Quick, what’s the best beer town in the country? As a homer who can detect malty aromas wafting over from Union Craft Brewing in my Woodberry backyard, I might answer Baltimore. But there are the established craft beer hotbeds to consider—Portland, Seattle and Denver. Old-schoolers might even suggest Milwaukee out of wistful remembrance of when its macro-brand, pull-tab beers ruled the bar rail.
Philadelphia, on the other hand, might not spring immediately to mind, though “America’s best beer-drinking city” is a registered trademark of Philly Beer Week, the city’s annual beer bash. While that might be marketing bluster, it’s true they’ve been turning out sudsy mugs here long before they came to champion gooey orange “cheese” slathered on steak-filled sub rolls.
Beer has been made in Philadelphia since 1683, and the city has the distinction of having brewed the nation’s first lager back in 1840. Today, more than 60 breweries and brewpubs can be found in and around Philly, making it a pretty good destination for a day or two of day drinking.
And there’s more. While Baltimore has it all over Philadelphia in terms of Lombardi Trophies, they beat us in a more important arena: mass transit. I’m talking a subway with more than one puny line and trolleys and trains clattering well out into suburbia (the obvious message being that beers and steering wheels don’t mix). The wife and I spent a couple of days hoisting pints up this way to issue this report, just in time to help you plan an elbow-bending autumnal road trip. (Special thanks to Philly-area beer/whiskey scribe Lew Bryson for helping me narrow my list.)
Open the door at Sterling Pig Brewery in suburban Media and you’re met with smoky aromas, not beery ones. That’s because this brewpub features wood-fired pizza and barbecue. Alas, we didn’t visit at mealtime so we confined ourselves to the liquid offerings, which were excellent. I didn’t detect much pine-flavor from the Saison du Sapin, which is scented with fir-tips, but the distinctive yeasty flavor of a fine farmhouse ale came through.
The dark and malty Pata Negra brought a little cocoa taste to the party. The sidewalk-facing bar and patio area features a sign reading, “We have beer as cold as your ex’s heart” and a shiny row of pig-shaped tap handles. It’s a pleasant place. Media itself is a cute little commuter town where the trolley rolls down the middle of an American flag-bedecked Main Street.
From a Mayberry-like suburb, we headed about 6 miles away to a nondescript industrial park and the home of 2SP Brewing. Our apprehension that we’d come to a plumbing supply outlet melted when stepped into a cute, colorful tap room strung with bold, graphic art posters. Bryson called the brewer here a “medal machine,” as its veteran beer maker, Bob Barrar, has medaled 19 times at the Great American Beer Fest.
But they had me as soon as I saw Biscuit Bitter among their 14 or so beers. (I’ve been sucker for Anglo style beer ever since I backpacked/pub-crawled across Britain in the early ’90s). It was jolly good. The most complex beer of our trip has to be their Baby Kerri, a barrel-aged American stout where chocolaty oak notes were followed up by the taste of tart berries. The Haze Craze IPA was a grapefruit flavor bomb—and one that checked in at a sessional 4.2 percent ABV (alcohol by volume).
Our first brewery in Philly proper was Dock Street Brewery, chosen largely because it was within walking—stumbling?—distance from the West Philly house where we were crashing with a friend. Turns out, it dates to 1985 and is perhaps the city’s oldest craft brewery, though it has morphed and moved over the decades and now resides in an historic firehouse that also features wood-fired pizzas.
We’d been warned it was hipster-central, but ironic facial hair, messenger bags and sleeve tats were at a minimum. And they had cask ale (that is to say, naturally carbonated beer, hand pumped from an unpressurized vessel in the traditional manner). Their Li’l Juicy session IPA lived up its name when served in this manner—such flavor and only 4.1 percent ABV. An adjacent garage has been turned into a semi-al fresco lounge with canning equipment in the rear. Maybe the hipsters were hiding back there.
You may well have already knocked back something from Yards Brewing, one of the city’s largest breweries whose liquid line is not uncommon in Baltimore. I could tell you all about its capacious tasting room hung with colorful banners and kitted out with pool tables. But it’s all for naught, since by the time you read this, the brewery will have relocated to an even bigger facility. I’d check it out if I were you and have one of their ESAs (extra special ales), their tasty take on an ESB (extra special bitter), my favorite style of beer—not too hoppy, not too malty.
We walked from Yards to the buzzing Evil Genius Beer Company under an elevated train line through the transitioning, should-have-bought-here-five-years-ago Fishtown neighborhood, with its mix of weedy vacant lots and spanking new apartment houses. The industrial-chic taproom, which they insist on calling The Lab, includes an umbrella-dotted courtyard.
Here’s a first: a tap list that needs a spoiler alert, considering the peach IPA is called Bruce Willis Was Dead the Whole Time. Other whack-a-doodle filmic names include Ma! The Meatloaf witbier and the I’ll Have What She’s Having imperial stout (followed closely on the list by the Shut Up, Meg farmhouse IPA). The bar-top beer menus printed on videocassette cases completed the theme. Their Utopian Blaster IPA was as hazy as it was crisp. Wait, does the Purple Monkey Dishwasher porter really include peanut butter? Uh, I think it’s time to move on.
A hike through the adjacent Kensington neighborhood, with its battered brick warehouses (loft apartments coming soon!), brought us to Saint Benjamin Brewing Company, named after favorite son Ben Franklin. And although ol’ Ben never said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” despite the many Internet memes suggesting he did (he was more of a wine guy), the founding father is well honored here. The taproom has artfully distressed walls and an array of taps issuing from a hunk of marble. The whole brick complex has been perfectly repurposed, considering it was originally the stables and carriage house of a 19th-century brewery.
The Bicentennial Cream Ale is basically the Genesee Cream Ale I drank in college—but like, much, much better. Silky smooth and totally crushable. The Foul Weather Jack is a toasty, roasty English mild—a style sadly disappearing even in its native land. Ben’s, it’s worth noting, also serves cocktails made exclusively from locally distilled spirits.
When the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia skies changed to thunder and rain, I was forced—forced, I tell you—to order the bold and tasty Hurdy Gurdy Rye Saison while we waited for the storm to pass. While watching the rain and sipping the beer, it dawned on me: Ben Franklin might not have uttered those beery sentiments, but that doesn’t mean they’re not true.
Additional Ale Info
Beer Guide The Philly tourist board has put together a handy-dandy Philadelphia Craft Beer Trail that maps all the breweries and brewpubs in the city and four adjacent counties. You can find it at visitphilly.com.
Beer Tours If you’d rather drink than drive (or sort out trolley lines and subway stops) both City Brew Tours and Liberty Brew Tours offer all-inclusive, van-based tours of city and county breweries. citybrewtours.com/Philadelphia; libertybrewtours.com
Beer Fests Philly Beer Week is in June, but there are a number of beery Oktoberfest happenings this fall. You also can find them at visitphilly.com.