Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

March 16–23, 2000

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Brew Hub, part 2

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Taste test: Yards’ Tom Kehoe extracts a sample.

photo: Jessica Gryphon

by Brian Howard

part 1

Michael Jackson drinks beer. Professionally. (And he’s heard the jokes about sequined gloves and Bubbles the chimp a million times, so don’t even think about it.) The London-based writer is the original beer hunter, or at least the first to trademark the term, which is the title for a series of television programs he did for Channel 4 in Britain and that of his Web site, www.beerhunter.com. He’s recognized as the world’s leading beer expert/critic, as well as the holder of the best day job imaginable. His 11 books include Ultimate Beer, a selective coffee-table tome of hundreds of the finest brews from all corners of the globe. Yet the guy who makes it his business to imbibe the best beer you can buy published a column on his site not too long ago titled "Why I would rather be in Philadelphia."

Jackson was in town two weekends ago for The Book and The Cook festival for the 10th consecutive year. His annual appearances at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology have been orchestrated from the beginning by Bruce Nichols of UPenn’s University Catering and have consistently drawn The Book and The Cook’s largest turnouts. Published in 1998, Ultimate Beer features no fewer than seven Philadelphia-area brews. The first page of profiles features Victory’s St. Victorious double bock. Of the 13 featured pilsner lagers, three — Dock Street Bohemian, Stoudt’s Pils and Victory’s Prima Pils — are from eastern PA.

Yet in his New World Guide to Beer, a book of similar scope published in 1988, only Dock Street made the cut.

"Oh, there’s been an absolute explosion in the Philadelphia scene," declares the demure man with the wild facial hair. He’s taken a moment to chat before heading down to his annual roast in the museum.

"People might say [history is] a factor. Probably is a little bit, but I don’t think very much," figures Jackson.

With most of the breweries in Philadelphia having long since gone out of business — Jackson paid a visit to two of the last big ones, Schmidt’s and Ortleib’s, in the 1980s just before they went under — there wasn’t really much history left to build on.

"From the 1880s to the 1980s it had gone from 100 breweries to none at all and then the whole thing started all over again," recounts Jackson. "But people will often say, ‘Well, where there’s a tradition, and where there are ethnically German people, that’s a good market.’ But the ethnic Germans aren’t the people drinking these beers. People will say there’s lots of Irish in a certain city. You go to the Irish pubs, they’re all drinking Bud, they’re not drinking stouts."

A better explanation is that Philadelphia’s size and layout made it ripe for such a suds resurgence.

"To have a really good beer scene you need a city that’s big enough to offer a good market, but small enough to have local pride," he explains, citing San Francisco, Portland and Seattle on the West Coast and Boston on the East. "New York is a bit too diffuse. In some ways, Philadelphia was sort of a beer scene waiting to happen, if you like. It came a bit late — there are certain difficulties here about having to buy beer by the case which makes it difficult for breweries, and that probably slowed things up as well. But when it did happen it all kind of really snowballed."

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We’re gonna do it: A Laverne & Shirley moment at Yards.

photo: jessica gryphon

But why the spike in guzzling of double bocks, Belgian ales and heffeweizens in the last 10 years?

A downtown area is also key, which many newer, sprawling urban centers don’t have. "You need a downtown because you need to have a bar scene," Jackson explains. "In Atlanta you have to drive 25 miles to the bar area.… There’s actually a lively bar scene in Center City, and I think that’s helped enormously."

Jackson guesses that he first noticed the Philadelphia scene growing around 1995 or ’96. The dates coincide roughly with the conclusion of the first term of former Mayor Ed Rendell, who championed the revitalization of Center City. Granted, he also signed off on the much-despised liquor-by-the-drink tax, but his attention to tourism and hospitality issues has to be regarded as a positive factor in creating the kind of scene Jackson’s talking about.

Raise your hand if you can remember the time when new restaurants weren’t popping up every few feet. According to statistics from Michelle Shannon, director of marketing for the Center City District — an area roughly defined as Sixth to 30th Street and Arch to Spruce — there were 41 bars and night clubs in the area in 1993. As of December of 1999, there were 50, an increase of 22 percent. The number of restaurants with liquor licenses exploded, jumping from 104 in 1993 to 168 in ’99, a whopping 62 percent leap. And these numbers don’t include areas like Old City, South Street, West Philadelphia and Northern Liberties, all of which have blossomed in the last decade.

For breweries, tap space is one of the most coveted commodities. Local breweries are in competition with much more visible national brands, and to some extent each other, to be on tap in as many bars as possible.

