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DETOUR // City of Brewery Love

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One writer’s three-day journey through one of the best beer cities in America

Story by Christian DeBenedetti // Photograph by Bill Edwards

By the time you get to Philly for a visit, you’ll have probably heard good things about the beer scene and the overall vibe, and if you haven’t, this is out of the ordinary. After all, Philly is the town that invented “beer week,” the cheese steak, and a certain kind of liberty that means speaking your mind as loud and clear and salty as you please. In the case of the late, great Michael Jackson, that meant calling Philly America’s greatest beer city, over San Diego, Denver, even Portland.

It goes all the way back to founder and brewer William Penn himself (who, upon arrival, tied his boat next to a pub, the Blue Anchor) and the Founding Fathers, many of whom were avid brewers and regulars at the area taverns and public houses, those “nurseries of liberty.” And there’s the famous Monk’s Café, a place of beer pilgrimage if there ever was one. I’d heard it all, and in mid-December, about halfway through reporting my new book, The Great American Ale Trail (Running Press, 2011), I jumped on a Chinatown bus out of New York to find out just what I’d been missing.

Trouble was, I had no real itinerary, few contacts, and not a whole heck of a lot of time before my flight home. For the last four months I’d been on a dead run to hit as many of the nation’s best beer bars, breweries, and bottle shops in order to make my impending book deadline. But what I learned about Philly—and makes me count the days until I can get back—is that I didn’t need to worry. You don’t either. Just show up and let the city do the rest.

After a swing through The Foodery, a deli and bottle shop in the Northern Liberties neighborhood with more than 800 labels (including a huge array of large format beers), I wandered across the street into The Standard Tap. It was the perfect place to start my Philly tour. In the late 1990s former Samuel Adams brewer Will Reed lived on-site, working with a partner to transform a charming three-and-a-half-story structure dating back to at least 1810 into one of Philly’s most important beer bars.

I’d shown up without an appointment, but a bartender gave Reed a call, and he appeared moments later, glad to show a perfect stranger around; my brotherly beer tour of Philly had begun.

Reed, an affable, thoughtful guy who also runs Johnny Brenda’s (a key local music venue), explained how the Tap’s draft-only beers come exclusively from eighteen local and state breweries. “I love the Belgian stuff and everything, but I don’t want to be a Belgian or a British pub. I don’t want to be an Irish pub. I want to be a Philadelphia pub.”

There are 20 taps, two cask engines, and a single bottle: Lord Chesterfield, an antique recipe still brewed by Yuengling (avoid it unless you’re just one of those irredeemably curious cats). Troëgs is a favorite tap handle; look for the piney, 6 percent ABV Simcoe dry hopped Hop Back Amber on cask. It’s soft, dry, quenching, faintly sweet, and bitter all at once, just as a good cask-conditioned beer should be. The bar, opened in 1999, is also known for its high-end comfort food sourced from local farms and purveyors. Cheese steak? Another time.

At the Tap you’re in for duck confit salad, mussels and sausage, and whole roasted fish—or whatever other daily whims the chef sees fit. Reed toured me through the cool old bar and kitchen, then completely ditched his plans for the night and drove me to a beer dinner with a crowd of local craft aficionados and beer writers. Then we ventured over to the 700 Club, which, by that time of the night, seemed like the best bar, ever, anywhere.

It wasn’t just the beer talking; the 700 Club is undeniably cozy-cool, and even if it weren’t so good, I realized as we settled in for an after-dinner pint, there’s something genuinely different about drinking in Philly. As the D.J. spun Stax, Philly soul, the best early 90s hip-hop, and other beer-friendly music, I met one local after another who was incredibly, inordinately friendly, from the bartender to everyday patrons to a guy whose job was to pick out cool music for Urban Outfitters (nice work if you can get it!). With its 80-beer list, big windows, and the creamy hues of a high-end 1960s lunch counter, the 700 remains one of my favorite bars in the nation, and I didn’t even experience the rowdy upstairs dance party known as the Rutger Hauer Power Hour (the fourth Wednesday of each month).

