced by Yard’s Brewing Co. in Philadelphia and served at the City Tavern.
<P>Philadelphia’s beer and beer culture is not just a thing of the past. There are currently approximately seven breweries within the city limits (it’s hard to keep track of a precise number, given the ever-changing nature of the microbrewery industry). Each of these breweries produces a number of excellent ales and lagers.
<P>Yard’s Brewing Co., in the upscale district of Manayunk, produces a truly authentic range of British inspired ales, including an IPA, pale ale, and their flagship ESA (Extra Special Ale). They have also had good success with a Saison, but their seasonals are the real story with Yards. Their Love Stout, made with an addition of oysters to the boil, the Entire Porter (an attempt to recreate the original Entire Butt), and Old Bartholomew barley wine are big flavorsome beers with a devoted fanbase. The recently opened Nodding Head brewery produces a small but nicely authentic range of British style ales, sometimes served on cask with a hand pump. They have recently won attention with Old Willy’s Ghost, a tremendously smooth barley wine. Due to a series of bizarre occurrences at the Sansom St. brewpub (previously home to the Sam Adams’s Philadelphia brewhouse), the brewers at Nodding Head concocted Old Willy’s ghost to exorcise the spirit of the previous master brewer in the location (I suppose his name was Willy).
<P>Good beer in Philadelphia is not just limited to the city limits. Jim Anderson, of the BeerPhiladelphia magazine and website, delights in referring to the whole of the Delaware Valley, from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and northern Jersey, on down to southeast Pennsylvania and Delaware, as the Fertile Crescent. It is practically alive with good beer. Beer Geeks know many of their names already: Victory, Dogfish Head, Weyerbacher, Stoudts, Heavyweight and Yuengling, just to name a few. There are literally dozens of regionally made beers available at stores and bars in and around Philadelphia.
<P>Let's take a closer look at some of these breweries and the beer they make. Perhaps the most famous brewery in the Fertile Crescent, at least among beer geeks, is Victory Brewing Co. in Downingtown, PA. Victory is well known among hopheads for its sizzlingly hoppy HopDevil IPA, not to mention the malty and complex Storm King Imperial Stout, and the spicy, strong, yet deceptively drinkable Golden Monkey Belgian-style golden ale. Barley wine fanatics love the appropriately named Old Horizontal. Yet despite these outstanding ales, Victory, in keeping with Philadelphia’s brewing history, specializes in lager beer. For many beer enthusiasts, the term lager conjures images of pale gassy bland stuff made in large factories, but it is quite possible to make a lager, even with a light body and delicate palate, and still be bold and flavorsome – and it doesn’t have to be a bock. Victory’s Prima Pils is an excellent example. This is one of the hoppiest pils you might ever find, yet balanced by a delicate round sweetness. Along these lines, they also have a line of unfiltered varietal pils, each focusing on a single variety of hop. I have managed to sample one of these, their Hallertauer Pils, and it may be one of the best pilsners I have ever had. They produce an export/helles beer formerly known as Brandywine Valley Lager, now called All-Malt Lager, which is perfectly balanced. Victory can make a mean bock too, with the St. Boisterous Hellerbock and St. Victorious Doppelbock. Finally, I’ve heard many beer geeks proclaim Victory’s Oktoberfest as one of the best American versions of the style.
<P>Another lager specialist is a little north of Downingtown in
Adamstown, PA. The Stoudt’s Brewing Co. is firmly rooted in traditional German lagers. Their pils is bright and golden with a delicate soft sweetness and nice hop flavor. Their Anniversary Bock is one of the best doppelbocks I have ever had. And yes, I have had Celebrator. Stoudt’s Gold is a masterful example of the Export style, with perfect malt/hop balance. They know how to make ales, too. Their Y2K IPA was a hop monster, and smelled like a fresh bag of hops from the homebrew store. Their American Pale Ale is a nice hoppy example of the style for which it is named. Their real success in ales, however, comes with their Abbey Dubbel and Tripel. While the Tripel is nice and spicy, with no shortage of yeasty notes, the Dubbel is the winner here, with outstanding complexity and soft fruit flavors.
