A toast to a city of brews

Phila. taps its beer-making legacy.

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Bob Erdman pours Unibroue at the Philly Craft Beer Festival. Yesterday's festival, an 80-brewery showcase atthe Navy Yard that drew 5,000, was a warm-up for Philly Beer Week, which will run Friday through March 16.

Beer is back in Philadelphia, the city that was the Cradle of American Libation.

Brewing roots here are so deep that the Revolution was fermented in local taverns on tankards of the nation's first beers. We brewed the first porter here, and launched the American lager industry.

But when Schmidt's closed its kettles in 1987, it was the first time in three centuries that beer wasn't made in the city once home to a remarkable 100 breweries.

From that low, Philadelphia has been quietly building a head of steam as a modern-day beer mecca. And this month's sprawling Philly Beer Week - with more than 150 events from Passyunk to Paoli celebrating the comeback - is only the tip of the tap.

We boast the country's premier Belgian and import scene. Monk's Cafe pours more draft Chimay ale than anywhere else in America.

A growing stable of stellar local and regional breweries, like Victory, Sly Fox, Stoudt's, Yards and Dogfish Head, have earned national followings. Three new microbreweries opened last year; another is on the way.

More than a dozen gastropubs have redefined our neighborhoods, their craft beers and creative kitchens adding a new edginess to the dining scene. Standard Tap in Northern Liberties launched the trend, followed by places like the Good Dog, N. 3rd, the South Philadelphia Tap Room, and the Royal Tavern.

Yet many Philadelphians have no idea the city is so well-regarded on the national beer radar.

"Philly really is a great beer town," says Vinnie Cilurzo of the widely respected Russian River Brewing Co. in Sonoma County, Calif. His much sought-after barrel-aged Belgian-style brews, such as Pliny the Elder, are available only in California and Philadelphia.

"Having our beers available at Monk's was a really big deal," he said, putting them in one of the foremost Belgian bars in America.

Indeed, Monk's and its co-owner Tom Peters - believed to be the first in the country to put Belgian beer on tap - have been key to the Belgian boom in Philadelphia, a distinction that has brought the city national regard.

"Philly leads with its Belgian fist," said Toronto beer writer Stephen Beaumont. "If Portland is Munich on the Willamette, then Philly is Brussels on the Schuylkill."

The region counts eight Belgian pubs featuring vast arrays of Trappist-style ale and mussels.

But the taste for abbey brews has spilled into all kinds of Philadelphia bars: You can get a draft of Cantillon sour ale with your fish tacos at the Mexican-themed Jose Pistolas on 15th Street; even the diviest of Philly dive bars, McGlinchey's, has local craft beers and Hoegaarden on tap.

But Belgian brews aren't our only strength. Sheer diversity is - with other European beers, brews from every corner of America, and our own local favorites.

"We drink more different styles of beer here than anywhere else in America," said Don Russell, the Philadelphia Daily News columnist whose book, Joe Sixpack's Philly Beer Guide (Camino Books, 2008), will come out Friday with the launch of Beer Week.

The drinking began yesterday with 5,000 people hoisting glasses at the Philly Craft Beer Festival in the Navy Yard - an 80-brewery showcase that sold out one week in advance. And that was just a warm-up for the actual Beer Week, which runs from Friday through March 16. There will be everything from gourmet meatball slider and beer tastings to South Philly pub crawls and meet-the-brewer dinners.

As for those local flavors, the region has an impressive group of craft breweries, including Victory, Yards, Sly Fox, Stoudt's, Troegs and Dogfish Head. They produce a vast range of creative styles, including some of the best hoppy pale ales, which are the rage - almost to exclusion - out West. Think Victory Hop Devil and Dogfish Head's 60 Minute IPA.

But they also make a number of high-flavor lagers and German-inspired brews that are an exception in today's ale-centric American brewing world, including three world-class pilsners (Victory Prima Pils, Stoudt's Pils, Sly Fox Pikeland Pils) that are a vibrant, albeit updated, link to the region's early brewing traditions.

