They came from Fishtown with thick beards and tattoos and an unquenchable thirst for beer. And it was being slaked by a barrage of saisons and vividly hopped IPAs at a long table behind us anchored by platters of tacos and fried chicken.
Such a scene is not an uncommon sight around Frankford and Girard. But . . . in Ardmore?!
One can argue this town has been becoming the hipster-iest corner of the Main Line for a few years, what with the impressive growth of its music scene (recording studios, parking lot festivals, and prime venues like the Ardmore Music Hall, which hosts the Rebirth Brass Band on Aug. 14). But in these brew-happy days, nothing says "let's take a little SEPTA ride to the 'burbs!" quite as persuasively as the liquid rewards coming from the funkifying oak "fouder" barrels at the Fermentaria, Jean Broillet IV's second (and much larger) Tired Hands microbrewery in Ardmore.
Broillet's compulsively changing repertoire of creative brews can sound like metaphysical big gulps, with cryptic names like "We Are All Infinite Energy Vibrating at the Same Frequency," or "Avoiding Purgatory #1," or "Extra Extra Knuckle." But they do bring the complexity to qualify as the "meditative" and "reactionary" beers - made with everything from persimmons to snail shells - that Broillet promised when he opened his original, smaller Tired Hands Brew Cafe, also in Ardmore, in 2012.
One only need witness the faithful camping out at that cafe in lawn chairs early on a Sunday morning for a chance at one of Tired Hands' monthly limited releases to understand: These beers aren't just strange, experimental, and contrarian. They are also delicious, and frequently brilliant. It's no wonder Broillet's eccentric beers have earned national renown so swiftly. (In 2014, the website Ratebeer.com ranked Tired Hands as one of the top 100 breweries in the world.)
Adding this much larger sibling barely a half-mile away lets Tired Hands grow in important ways - expanding oak-aging to all of its saisons (my vote for its best genre), with the space to tackle slow-aging lagers (like the fantastically juicy Trendler Pils) and ramp up enough production to distribute beyond the breweries.
Running a real restaurant to go with that big new brewery, though, is clearly Tired Hands' tallest new challenge. The original little cafe, still thriving in its retrofitted old chiropractor's office space, does well enough with a limited menu built on house-made bread, pickles, salads, and panini.
But with 200 seats accommodating up to 600 hungry people on a good day in this cavernous new location, set into the impressive (but extremely noisy) industrial bones of a former trolley repair garage, Broillet can no longer entirely avoid the "brewpub" label he hoped to avoid after five years of working at Iron Hill.
"No disrespect to [Iron Hill, which also has an Ardmore location] but I want to avoid the monotony of typical brewpub conventions."
Keeping the beers surprising is no sweat for Broillet's crew (they've produced 500-plus in three years). And the food menu's instincts here are good, too. So, instead of the inevitable seared tuna app, there is an ivory fan of hamachi crudo splashed with citrus, sesame oil, and fiery Thai peppers (plus a pinch too much vanilla salt). An earthy mound of creamy Castle Valley Bloody Butcher grits flecked with crimson threads of heirloom corn comes topped with heat-blistered shishito peppers (more of a side than a "small plate.") An incredibly juicy burger gets topped with smoked cheddar, sweet-and-spicy candied bacon, mustard made with their HopHands beer and house-pickled whiskey dills.
A series of fun taco riffs served atop fresh warm San Roman tortillas, though, best conveys the unconventional spirit that suits this place. Chef Bill Braun does a good job with some Mexican classics, like the pulled chicken tinga topped with bright tomatillo salsa; and the tender, citrusy pork carnitas served with guacamole. The fish tacos, with flaky pollock crisped inside batter made with malty Fripp beer, were also great.
But he was at his most inspired with some more unusual vegetarian taco fusions. The Indian-curried cauliflower tacos mounded over pea puree with crushed cashews is a memorable dish you won't find anywhere else. His maitake tacos over chili-braised Asian eggplants with coconut milk crema would have been a vegan gem had those mushrooms not been fried (maitakes have plenty of texture as is.)
Deep-frying is Braun's weakness. His fried oyster tacos would have been spot-on had the mollusks not been sealed inside such a heavy buttermilk batter. His popular fried chicken platter was a big disappointment: The tasty chunks of brined chicken were encased in a crust so thick it fell off the bird at first bite like armor.
Aside from this inelegantly bulky winter coat of a crust, the fact that Braun precooks the chicken before service as a time-saver doesn't help - and speaks to the chef's inexperience in serving large volume without sacrificing quality. Other flaws that also need tweaking: the Asian-braised short ribs weren't tender enough; the salsas lacked enough zip; the veggies served with hummus were cut too finely to actually dip. Diners should get a hacksaw to help bite through the deep-frozen puck of an ice cream sandwich.
The service is also a work in progress - well-versed in the many beers, but incapable of actually pacing a meal, which rifles out from the kitchen at such velocity you'd think they didn't want you to hang out and actually drink a few rounds.
You should probably order as you go, because the Fermentaria's beers are a highlight worth serious exploring, with small pours available for those who want to sample many. That pils was among the best in a style Tired Hands has not yet been associated with. The malty, bitters-style Fripp, named for the legendary prog-rock guitarist of King Crimson, Robert Fripp, was another surprise.
Broillet is better known for his creative plays with hops and alternative ingredients. The Fuzzy Green cucumber-infused IPA is certainly the beer world's best reply to the green smoothie movement: It's like drinking an incredibly refreshing hop-spiced salad. My favorites, though, are still Broillet's masterful saisons, most of which harbor an ethereally tart backnote from oak-barrel aging and the signature yeast, but with myriad subtle twists: like the dry wildflower nose of aromatic honey on the Honey, I Love You, or the creamy texture and sharp hop punch on the Reactionary oat saison; the summery Cat Statue, which brings a little vegetal funk from white sage and tart Japanese knotweed; or the cereal richness of Ancestral, a saison brewed from tons of wheat that turns almost fruity on the nose.
These are the kind of brews that beer nerds will risk a parking ticket for while they run inside to fill their take-out growlers - until they realize Ardmore's meters have a sweet "10-minute" free button. Then again, the train station is also just a five-minute walk away. If the Fermentaria can continue to iron out and refine its food menu, that train to Ardmore could soon be known as the "Tired Hands Express."
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Same Same in Northern Liberties.