Tom Kehoe at Yards has felt the results. The cause-and-effect relationships are hazy, but consider the following. Though he doesn’t have exact numbers for the number of tap handles Yards held in the early days, he can say definitively that the number has increased significantly to about 40 in the city and 55 total, including the suburbs.

But if you merely increase the number of taps in a city and let the laws of nature and economics run their course, those taps will quickly fill up with nasty, tasteless stuff like Budweiser and Miller and overrated imports like Guinness Stout. Breweries with the money to put their name in your face via advertising every day and every way. Breweries for whom 10th-of-a-percent gains and losses translate into millions of dollars. Breweries with an interest in flooding the market with AS MUCH of their beer as possible.

Beer has an image as a blue-collar drink and these breweries shoot for the lowest common denominator. So why are Philadelphians more open to better beer? To make a beer scene happen you need taste-makers, passionate beer hunters who seek out strange, unusual and exotic beers and turn people on to these discoveries.

People like Brendan Hartranft. The former bartender at The Khyber and now a mainstay at Nodding Head, Hartranft once drove to Pittsburgh in the middle of a December night just to pick up two kegs of beer.

He wanted a specific beer, actually: St. Nickolaus Bock from Pittsburgh’s Penn Brewery.

None of Hartranft’s distributors could get Penn’s Christmas brew, which he wanted to feature at The Khyber’s first Big Ass Beers Festival. And Penn, which was going through the stuff hand over fist at a weekend-long festival of their own, didn’t want to pay the shipping costs for two kegs they’d likely move easily in Pittsburgh.

"It was really a no-brainer. Just drive out to Pittsburgh," recalls Hartranft, sipping a Victory Brewing Co. Prima Pils at Queen Village watering hole The New Wave Cafe. "There were a million other beers I could have replaced it with, but there were no others I wanted to replace it with."

When he strolled into the Penn Brewery at around 9 a.m., the owner, Tom Pastorious, was so amazed that he gave Hartranft a breakfast beer and "this pork chop omelet" from the brew pub on the house. He even offered to comp the kegs, but Hartranft insisted on paying for them. So Pastorious gave him complimentary T-shirts, coasters and a case of pint glasses.

Hartranft then slept in his car for two hours with no heat, got back on the road and made Philly by mid-afternoon.

This type of behavior is typical of beer aficionados, also known as beer geeks. It’s this labor of love they call the "beer hunt."

Hartranft, a relatively new face in the local scene, speaks reverently of the colleagues who were instrumental in shaping his tastes.

Any attempt to name everyone who’s turned this city on to better beer would be wildly incomplete, but here’s the short list:

  • Tom Peters, who built up the bar at Copa Too, is a partner at Center City Belgian-beer restaurant Monk’s and is a consultant at Philly’s newest brew pub Nodding Head (the former Sam Adams Brew House on the 1600 block of Sansom);

  • Dave Wilby, who converted the Dawson Street Pub in Manayunk from a "Bud bar" into a local beer haven;

  • Eric Savage, the head brewer at Dock Street. (Dock Street, already operating one brewpub/brasserie at One Logan Square, flexed its muscles recently, purchasing the never-inhabited Red Bell brewpub near the Reading Terminal market.);

  • Chris Morris, the tap minder at The Khyber during the bar’s beer heyday in the mid-’80s and early ’90s and who has just returned, to much fanfare in the beer scene;

  • William Reed, former head brewer at Sam Adams who just opened Northern Liberties bar Standard Tap, which serves only local brews, only on tap;

  • George Hummell, owner of Center City DIY brew center Home Sweet Homebrew;

  • The owners of the Foodery, whose mix-a-six pack policy allows customers to sample from their selection of hundreds of beers;

  • and Jim Anderson, who invented and installed Bridgid’s first downdraft system, and who as publisher of Beer Philadelphia (www.beerphiladelphia.com) holds events like the Real Ale Rendezvous, Philadelphia’s Best Beer contest and the infamous barley wine festival Split Thy Skull, a Philly beer showcase he’s taking on the road to Brooklyn.

"Passion is contagious," figures Hartranft of these people who spread the good word, "and Center City is so small, word travels fast."

George Hummell remembers when Philadelphia was definitely not a beer town. A customer at Home Sweet Homebrew before he bought the store in 1990, Hummell describes Philly as "just a beer wasteland" at the time. "Sam Adams and Dock Street were just opening. Most home brewers brewed all the beer they drank."

