On the Side: Beer Week in the city's yeastiest nook

Northern Liberties' mellower brew once made Philadelphia famous.

If you got a start just before the sun went down one balmy evening last week you could cover a good deal of territory in Northern Liberties, preferably on foot given the nature of the festivities, which centered on the consumption of craft beers, often with higher-than-average alcohol content.

It was getting toward the midpoint of Beer Week, mussels and beer (a crisp Belgian pale ale called Maredsous 6) laid out at Abbaye at Third and Fairmount, and the dinner crowd beginning to pick up at N. 3rd pub, the local stalwart just up the block.

At the white-tablecloth Ortlieb's Jazzhaus (named for the brewery that once adjoined it) the joint wasn't exactly jumping, yet; it's for night owls, not the early-bird trade.

Northern Liberties is where it all started, the beer brewing that once made Philadelphia famous; where the first lager yeast was smuggled in from Bavaria in 1840, setting off a chain of events that resulted in lighter, less-bitter lagers trumping the British ales that arrived 160 years before with the wave of English settlers.

In fact, if you rounded the corner at Third, heading east down Poplar, you would quickly encounter two landmarks testifying to that history.

The first was the blue-and-gold state historical marker announcing the game-changing feat of John Wagner, the German brewer who brought that first batch of yeast. (He'd booked passage on a clipper ship, the better to keep it alive.)

It was hard for historians to pinpoint the address of the tiny brewery in the back of his house where he'd turned out eight barrels of beer at a time, relying on a kettle hung over an open hearth. The address was originally St. John Street, now American. And the numbering system was overhauled in 1859.

The second landmark was more cautionary than ground-breaking - the hulking shell of Ortlieb's bottling plant, dark now and hauntingly empty in the night.

For evidence of an even harder fall, one only needed to head a few more blocks north to Girard, where Christian Schmidt and Sons opened a brewery on the eve of the Civil War, saw it grow to the tenth-largest in the country only to collapse under the assault of the mega-brands at the end of the 1980s, just as the craft movement was rediscovering artisan brewing. Its sprawling site is a scraped-raw building lot, now awaiting its second act.

Past Paraguayan-style Arbol Cafe at Poplar and Second (where they're awaiting with some anxiety another second act: a 13-story hotel proposed across the street), you come to the Standard Tap, the old tavern now serving as a boisterous shrine to local beer.

On tap this particular evening was Dogfish Head's dark, syrupy brew called Palo Santo Marron (12 percent alcohol), fermented in vats made from Paraguay's aromatic Palo Santo hardwood; which, coincidentally, is the same wood carved into cups for the yerba mate tea at Arbol Cafe.

But it is the food at Standard Tap that is even more memorable this evening - the cubed beet salad; juicy, Wondra-flour-and cracker-meal-dusted fried oysters, and chef Carolynn Angle's earthy, fork-tender, bacon-wrapped roast wild boar with a crunchy change-up of spaghetti squash.

From its closed-for-the-season roof deck you could survey the near precincts of Northern Liberties - The Foodery, its shelves stocked with more than 600 beers, a sliver of Arbol Cafe where a beer and barbecue garden is promised (once again) by spring, and if you craned your neck, a hint of what was St. John Street back when John Wagner unleashed the transformative genie of Bavarian lager yeast.


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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