Editor's Note: Part 7 of our Better Know A Beer City series is the work of one David R. Gwyn, friend of the brewery. David has been enjoying craft beer in Philadelphia for years and has led Team VBC on multiple bar crawls (i.e., research tours) through the city. Along with his fiancee Katy, David operates Chateau Bainbridge, a boutique hotel open only to invited guests of significant stature. David has world-class tubing skills, maintains a strange love of Mules, and much like his hero Frank Reynolds prefers his beer out of soda cans or water bottles. For his next trick, David is planning to perfectly recreate Bradley Cooper's dance routine from the climactic scene of Silver Linings Playbook at his 2016 wedding.
Philadelphia is listed third on the New York Times' "52 Places to Go in 2015." It’s just behind Milan, Italy, and Cuba. I’ve lived in Philadelphia for three years and there is nothing that would have made me put it in any spot on the 52-location list, so I had to assume foul play. However, after a brief Internet search, I wasn’t able to find pictures of any of the article’s producers wearing Eagles gear. Therefore, it’s safe to say there wasn’t any bias in this list.
All joking aside, Philadelphia’s craft beer scene is on point. Yards, Victory, and Philadelphia Brewing Companies are all viable options to secure excellent beers straight from the brewers. These breweries are omnipresent at nearly every bar, and their variety allows for a beer to fit any season or occasion.
While Philadelphia is named the City of Brotherly Love, don’t get caught in a Redskins jersey (Robby). There is a level of animosity reserved strictly for people who come to Philadelphia but retain the audacity to root for their home teams. However, the blue-collar feel of the city gives it character that permeates every brick, from the Pre-Revolutionary War structures in Old City to the up-and-coming Point Breeze housing expansion in South Philly.
I decided to take a self-guided tour of the city to explore some of my favorite craft beer spots. Each stop on this list is located in a different part of the city. Some bars are known for beer. Others are not. So open up whatever beer you have in the fridge and let’s get going!
The first day started in Chateau Bainbridge (patent pending) with The Virginia Beer Company's Double Breakfast Brown (9.4%) brewed in collaboration with their friends at Twain’s Brewpub & Billiards in Decatur, GA. This big beer has a smooth taste that only gets better the longer it’s removed from the refrigerator. The combination of the syrup aroma and coffee flavor was the perfect way to begin my day at the Chateau. But don’t try to find this place on a map. This speakeasy is a local secret that can only be unlocked by members. The 22 oz. bottle, hand delivered by the VBC brewers, flowed freely and made me wish Williamsburg, Virginia, wasn’t so far away. If this is what we have to look forward to in the fall of 2015 when VBC opens, then we’re in for a treat (and a road trip).
Monk’s Café is an iconic location for any avid craft beer drinker. This Belgian Beer Emporium & Restaurant was rated a 98 on Beeradvocate.com and for good reason. A “Coming Soon…” list with Russian River’s Damnation had me calculating the cost of buying a pint of the beer ahead of it for every person in Monk’s. Sadly, my advance for this article didn’t cover the cost. I was still able to enjoy a rare Pliny the Elder. However, I stumbled across something even more rare: A Nodding Head beer being poured right from the tap.
For those of you who don’t know, Nodding Head was a small brewing company in Philadelphia that didn’t do any distribution and has recently closed their only location to look for a new place. When I asked the bartender about how they acquired a beer from a bar that never distributed and had been closed for relocation for a few months, the man next to me spoke up. He was a high-ranking member of Nodding Head. As it turns out, Nodding Head is brewing through the Philadelphia Brewing Co. location and is going to continue distributing once they open their new location. (I was given a hint, but because of his self-proclaimed superstitious nature, he wouldn’t tell me much else). What I do know is that this distribution plan is good news for people outside of the Philadelphia area. And the new location is good news for people visiting Philly.
Bru Craft & Wrust has more beers on tap than they should (39). It’s a cool beer garden atmosphere inside. This relatively new bar shares an alley with the oldest Irish Pub in Philadelphia (McGillins). The place gets packed at night, but you’ll always be able to get a beer thanks to the Bier Wall. If you load some money on the Haus key, a card that works on the pour-your-own beer station, you can pour yourself a beer without having to wait for a bartender.
City Tap House Logan Square (formerly Public House) has made an upgrade to keep up with the growing number of Philadelphia craft beer fanatics. They now have over 35 taps. A bit more of a sports bar than any of the other bars on this list, but still a formidable member of the craft beer community. Pictured to the right is Sly Fox’s O’Reilly’s Stout (3.6% Irish Dry Stout).
Bainbridge Street Barrel House has been nominated for Philly Happening’s List for Best Beer Bar in 2015. There’s no secret as to why, either. This Old City location has floor to ceiling windows that bring in natural light to remind you that it’s still daytime and you’re failing at being a proper adult by being there at this hour. I was there when their “Behind the Barrel Series” was featuring Evil Genius Beer Co. According to the Evil Genius Team, they are looking to build their own brewery and are searching for locations in Philadelphia. I highly recommend the Hop King (8.2% Imperial IPA) by Evil Genius if you can find it (limited single batch release).
American Sardine Bar has a giant sardine can over the old, wooden door. This craft beer location is in the Point Breeze neighborhood of South Philadelphia. The Sardine Ale, a beer brewed specifically for American Sardine Bar by the Manayunk Brewing Company, is just one of their 16 taps. The Belgian Ale pours a dark golden color and is very refreshing.
The Sidecar Bar and Grille sits in the heart of Graduate Hospital and was my last stop. This small bar is always packed and it’s more unique than the tattoos on the staff members. This tiny place packs a huge punch of food flavor and was featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. It also has an impressive craft beer list. They sport twelve taps with an “Up Next” list of new beers for when the kegs they’re running get kicked. I went for the Bear Republic Racer X. This Double IPA (8.3%) hits hard with a bitter finish. However, it’s surprisingly light for the style.
The best part about the Philadelphia beer scene is that just about any restaurant you walk into will have craft beer on tap. Philly has embraced the movement and continues to churn out more and more beer snobs every year. The city’s gentrification brings young professionals with a disposable income into an area filled with rich historic roots and powerful beer flavors.
So if you find yourself already having visited Cuba, and you’re just so totally over Milan, then come to #3 on the NY Times list: Philadelphia. The city of cheesesteaks, a fan base that boos its own teams if they lose, and the Liberty Bell. And know that when you visit, you’ll be able to find excellent craft beer no matter where you are in the city.