Hummell, also a regular contributor to the Mid Atlantic Brewing News, recalls when local beer pretty much meant Yuengling, a Pottsville brewery that has, without advertising or much marketing, gone from a failing brewery to a strangely ubiquitous force in the local market. It is rumored that because of Yuengling’s grip on the area, the big three beer makers — Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors — sell less in Philly than in other markets. "When I first started buying their beer, it was $7.50 for a case of stubby returnables, which had a lot to do with why we bought that brand. It was the best-tasting cheap beer there was," Hummell laughs. "It was viewed as a blue-collar beer from a coal-mining town."

Jackson visited the brewery in the early ’80s and, surprisingly, Yuengling did not go out of business shortly after. "I remember going there and seeing the father of the present Dick Yuengling, who was also called Dick Yuengling, and I was saying to him, ‘Well there’s a future for this sort of thing [regional breweries],’ and he was saying, ‘No, I don’t think there is.’ The times were very pessimistic. I suppose it gets darkest before the dawn."

What saved Yuengling? According to Hummell, they raised their prices slightly in the mid-’80s. "They stopped trying to undercut the prices of the national brands and it helped them shed that image of cheapness."

The tactic created a mystique around the beer as being a sort of microbrewed product, which isn’t true at all. Though the brewery produces far less than, say, Budweiser, it’s a big operation. Regardless, Yuengling has become Philadelphia’s basic drink: the beer you drink when you’re gonna drink all night. The lowest you’ll go when you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel. Walk into any bar and ask for a lager, and the bartender will assume you mean Yuengling. Lots of beer geeks will turn up their nose at the brand, but it can serve as a gateway.

That’s how it happened for Jeff Lindenmuth, an employee at Illinois’ new online liquor store Drinks.com.

"I started drinking heavily in college. I went to school right near Yuengling brewery and the thing to do on a weekend was go out there and do the tour and drink some free beers on Saturday," he explains. "So I started thinking like, wow, this is better beer than Budweiser or other beer that I can drink. So I got Yuengling and advanced from there. [Now] whenever I’m looking for good American lagers, I drink Pennsylvania," and not just the Yuengling variety.

Two new chapters in the brewery’s unlikely success story are unfolding. Yuengling is looking to open a new $50 million facility in Pottsville to complement their historic site. The company has also purchased an idle Stroh’s brewery in Tampa, FL.

Deborah Scoblionkov, who writes a column called On Wine for the Inquirer, was not such an easy convert. Having matriculated in Europe in the ’70s, she was naturally drawn to wine because it "just seemed like such a civilized beverage to drink with a meal. I was just so completely turned off by the beer culture. My first experience ever getting drunk was a six-pack of disgusting Budweiser or something. I never thought I would be a beer drinker. It was just not part of my identity."

She was introduced to the sweet, strong, almost wine-like beers of Belgium by Anderson. (Everyone in the alcohol business seems to know each other.)

"The Belgian beers were just a revelation. They were so sensual and so exciting," gushes Scoblionkov of the night almost 10 years ago. "It was, to me, like my first great wine experience."

But it didn’t stop with Belgians. She’s come to love the local beer scene, dubbing it excitedly in conversation "The Beer Revolution!" She raves especially about Delaware brewery Dogfish Head, which makes some of the area’s most oddball and eclectic beers, including the aforementioned Chicory Stout, Raison D’etre (made with green raisins) and Worldwide Stout, briefly the strongest beer in the world at 18 percent alcohol. "The brewer there is brilliant. You come to love these unusual flavors. I just think he’s one of those creative-genius kind of guys and this is his art."

To Scoblionkov, beer can be more complex tasting than wine. It’s an opinion she attributes to the way the two beverages are made.

Wine making is a much more involved and costly process, which requires land to grow grapes, anywhere from four to seven years for the vines to produce fruit and then months or years of aging on top of that before a winery can hit the market.

"You can’t make a mistake. It has to be right," she explains. "With beer, the turnaround is so quick, you can experiment and it doesn’t involve all the capital. The money investment to make a good wine is just phenomenal."

But she’s even more fascinated with the differences between the two social scenes.

"The people attracted to [beer] are very creative. The people that are attracted to wine are more serious.… The stereotype can be kind of true, that they can be just so pretentious. And that, to me, that’s the worst part of wine. But there are groups like the Wine Brats that take a relaxed attitude toward it…. But at these beer events it’s just so casual and it’s so much more hedonistic. Beer people are just really fun, and I really couldn’t say that about every wine person."

part 3

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