<P>Farther to the Northeast is the more obscure Weyerbacher Brewing Co in Easton, PA, which is probably not distributed outside of the Fertile Crescent. Nevertheless, they produce an outstanding range of ales. Their ESB is a smooth and authentic classic. However, it has become a lesser part of their repertoire, because they have started emphasizing big beers. And I do mean really big beers. In addition to an expectedly hoppy IPA, they produce Hops Infusion, a truly hoppy beer using four times more hops than their IPA, and seven different kinds of hops, keeping that hop profile complex and interesting. They have recently released an abbey-style quadrupel, simply named Quad. This ale is just about as full-bodied as a beer can get. Another huge beer is their Blithering Idiot Barley Wine. This strong malty ale is firmly in the British style, and is full of dark fruit flavors daringly similar to the famous Thomas Hardy’s Ale. They have won awards for their Raspberry Imperial Stout, a strong, malty and roasty stout with just a hint of raspberry flavor (it's definitely not the kind of sweet fruit beer that many geeks would thumb their noses at). Their real treasure, in my opinion, however, is their non-raspberry flavored Imperial Stout. This is perhaps the most complex and exciting Imperial I have ever had.
<P>No description of Pennsylvania beer is complete without a mention of Yuengling. Yuengling is American’s oldest brewery, having been established in 1829 when Andrew Jackson was president. It is one of the few large regional breweries to survive Prohibition and the massive industrialization of the 1940’s and 50’s. In fact, their amber Traditional Lager is a strong seller with a loyal following. It even competes favorably with macrobrews in Southeast Pennsylvania. That fact alone speaks volumes about the area’s beer culture. Yuengling also makes a bottom-fermented roasty tasting porter, and was one of the first breweries to bottle a Black and Tan.
<P>Crossing the Delaware River into New Jersey gives us the Flying Fish brewery in Cherry Hill. They make excellent examples of porter and ESB. Perhaps their best offering is a Saison. While the style is meant to be bottled and kept, I had the good fortune to sample this from the cask, and it was truly special, highlighting its delicate and spicy character. Further east in Ocean City, NJ is Heavyweight Brewing Co. Take their name seriously, because you won’t find any light beers here. Among their repertoire you will find a barley wine (Old Salty), a Belgian Strong Ale (Lunacy), a spiced old ale (Baltus O.V.S.) and their breakthrough hit, a strong Imperial Porter called Perkuno’s Hammer. New Jersey is also home to the High Point Wheat Beer Company, and their Ramstein line of beers. This is a unique microbrewery that produces only wheat based beers, and one of the finest German-styled weizens in the USA.
<P>Finally, we move south into the state of Delaware, where we find the infamous Dogfish Head Brewery. This is truly one of the most adventurous breweries in the US. In addition to a hoppy Shelter Pale Ale and malty Indian Brown Ale, they produce a rich Chicory Stout, made with chicory and coffee. There is no shortage of coffee flavor here. Their Immort Ale is a cleverly named barley wine, flavored with vanilla beans and juniper berries. They have also taken hoppy IPAs to their adventurous limits, with the 60-minute and 90-minute IPAs. These beers feature a continuous addition of hops throughout either the 60 or 90 minute boil. And if all that isn’t unique enough, consider Raison D’Être, a strong brown ale, difficult to classify, brewed with beet sugar and green raisins. It has a complex malty palate and is really a first rate beer.
<P>For a brief time, Dogfish Head produced the world’s strongest beer. The World Wide Stout, clocking in at 18.5% alcohol by volume, or thereabouts, beat out the Sam Adams Triple Bock in the strength category by a percentage point (and perhaps in the flavor category by a couple orders of magnitude). Not to be outdone, within a few months of the release of the World Wide Stout, Sam Adams released their Millennium beer, breaking the 20% barrier. Nevertheless, the World Wide Stout remains one of the best strong beers I have ever had. More recently, Dogfish Head topped the 20% barrier with their Raison D’Extra, which was again a short-lived strongest beer, after Sam Adams released their 24% Utopias.
