By Tom Bedell
As U.S. Open practice rounds at Merion begin Monday, June 10, Philadelphia will be recovering from the sixth annual Philly Beer Week, a sudsapalooza so overflowing with events that the week lasts 10 days.
“But don’t worry, there will be plenty of beer left,” said PBW director Don Russell, better known as “Joe Sixpack” in his beer-writing persona for the Philadelphia Daily News.
“The festival lasts all year for me,” Russell said uncomplainingly. Like the best players at the Open, beer imbibers in Philadelphia are always happy finding the cup. In any pub debate of great U.S. beer cities, Philadelphia can mix it up with Seattle, Portland (Oregon or Maine), Denver, San Francisco, Boston, or New York.
The late, great British beer writer Michael Jackson actually put Philadelphia at the top of the list. For almost 20 years, Jackson’s tutored tastings at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, part of the Book and the Cook festival, drew thousands of the curious and thirsty.
These days the city and surrounding suburbs support more than 400 craft-beer gastropubs, brewpubs, micros like Yards Brewing and Victory Brewing, and one beer festival after another. Mexican restaurants carry locally brewed beers. “Even our skin bars have craft beer on tap,” said Lew Bryson, author of Pennsylvania Breweries.
Alas, Ben Franklin never actually said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” But that doesn’t make the sentiment misguided, and certainly the city’s favorite son was a tippler.
“An old beer town it has always been,” said Russell. “William Penn had plans for a brewery to be built here before he even showed up in 1682.” The founding fathers and members of the First and Second Continental Congresses often hashed things over a pint at the City Tavern, a replica of which now serves up replicas of Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin beer recipes crafted by Yards.
I recently enlisted the foursome of Bryson, Russell, and Philly beer writers George Hummel (The Complete Homebrew Beer Book) and Carolyn Smagalski (aka “The Beer Fox,” who writes for BellaOnline) to select a few must-visit spots. A full list is below, but they unanimously mentioned Monk’s Cafe, and its co-founder Tom Peters, as instrumental in further putting Philly in the beer-world’s big leagues.
“I had my epiphany in 1984,” Peters said. “I was in France and decided to head to Brussels for a few hours. I tried the Belgian beers and thought, ‘What the heck is this stuff?’ I was baffled by how different it was, just blown away. I said the heck with France and stayed a few more days in Belgium.”
Back home, he began hammering importers to send him Belgian specialties and more or less forced the restaurant he was working at, Café Nole, into becoming a beer bar—where he became one of the first Americans to sell Chimay Trappist ale.
“I had to hand-sell every beer back then, convince people to try something new: no one knew what the beers were! But it kept building and by the time Fergus Carey and I opened Monk’s Café in 1997, there was a market.”
From the start, Peters served a full menu until 1 a.m., so chefs, managers, and bartenders had a place to go after their shifts: “Then they started putting the beers on their lists.”
Bryson said the city became the biggest seller of Belgian beers in the U.S.: “We were just ready for the odd stuff.”
Belgian beers are still ubiquitous, said Russell, “But the city’s beer assets go well beyond the Belgo-centric now.”
Russell’s primary golf experience was as a skilled ball thief in his younger days at Merion, where he would also sled in winter. Now, it’s a good place to start one’s local beer education: “About 15 minutes up the road from Merion in Wayne is Teresa’s Café & Next Door Bar, one of the best in the suburbs, with an aggressive craft-beer and import list and wonderful food.”
More best-of-brew suggestions from the foursome, by Philadelphia neighborhood:
Monk’s Café: “Monk’s is one of the best bars of its type in the world, much less the city,” said George Hummel. Can’t miss with the mussels and frites.
Bridgewater’s Pub: Pub fare and a taco bar at the beginning of the Main Line, right in the 30th Street Station.
McGillin’s Olde Ale House: Opened in 1860, so a good pick would be the 1860 IPA, made by Stoudt’s Brewing, to go along with hearty pub fare.
Time Restaurant: Contemporary American menu, beer, whiskey bar, jazz chaser.
Bridgid’s: European-style bar, Italian-inspired menu.
London Grill: Contemporary American menu and new adjoining Paris Wine Bar.
Khyber Pass Pub: Cajun and Creole, and vegetarian-friendly.
Fork Restaurant: Trendy décor, contemporary American fare.
Memphis Tap Room: Regional classics—beer-battered dill pickles, anyone?
Standard Tap: Along with hearty pub fare, features only tap beers made within a 75-mile radius. “It was going to be sixty miles,” said Hummel, “but the owner likes Dogfish Head beers from Delaware, too, so he made it 75.”
Yards Brewing Co.: Lively tasting room at the brewery with pub fare and tours on the weekends.
Dock Street Brewing Co.: The first microbrewery in the city and one of its original brewpubs closed its doors in 2002, but is alive and kicking taps again, along with extensive pub fare menu.
Manayunk Brewery and Restaurant: Carolyn Smagalski said, “The patio there, right on the Schuylkill River, is just beautiful.” The menu ranges from American regional to sushi.
Grey Lodge Pub: This Northeast Philadelphia pub is said to have the best fries in Philly. It’s particularly recommended any Friday the 13th, which becomes Friday the Firkinteenth with 25 or more firkins of cask-conditioned ale on tap.
And by the way, Tom Peters let it leak that the special beer brewed for Philly Beer Week is Manneken-Penn, a reference to the famous Manneken-Pis statue in Brussels. A collaborative brew between the Brasserie de la Senne in Brussels and Weyerbacher Brewery of Easton, Pennsylvania, it will be on tap at various venues all summer.
For research purposes, some Victory Golden Monkey ale was responsibly consumed during the preparation of this article.
Photography courtesy of the restaurants and breweries