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Is Philadelphia Really A Great Beer City? We’ll Soon See…

So we’re headed to Philadelphia and its northwestern suburbs for a family event next week and weekend, which, of course, I plan to turn into a beer trip. I first became conscious of Philadephia’s craft beer scene when I sampled my first and favorite beer from the town: Independence Brewing Company’s Franklinfest. A malty, toasted Octoberfest style beer, I can still remember how it tasted and how much I enjoyed it. Sadly, Independence didn’t make it but my interest in the town remained.

I first visited Philadelphia for beer a decade or so ago on a circuitous beer tour from Chicago to Wilmington, North Carolina. After enjoying time in Pittsburgh, at Stoudt’s and central Pennsylvania, we made our way through Victory and into Philadelphia proper. Pre-Beerfly days, we only had a well-worn copy of the excellent Beer Lover’s Guide to the United States to guide us. And after an aborted attempt to visit the Northeast Taproom in Reading (Stan and Daria’s guide was excellent but in the days before cellphones, books couldn’t tell you when a place decided to close on Mondays), we spent a fun night in the city. After visiting the well-known places, including Monk’s, we took a book recommendation and headed to McGillin’s. At the city’s oldest bar, we ran into the owners of Flying Fish (who gave my brother handwritten directions to his version of the area’s best bars) and a little known guy trying to give away t-shirts and pint glasses to people who would try his brown ale. Despite his efforts, the guy didn’t get much attention that night, much to our surprise as beer lovers. For that guy was Sam Calagione, founder of the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. We sat down and chatted with Sam for a little while and I still have a snifter the bar gave away for buying one of his beers.

Several years later, after returning from my first trip to Bamberg, Germany, I foolishly opined on some Internet beer group that I didn’t believe Philadelphia to be a great beer town. I was heavily criticized at the time and have spent recent years considering the city’s place in the pantheon of great beer cities of the world. In recent months, I’ve had the opportunity to visit the few great American beer cities I had managed not to hit, including Seattle and Portland, Oregon. While I plan to do a future BeerAdvocate column on the subject of great beer cities and whether designating such a pursuit actually matters, my upcoming trip has returned my focus to Philadelphia.

I have to admit to a certain amount of excitement on my part at getting a chance, after a few years away, to return to Philadelphia. But in reviewing the usual online sites, including the excellent, I still wonder at the pronouncements of fellow beer writers Don Russell, Lew Bryson, Jack Curtin, and a number of other locals that Philadelphia is “America’s Best Beer Drinking City.? I’ve previously laid out here and in my book my criteria for a great beer city and Philly definitely meets several of those marks, with a handful of top-notch beer bars (Monk’s, Tria, Eulogy) that heavily focus on educating the public. And as I haven’t been there in a while, I’m looking forward to seeing how well craft beer has integrated into regular drinking establishments in the city. But when it comes to breweries and brewpubs, I think this is where I have some pause about claims of Philly’s greatness. For brewpubs, the city offers Nodding Head, Manayunk, and Triumph Brewing. I’ve been to Nodding Head several times and enjoy its quirky environment and solid beers, but have not had a chance to visit Manayunk and relative newcomer Triumph. But that is it for the city, three brewpubs, although I plan to stop by Tom Baker’s new enterprise in Germantown and expect that will add greatly to the city’s brewpub balance. In looking at local breweries, we see even less to support Philly’s claims of greatness. Dock Street is celebrating its one-year anniversary at its new location and has a history almost as twisted as the Concord Brewery’s story. Yard’s Brewing has also had a up and down history and its story continues to unfold. I know very little of the Philadelphia Brewing Company and look forward to trying its beers but doubt it would be touted as a ‘great’ place. In terms of locally produced beer, Philadelphia doesn’t appear to have much of a grasp on the greatest title.

With this said, I’m still excited about visiting and drinking in Philadelphia because it actually reminds me of the best drinking city this country has to offer: Chicago. My home town may not be able to lay claim to being the greatest beer drinking city, although I think it could put up a fight, the character and quantity of its drinking establishments, in my opinion, is unmatched anywhere in America. My visits to Philadelphia and its drinking establishments, as well as reviewing descriptions of other Philly beer bars, reminds me so much of Chicago. I’ve never been to several of the city’s best drinking establishments (at least as they are described online), including The Grey Lodge and the Standard Tap, but I am expecting to thoroughly enjoy them. But I wonder whether a handful of great bars can be enough to raise Philly to the top echelon of great beer drinking cities in America.

When local guys such as Don, Lew, and Jack tout Philly’s beer drinking prowess, I get the sense that their definition of ‘Philadelphia’ is probably a lot broader than mine. I expect that they include places like Victory (35 miles west), the Sly Fox and Iron Hill establishments (15-20 miles outside), Flying Fish (15 miles east in New Jersey), and other outlying establishments. With all that the northwestern suburbs of Philly have to offer, I’m not going to argue with designating Eastern Pennsylvania as a classic and great beer region. And I’ll be stationed in this area and will be visiting the Earth Bread + Brewery, Victory, and probably the General Lafayette Inn, as well as a few other places (with any luck, the Drafting Room in Exton). But as to the city itself, I have my doubts.

In any event, local beer lovers clearly have a lot to brag about in Philadelphia and its outlying areas. And we cannot overlook the achievement that is the Philly Beer Week project, one I plan to attend this year. I’m looking forward to the trip and to putting the Philly propaganda line to the test.

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3 thoughts on “Is Philadelphia Really A Great Beer City? We’ll Soon See…

  1. I’m sure I can get together some local flavor to take you around to a few bars to show off why Philly dominates the beer scene. Admittedly, Philly does not have the amount of breweries/brewpubs that some West Coast cities do. We now boast 2 production breweries and 5 brewpubs. It’s about the same as Boston. New York City has what 3? Baltimore = 3? DC = 5 or 6? How many does Chicago have? 5 or 6?

    It’s not easy for a brewery to start up in a major city.

    See you down here.



  2. Based upon these responses, and a few I’ve gotten from email in the last 24 hours, the Philly scene supporters are certainly willing to fight for their city’s rep! To be clear, I don’t want to suggest that Philly is not a top flight beer town, it clearly is. I’m just not so sure that it is the ‘best’ one in the country. By that token, I definitely wouldn’t offer up Chicago, New York, Baltimore, or Boston as the best either. I’m definitely looking forward to my trip and testing out Philly’s mojo (and a few Yard’s ESA’s as well).



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