Shouldn't We Be Celebrating, or Something?

by Jack Curtin
Atlantic Ale Trail
April/May 2006

Suppose we won the war and nobody noticed?

That was the second thought that flashed through my mind one cold January night, sitting around Monk's Café in center city Philadelphia chatting with Pizza Port's Tomme Arthur and Russian River's Vinnie Cilurzo prior to a beer dinner featuring a selection of their brews. When Vinnie said something along the lines of "I really like the beer scene here in Philadelphia, all the great places to drink, the way everybody works together," my immediate thought was Geez, that's exactly the way I feel whenever I visit Denver or Seattle or San Francisco, followed by the above. His comment crystallized what I've been thinking about for some time now.

We won, gang. Craft beer is no longer the unacknowledged stepchild in the attic of the beer business. That's a fact. Crafts aren't dominant, heaven knows (except, happily, in rate of annual growth), and they're not everywhere, but everybody is aware of them. Nowadays, even crusty old publicans are toying with the once laughable idea of, at the very least, adding a Sam Adams or Sierra Nevada tap or, better yet, one from a local brewery. I see it around here in both ancient corner tappies and little country bars, places where, not so long ago, even a Yuengling tap was considered too hoity-toity for the regulars. Now the regulars are asking for, and getting, good local brews and even some downright exotic imports slid down the bar in their direction.

Okay, privileged beer writers, just like visiting brewers and even dedicated beer aficionados with no industry connections at all, are all either taken to, or seek out on their own, the very best options wherever they're on the road. That can lead to a skewed vision of reality. I mean, take a visitor only to Monk's and Standard Tap and Nodding Head in Philadelphia, then over to Yards or out to Victory or Sly Fox, he's gonna think he found some sort of beer heaven, especially if he then goes out on his own and discovers Ludwig's and Independence in center city or sees taps from Flying Fish and Troegs all over the place. But that's a very modern scenario. Ten years ago in this city, which is now ground central in what I consider to be the best beer region in country, none of that-none of that-would have been possible.

The territory's been conquered, I submit, and now the job is to expand the frontiers. Thankfully, that's already happening. I herewith offer into evidence a pair of successful businesses built around very good beer lists, each in a location where such a thing would have seemed highly unlikely as recently as two or three years ago.

South Philadelphia Taproom.
When John Longacre, a Philadelphia realtor, purchased what had been for 75 years a grand old neighborhood landmark on Mifflin Street in South Philadelphia known as Sweeney's Tavern before sinking to the level of a downright bad news bar, he decided, against all standard business judgment, that he wanted to turn it into a high end beer location. "This area was rundown," he recalls, "but it had all the characteristics a successful business needs: good housing stock, dense population, two major commercial corridors, public transportation…it seemed that all it needed was some leadership and a sense of community. I decided we'd take a different approach that the accepted rules dictate. We wouldn't adjust our business plan to the existing infrastructure, we'd work to change the infrastructure to meet our business plan. We wouldn't be just the bar on the corner, we'd be a conduit for greater things for the neighborhood."

That was in March 2003. Longacre's South Philadelphia Taproom opened six months later and went through a year of struggling while he was "second guessing myself a lot" and working on his plan. It all began to turn around last summer as the effects of a newly formed Community Development Corporation and local Business and Civic associations began to take hold. A program of 100 percent financing for homebuyers brought into the neighborhood people who wanted to be there, not just people who had to be there. The several block area was given a distinct identity, Newbold, acknowledging a former street which ran through it and the limestone address blocks set into several older buildings.

Now Longacre has his beer bar, a bright, attractive place; business is booming, and South Philly Taproom will double in size by this August by breaking through into the adjacent building. There are 13 taps, ten of them on a specially-made ten-tap "T" which was commissioned from a North Philadelphia metal working shop. Local breweries and Belgian imports are strongly featured and backed up by an eclectic 100-bottle selection. As hoped, a new clientele is learning about craft beers. "We have an Italian, Asian and African-American neighborhood demographic," Longacre says, "and many of them are happily getting into good beers. For example, there's this bunch of young Italian guys who I kid around with and call my favorite 'Guidos.' They used to come in and ask for Miller Light. The other night, half of them were drinking Hoegaarden and the other half Yards IPA. Progress."

Progress, indeed. Sort of like a neighborhood that slid between the cracks and was rescued by the bar on the corner.

Union Jack's Inn on the Manatawny.
Union Jack's is about as far as you can get from South Philly, located in a refurbished biker bar on the riverside site of a former amusement park in the historic Oley Valley, about 28 miles east of Reading. It's wonderfully bucolic, aside from the roller dome across the street, and it's kind of nowhere, except if you know it's there. The large bar area and adjacent dining room inside the two level building are dark and pubby; the exterior with its two decks, service bar and bandstand inspires heady dreams of sipping fine beers of a summer afternoon while watching fishermen in waders ply the Manatawny as couples in canoes drift slowly by.

Union Jack's 17 taps and nearly 300 bottles stocked include an astonishing array of world-class Belgians and other imports and the best offerings from both local and national craft breweries. When word got out recently that the bar had both Russian River's Pliny the Elder and Benediction on tap, a carload of excited beer geeks from Maryland found their way north within 24 hours to imbibe happily and fill growlers to take home. Some Saturday nights, there's an hour or more wait for a table. And, while the food's good and the ambiance is fantastic, it's all about the beer, according to owner/manager Tom Stiegelmann and his father Jeff ("Uncle Jeffie" to the cognisanti).

"We've never done a bit of advertising since we opened three years ago," says Tom, who's the product of good parenting (Uncle Jeffie put him behind the bar at one of the two other Union Jack's the family owns when he was 16), "but people find out about us because the people who like good beer spread the word. It's kind of amazing." His father, who says he was operating a good beer bar, with his father, before anybody even coined the term, agrees. "When I bought this property seven years ago, I knew we could do this," he says. "There's a market for good beer and it's not just in the city any more."

The closing argument, wherein I rest my case.
When Union Jack's was about to open, Jeff Stiegelmann says, a few of the local tavern owners stopped in, looked around and asked "What kind of people are going to drink these beers?" To which he replied, "the kind of people you're never going to see." Now, he laughs, local watering holes are beginning to add a broader selection of beers in an effort to entice some of those kind of people in their doors. Same thing along Mifflin Street says John Longacre. "One of what I call the local 'old man' bars has recently morphed into a beer bar and I hear a guy who's about to open just changed his whole business plan to be more like ours. Hey, I hope 100 more places like that open up down here. It will be good for all of us and good for craft beer."

Who's gonna drink this stuff? Everybody, if they're lucky. And they're beginning to come around.

Copyright (c) 2006 Jack Curtin

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