A LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO MALT
By Jack Curtin
Not that I don't enjoy immensely all the major beer events held during this city's annual The Book & The Cook Festival, but the fact is that the quintessential Philadelphia beer experience each year, for locals and visitors alike, is actually to be found in a rollicking day-long journey which showcases the quality, variety and appeal of the underappreciated treasure that is our local beer culture.
The Golden Age of Beer in Philadelphia Tour visits some of the best and most distinctive beer bars in the city on both Saturdays of the ten-day gastronomic celebration, under the guidance of beer enthusiast Rich Pawlak. The first one this year was on March 16, consisting of a caravan of three packed-to-the-gills vans which roamed from nationally known downtown bars to cozy neighborhood pubs, from the hallowed halls of Philadelphia's oldest continually operating tavern to the just-operative new plant of the city's oldest microbrewery, then concluded some eight hours later at a full-course dinner at the city's newest and largest brewpub.
The better known and more highly publicized beer-oriented events during Book & Cook are truer to the basic concept, which is to import nationally and internationally renowned food and drink personalities for ten days of showcasing their skills and allowing local venues the opportunity to do the same. The highlight for beer fanciers is usually the final weekend, which always has Michael Jackson at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology & Anthropology hosting a big ticket dinner Friday evening and conducting a day-long series of tutored tastings on Saturday, followed by his Sunday night Belgian beer dinner at Monk's Café, which always features a surprise brew or two and often an unparalleled moment in beer history (for a more detailed look at Jackson's Philadelphia visit, see "Title" on page XX).
Another long running and popular fixture are three dinners at Cuvee Notredame, hosted by cookbook author Ruth Van Waerbeek-Gonzales, along with owner-chef Michael Notredame. Each meal has a different menu and pairs just the right beers with foods from her Belgian homeland and her new home in Chile. More recent additions are a mid-week Stephen Beaumont-hosted dinner at Monk's-this year featured fruit beers-and a pair of gourmet vegetarian dinners at Nodding Head Brewery & Restaurant which pair the beers of brewer Brandon Greenwood with the cuisine of Eric Tucker, executive chef at San Francisco's Millennium restaurant.
The Golden Age Tour, on the other hand, is determinedly local and low key. Indeed, chances are a lot of people aren't even aware of its existence, even though it's been a fixture for six years now and successful enough that the second Saturday tour was added to the schedule last year. Both trips sold out again this year, 42 tourists each time. Participants came from nine states, some from as far away as Kansas and Missouri. The way it works is that everybody gets a fine beer and some surprisingly good food at each stop. By the time the day is finished, tourists will consume a minimum of 144 ounces of brew, much of it high octane, so the pace remains leisurely, about 45 minutes at each locale with regular reminders to consume plenty of water.
On March 16, the first stop, as always, was Monk's, which sets the bar pretty high right off the bat. Then again, this world class beer bar can be overwhelming for the uninitiated, of whom there are usually several in each group. Confronted with a draft beer list that contains names like Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus, Caracole Saxo, Rodenbach Flemish Sour Ale and Mordue's Radgie Gadgie, some folks are clearly wondering what they've gotten themselves into. A sampling of one of those exotic potables and one of the nationally known café's boudin blanc or chicken & apple sausage sandwiches soon helps calm the nerves, as do welcoming remarks from owner Tom Peters and an informative overview of the day ahead by local beer writer Lew Bryson (Pennsylvania Breweries), who has served as traveling guide for all the Golden Age tours.
The beer names are a bit more familiar but still somewhat intimidating at the next stop, what with 25 taps featuring the likes of Franziskaner Dunkel, Spaten Optimator, Aas Bock and Schneider Weizen Edelweis. We are at Ludwig's Garten, the relatively new Bavarian-Austrian pub which has become one of center city's most popular stops. More sausages, along with sauerkraut and potato cakes and a stein of good German beer soon make it clear, if there were any doubts, that the whole day was going to be just as good as promised.
There's no need for a van between Ludwig's to McGillin's Olde Ale House, as the city's oldest pub (since 1860) is right around the corner or, easier yet, down a narrow back alley to the rear door. Unfortunately, it's the day before St. Patrick's Day, which means the usual opportunity to go in and eat at one of the pub's long tables and drink in the atmosphere as well as another beer is out of the question. Just managing to squeeze inside among the wild crowd that jams the place is an accomplishment. The ambiance might be a bit less than ideal, but this is the first opportunity for tourists to see some more familiar beer names or try one of the local micros, like Yards Philadelphia Pale Ale or Stoudt's Winter Ale (or, lord help us, a bright green Rolling Rock Shamrock).
McMenamin's Tavern in the city's Mt. Airy section is, as the packet of notes Pawlak provides each tourist at the start of the day says, one of the best kept secrets in Philadelphia, a neighborhood tavern which has grown into a very fine beer bar and restaurant. Lamb stew is the traditional meal owner P.J. McMenamin provides for the Golden Age group, and his eclectic beer menu this day offers everything from Maredsous 8 and La Chouffe to 3 Floyds Alpha King from Indiana to local treasures like Victory HopDevil and Yards Love Stout on a handpump. The trip to and from is also the longest of the day, about 20 minutes, nicely timed for everyone's system to adjust to the ongoing intake of food and beer.
Next stop is the Standard Tap, the two-year old pub which serves only local beers and only on draft, making it, along with Monk's, a Must Stop for beer-savvy visitors to Philadelphia. Owner William Reed greets the by now happily boisterous group with huge plates of oysters on the half shell and bruchettes with rare tenderloin slices, a culinary extravaganza which wins the Tap "food of the day" honors. Among the local beers savored by our travelers the most popular appear to be Troegs ESB from one of the bar's two handpumps, Victory Golden Monkey and Sly Fox Keller Pils. A few nostalgic types choose an icy cold Yuengling Lord Chesterfield Ale from the ancient refrigerator behind the bar.
It's a short hop to the new home of Yards Brewing Company, the only one of the four full-scale microbreweries which opened in the city during the Nineties which is still in business. Yards recently purchased and moved into early this year the former Weisbrod & Hess Brewery, which closed its doors in 1939. Tom Kehoe, the happiest brewer in captivity, is smiling even more broadly than usual when we arrive, delighted that, after all too many delays, he'd finally gotten things up and running the day before. The brewery is hard pressed for beer given the long downtime, but their newest brew, Trubbel de Yards ("somewhere between a dubbel and a tripel!"), and their flagship Extra Special Ale have been held in reserve so that there's something to sip as Kehoe walks the group through the facility and explains the brewing process.
Last stop before dinner is the Grey Lodge Pub, a revitalized taproom in a blue collar neighborhood which has become a welcome outpost in a section which is mostly a beer wasteland. Owner Mike (Scoats) Scotese has a lineup of mostly local brews on tap this day, including Victory St. Victorious Doppelbock, Heavyweight Cinderbock and a very tasty cask-conditioned Flying Fish Hop Phish. This is always one of the most popular stops, not least because of the mushroom and pepperoni wraps and Northeast Philly Tomato Pie (upside-down pizza) which are gobbled up as fast as the tiny kitchen can turn them out.
Journey's end is back in center city at the Independence Brewpub at Reading Terminal for a three course meal paired with brewer Tim Roberts' Kolsch, India Pale Ale and cask-conditioned Porter. As the last beer is sipped, Bryson finishes off the evening with an hilarious account of the machinations surrounding the brewpub in which we sit: it's had four name changes in two years, including being reborn as the Reading Chop House and Brewery by the time this sees print-one acerbic observer has dubbed it the "Your Name Here Brewpub."
A fine day it was. A fine Philadelphia day.