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The Philadelphia story

Jack Curtin spends a day discovering the beers and bars of this Pennsylvania city

Sitting at the Standard Tap in Philadelphia on a Sunday morning, happily sipping a pint in an establishment which serves only local beers, and only on draught, it is easy to understand how this city can lay claim to being one of the best beer cities in America.

In fact, the respected Celebrator Beer News out of California recently ranked Philadelphia fifth, behind Portland, San Francisco, Denver and Seattle.

At first glance, all this might seem an unlikely bit of beer hubris. There is but one full production brewery in the city – Yards Brewing Co – and only three currently operating brewpubs.

Two of those are downtown, the large, touristy Independence Brewpub and the more traditional Nodding Head Brewery & Restaurant, while Manayunk Brewery & Restaurant is located in the far west section of the city whose name it bears.

A fourth should be up and running before this sees print, when Triumph Brewing Co., which already has thriving pubs in Princeton, New Jersey, and New Hope, Pennsylvania, opens this autumn.

Philadelphia’s true beer reputation rests on the outstanding brews produced all across the vast Delaware Valley region of which it is the hub.

The Delaware Valley extends well north and west of the city limits in Pennsylvania and east and south into the neighbouring states of New Jersey and Delaware. Beers brewed here match or surpass the best from elsewhere in the nation, and the range of styles done might actually be broader than in any other region in the world.

In addition to turning out excellent interpretations of the intensely-hopped, high alcohol “extreme” beers which are an emerging American style and classic ales upon which the craft beer movement in recent years, the region is home to some of the world’s finest lagers, well balanced and subtly complex pilsners, bocks and other versions of that more challenging style which is often ignored in other parts of the country. Its spate of world-class lagers alone is an “X” factor that sets Philadelphia near the top of the heap.

As noted, the city’s beer culture also embraces the world’s best beers from other locales, both nationally and internationally. This is the place where virtually every major craft brewer in the nation seeks to showcase their wares, with West Coast breweries in particular crossing other markets to appear on shelves hereabouts.

Plus, the city’s reputation and East Coast location attracts all of the high-end European imports, with a particular emphasis on Belgian brews. The great Belgian wave that swept across the US during the last decade began on these mean streets and Philadelphia continues to reign as the nation’s largest market for Belgian products.

Bring those factors into play and you have a true destination city for the serious beer tourist – which works out rather nicely, since my assignment here is to suggest how just such a traveller might best spend their time during a single day in Philadelphia.

One day is hardly enough time to scratch the surface of this vast cornucopia, but we can try, beginning with stating firmly that the absolute requisite action for any serious beer aficionado visiting Philadelphia is to seek out and consume a pint of cask-conditioned Yard’s Extra Special Ale, the brewery’s flagship brew and the city’s signature pint.

This grand British-style bitter became an immediate cult favourite when the brewery debuted in 1995, kick-starting the modern day craft brewing industry and reinvigorating the use of handpumps in the region.

An excellent place to have that pint would be the aforementioned Standard Tap on Second St.

in Philadelphia’s rapidly gentrifying Northern Liberties section. On Saturdays and Sundays, brunch starts at 11:00 am and offers an ideal introduction to the local scene from its 10 taps and two handpumps carrying an array of the region’s best.

In addition to Yards, look for Victory Hop Devil IPA (the beer second most likely, after ESA, to be found on handpumps around town, and the signature brew of a suburban brewery which is on everybody’s top 10 US breweries list), Sly Fox O’Reilly’s Stout (a beer which is rapidly displacing Guinness in many Philadelphia pubs), or perhaps Troegs year-round Doppelbock, Troegenator.

Indeed, select whatever might catch the eye from tap handles labelled (among others) Stoudt’s, Weyerbacher, Flying Fish (from across the Delaware River in New Jersey) or Dogfish Head, one of America’s best known and most innovative breweries, located in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. The food is excellent and the ambience welcoming. Hunker down at the front bar on a weekend morning, but there is an upstairs deck that’s hard to pass up if the weather permits.

Jumping ahead, bookend that grand beginning with a late night dinner at Monk’s Café in Center City. The full menu is available until 1:00 am and features true cuisine de biere and an astonishing number of Belgian beers, draught and bottle, a selection likely unmatched at any other single location in the world.

I wrote about Monk’s for issue five of Beers of the World, so suffice it to say that this is among the world’s most famous beer and dining establishments and that the back bar is the city’s prime beer venue.

Getting a table between 7:00 and 11:00 on a weekend evening can involve waits of more than an hour, thus the remedy of late night dining instead. There can still be a short wait as late as midnight, come to that, but dinner at Monk’s? It has to be done.

That Alpha and Omega cover what are arguably the two most important beer-centric destinations in Philadelphia; options for all the hours in between would be determined by a visitor’s other interests. Here are a few presumptions and suggestions: Visiting the Olde City historical area? While it’s not a traditional beer bar, City Tavern at 132 S. Second (this reconstituted version of the original was built in 1948) does pour “Ales of the Revolution,” excellent house beers brewed by Yards, and it is a place to be reminded that representatives of the Colonies planned their revolt and created their new government mostly in the taverns of the day.

Also along Second St. are The Khyber, the first good beer bar of the modern era, and Plough and the Stars, an upscale Irish-themed spot. Off Second at 136 Chestnut is Eulogy, a well-known Belgian bar, located directly across from where that new Triumph pub should also be beckoning.

Checking out the Art Museum or Fairmount Park? Ask for directions to nearby Brigid’s, the city’s original Belgian bar on 23rd St., which features a unique “down draft” dispensing system for casked ESA and a good selection of local and imported brews.

Looking for something different for a late afternoon snack? Stop in at the namesake of the famous “Iron Chef,” Morimoto’s at 723 Chestnut St., to partake of exquisite Japanese delicacies matched with one of three house beers (from California’s Rogue Brewing) or one of five varieties of sake. Or visit Tria, at 18th & Sansom, where they “celebrate the fermentation trio” of wine, beer and cheese.

Mid-evening, pre-dinner? Go for the Sansom St. Trifecta, an easy stroll among a grouping of three excellent beer venues in the heart of Center City, each but a few blocks from that late night dinner date.

Ludwig’s Garten (1315 Sansom) is the city’s premiere German restaurant, with a superb beer list; it is also a good dinner option should the decision be made to settle for only drinks at Monk’s.

Right around the corner at 1310 Drury St. is McGillin’s Olde Ale House, the city’s oldest continually operating tavern (since 1860), which offers a solid selection of local brews, including house beers made by Stoudt’s.

At 1516 Sansom (second floor) is the aforementioned Nodding Head brewpub, whose beers win Great American Beer Festival medals as a matter of course.

A good day, that, but still… No time for a visit to the South Philadelphia Taproom (recently named the city’s best beer bar 2006 by Philadelphia Magazine), nor to seek out such neighbourhood treasures as the Grey Lodge Pub (named one of America’s 50 best bars by Esquire Magazine), McMenamin’s Tavern (an oftoverlooked treasure) or the iconic Dawson Street Pub, (where those first pints of Yards ESA were poured).

Nor for a trip to the suburbs to sample the award-winning beers of Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant, one of the nation’s most successful brewpub chains.

One day in Philadelphia is not enough. But it’s a start.