Philly had already exceeded all expectations, but there was no time to rest on day two, with great spots to visit from Teresa’s Next Door, a sleek new beer bar outside of town in Wayne, to Victory Brewing Co., just a bit further west in Downingtown. There I met up with founder Bill Covaleski for a close look at one of the country’s best craft operations, so serious about their whole-flower-hops-only beer they even fill growlers under counter-pressure, for peak freshness. Nice guy that he is, Bill personally made sure I made my train back to town later by running at least two red lights. In Pennsylvania, friends don’t let friends miss the last train home.

My next destination was Monk’s Café, a tabernacle for craft beer lovers—it even has its own “Beer Bible,” and is among the best-known beer bars in the United States. It’s an institution, and as such, it’s to be visited with planning and forethought, neither of which I had in my hastily packed suitcase, given the mother of all book deadlines. No matter. I entered the narrow, wood-paneled front bar area crowded with Philly locals, beer pilgrims, and the odd musician in town for a gig (recent artists to stroll in, I later learned, include Danger Mouse, James Mercer, and members of both Beirut and Broken Bells), and found myself face to face with Tom Peters, the publican in charge.

I had only met Peters for a split-second four years ago at D.B.A. in New York, but despite my parachute landing, he welcomed me into his bar like a long lost family member. Soon we were feasting on wing-style frog legs, mussels steamed in Saison Dupont with parsley, caramelized leeks, bacon, bleu cheese, and garlic, and mugs of Monk’s Café Flemish Sour, Peters’ superb, ruddy-red house beer. At 5.5 percent ABV it’s a Flemish Oud Bruin-style ale, aged in oak and fabulously complex, with wild but pleasing blasts of leather, tart fruit, and woody tannins. “I wanted a sour beer with not much sweetness. I wanted a relatively light body, with low to moderate alcohol, a thirst quencher in the summertime,” says Peters. He got it. You should, too.

Over the next five hours, Peters (who, to severely paraphrase an immensely important career helped bring in a number of Belgian specialties to the United States for the first time ever in kegs, including such iconic brews as Kwak, Houblon Chouffe, Lindemans, and Corsendonk), told me the remarkable story of Philly beer culture (and, humbly, his own place in it). “The beer culture runs really deep for the whole country, but I think it runs deeper in Philadelphia than anywhere else,” Peters told me as we sipped a mutual Belgian favorite, Orval. “There’s no other city in the world that has the current beer culture we have here.” Today he marvels at the new generation of beer drinkers and brewers who started with unusual craft beers right off the bat, and wonders where they’ll take the genre—and the market share—for craft brewing. “The possibilities are limitless,” he said.

Speaking of limitless, I’d planned to leave Philly for Baltimore the next day, but Peters convinced me to stay on for a proper tour the next day. On the spot he called Brendan “Spanky” Hartranft, a fellow beer bar owner who, like Reed and Peters, shaped the local scene. I’d shown up a stranger, but I was feeling like the Prodigal Son.

The next morning I met the duo at Eulogy, a Belgian-style café downtown, where we began a tour of all the Philly beer bars I could stomach. Pacing ourselves with food, water, and taster glasses, we hit the classic downtown former music club turned craft beer destination Khyber Pass, Peters’ own classically Euro-themed Belgian café. We also stopped by the laid-back Grace Tavern, Hartranft’s bustling, upmarket beer bar Local 44, and downtown beer geek watering hole Jose Pistola’s, where we drank cracklingly fresh Mongo double IPA from Port Brewing in San Diego, California.

There were more beer bars, too, blackened Cajun green beans, bawdy stories, a broken glass, and an eye-popping cellar tour of Monk’s to cap off the crawl. But of all these pinpoint memories from my Philly ale trail, it was our pit stop to Bridgid’s that seems to hover in the sweet spot of my memory. Yards Brewing keeps a dedicated single brass tap emanating down from the ceiling of the diminutive neighborhood bar. Peters and Hartranft assured me this would be a stop to remember for the deliciously silky beer alone. They were right. The beer? Love Stout.

Adapted from The Great American Ale Trail: The Craft Beer Lover’s Guide to the Best Watering Holes in the Nation, by Christian DeBenedetti. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.

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