<P>Dogfish Head also made history with their Midas Touch Golden Elixir. Archaeologists at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia had uncovered artifacts from the tomb of King Midas, including cups and bowls used during the funeral feast, which were subsequently tossed into his tomb. These scientists analyzed the residues in the vessels to determine what was served at the feast, including the primitive alcoholic beverage that accompanied the meal. The drink, which was malt based, but also included Muscat grapes, honey and saffron, was recreated by Dogfish Head in conjunction with the University, and first served at a special feast at the University of Pennsylvania’s Archaeology Museum. It can now be found in corked wine bottles.
<P>Moving on, Philadelphia is not just about local craft beer. It is also one of the best places in the US to find imported European beer. Monk’s Café (16th and Spruce St.) is one of the premier beer bars in the country, specializing in Belgian ales. If there is a Belgian ale exported to the US, you will be able to get it at Monks – and this includes the ever-rare Westvleteren, Westmalle, Achel and Rochefort Trappist ales, as well as the easier to locate Chimay and Orval, as well as non-Trappist specialties like Rodenbach Red and Grand Cru. Monk’s is also famous for being the first in the US to sell Achel’s beers, and the first to offer draught Chimay White. Finally, the king of all beer geeks, Michael Jackson, frequently hosts elaborate beer dinners at Monk’s.
<P>Monk’s isn’t the only place to find good beer in Philly. Not far away is the city’s oldest continually operating tavern: McGillan’s Old Ale House. This is a grungy little place, but you can find good beer here at some amazingly cheap prices. Also, nearby is the authentic Bavarian restaurant called Ludwig’s Garten. In addition to a hearty meal of wurst, spaetzl, or sauerbraten, you can sample any of a dozen or more great German beers, including several Paulaner taps. You haven’t lived until you’ve had Weihenstephaner Hefeweizen on tap, paired with a big plate of knackwurst and beets. Monk’s isn’t even the only place to find Belgian ale. In the city’s Art Museum area are two Belgian restaurants: Cuvée Notredame and Bridgid’s. Both are a bit more upscale than Monks, featuring excellent and well presented dishes alongside a top-notch selection of Belgian ales. In Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties section, you will find the Standard Tap. With burgers rivaling those of Monk’s, you will find the best selection of draught beer in the city. Not only is the beer good, but it will be fresh and served from the cleanest of beer lines you will find (they really take care to serve the best available draught beer here). Lastly, in the working class area of Northeast Philadelphia, you will find what appears to be an ordinary working class dive of a bar called The Greylodge Pub. However, this place is far from ordinary. In addition to standard working class fare like Coors Light, there is always an outstanding selection of good beer. In addition, every Friday the 13th, the Greylodge hosts what has become one of the major beer events in the city: Friday the Firkenteenth. Basically, they round up 13 or so firkens of local cask-conditioned brew, then a couple hundred people cram into this tiny bar, and kick all those casks until every last drop is gone. This has been so successful that I now associate the date more with good beer than with bad luck.
<P>As you can see, there is no shortage of good beer to be had in
Philadelphia. I can think of no other US city that has had such a long-standing beer tradition, and one that includes such tremendous variety, from the lagers that are a part of Philadelphia’s history, to craft brewed ales of seemingly infinite varieties, to imported Belgian, English, and German beers served fresh on draught throughout the city. I have surely omitted a dozen or more Fertile Crescent area breweries, and a handful or so beer bars, not to mention great beer stores like The Foodery (10th and Pine), where you can bring home a mixed sixer of Trappist ales, or some vintage-dated Samiclaus or Thomas Hardy’s Ale. One could write a book on the subject, and indeed someone has. For those that are interested, I highly recommend Lew Bryson’s Pennsylvania Breweries. That book served as a guide to my learning about many of the state’s beers and beer bars, and is rather well-written. But don’t take mine or Lew’s word for it – travel to Philly and drink up.