A pint of English-style Yards ESA was always the first thing British beer-writing master (and Philly beer-scene booster) Michael Jackson, who died last year, would ask for on his many visits to the city.

"He absolutely saw Philadelphia as his home away from home," said his close friend Carolyn Smagalski, who writes the "Beer Fox" column for BellaOnline. Jackson's well-known affinity for the city, and his popular annual beer dinners at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, went a long way toward legitimizing Philadelphia's growing beer scene early on.

The region's breweries, meanwhile, didn't have a major showcase until the eve of 2000, when former brewmaster William Reed and Paul Kimport opened the Standard Tap.

The Tap struck a major chord with its funky blend of historic Philly ambiance, hipster jukebox, and a serious kitchen to pair with its blackboard menu of a dozen constantly changing local draft beers. It became the emblem of Northern Liberties' emergence as Philly's urban frontier. Their second pub, Johnny Brenda's, transformed an old boxers' bar into the same kind of community landmark for Fishtown just to the north.

"People have told me that they moved here because of the bars," said Kimport.

An entire generation of gastropubs has followed in their wake, shaping Philly's dining scene with a casual sophistication that has become a kindred spirit of accessible urban dining to our BYOB phenomenon.

Great beer has also finally found its way into the area's high-end dining rooms, from Vetri to Rae, XIX, Fork, Alison's at Blue Bell, and Ansill. And Tria, near Rittenhouse Square, has given the beer bar an upscale polish, with a splash of wine bar and a sophisticated tasting of artisan cheese.

But it is in the growing ranks of free-spirited gastropubs that craft beer seems to have found its most fluid and spontaneous expression of Philly place.

At the northern tip of our beer consciousness is the Grey Lodge Pub, a 12-year-old pioneer smack in the blue-collar heart of the Northeast, where 250 patrons showed up at 7 a.m. on Groundhog Day to drink rarely seen Founders Breakfast Stout and watch Punxsutawney Phil predict the arrival of spring. The keg went dry in 70 minutes.

But there's always more great beer flowing right behind in Philadelphia's hopping beer landscape, where the pipeline to new frontiers gets extended as fast as, if not faster than, the neighborhoods can keep pace.

The latest outpost is where northern Fishtown meets Port Richmond and Kensington - "Port Fishington" - once the epicenter of Philly's old brewery belt. Just Friday, a sign was hung for the still-to-open Memphis Taproom.

Until last year, it was the aging corner tappie and former Prohibition speakeasy known as Walt's, which played Columbo reruns on the TV bar by day and ran wet-T-shirt contests splashed in Budweiser by night.

By the time the new taproom opens in April at Memphis and Cumberland Streets, fresh artisan brews will be flowing through its 10 draft spigots. And the kitchen, run by a former cook from Matyson and Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, will put out homemade pierogies and vegan fare, "but also lots of other stuff with fat," said co-owner Brendan Hartranft, a longtime manager at Nodding Head in Center City. Conscious of the neighborhood clientele, he said it would all be priced to compete with an $11.50 meal at the nearby Applebee's.

"This is a chance to invest in Philly and Philly beer," he said. "We're opening the kind of place that we really want to run . . . and I find passion to be incredibly contagious."

Of course, Philly Beer Week will likely be a distant hangover by the time the Memphis opens. But this is a brew culture that is again in a state of fermentation and flux. The festivities are only the beginning of a coming-out party for Philly's new claim to fame.

"Beer Week says to America that we have a great beer scene here," said Russell. "But personally, I hope it awakens Philadelphians to the fact that we have something special right under our noses."

 


More Beer

Coming Thursday

A special Food section devoted to beer, includ- ing a look at the two craft beer makers that started Philadelphia's brewing renaissance, Dock Street and Yards.

For a complete listing of Philly Beer Week events, go to www.phillybeerweek.org.


Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.