Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

October 6, 2006

Beer Diary:

Drink Historical

A brief but enlightening beer tour of history-rich Philadelphia.
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
Contact Eddie»
Because beer has played such a massive part in nearly every culture’s history, it’s small wonder that a lot of Beer Dorks are history buffs. And when you’re talking history—especially American history—it doesn’t get too much more historical than Philadelphia. Not too long ago I was able to take a long weekend to explore this great city, a city where our founding fathers laid the groundwork for the most powerful system of government the world has ever seen. And—almost as importantly—where they brewed and drank some damn fine beer.

My first stop was the Independence Brewpub, and like just about every other object in Philly, its sole marketing push is a reference to the Founding Fathers, in this instance a logo sporting a jovial Ben Franklin hoisting a pint. Sadly this is the only revolutionary thing about the place. With the cliched polished oak interior, overpriced bar food and a rote beer list, it’s a little too polished and sanitized so as to not scare off the suburbanite business slobs wandering over from the convention center looking to “absorb a little local color.” In other words: boring as shit. Hell, even a chain like Rock Bottom can manage to squeeze out a seasonal. Their IPA was especially forgettable.

Which is why I headed a few blocks over to Fergies next, hoping to get that bad experience out of my head. And mouth. The atmosphere was standard half-Irish, half-dive, and the beer list was decent. Aside from the mandatory Harp, Bass and Guiness, I saw a few Belgian bottles behind the bar, a couple of varieties of Victory’s excellent stuff, even a Rogue Dead Guy. But, more importantly, this is where I got my first sweet sip of a beer from a local brewery called Yards.

I saw a tap handle for their Philadelphia Pale Ale and immediately ordered up a pint. Very nice. Massive hop aroma and big-time bitter finish. It made me completely forget about the vast boredom of the Independence Brewpub. Good thing I brought my camera.

A gaggle of bachelorette floozies looking for light beer drove me out and over to Moriarty’s, scarcely two blocks away. A long, narrow room, with check-clothed covered tables on the left and a bar that seemed to stretch into infinity on the right. The place sported a smaller but still passable beer list. And it was here I got my first taste from Yuengling, America’s oldest brewery. I tried their lager. For a “premium beer” it wasn’t half bad. Definitely not high on my list, but I’d drink it in a pinch. Later I was able to try the beer that put them on the map 170-odd years ago, the Yuengling Porter. Much better …but not as good as it gets, as you’ll see if you read on.

The next day I got up at the crack of noon, checked out some of Philly’s non-beer-centric historical sites, and worked up a mighty thirst. By four o’clock I was ready for a cold one. Being in the Historical District (probably should be called the More Historical District), I headed over to City Tavern.

This bar/restaurant is a replica of a colonial-era public house, complete with colonial-garbed bar and waitstaff. The tavern area was a seriously authentic-looking cramped room with a handful of notched wooden booths and slat tables. The whole ambience smacked of being a little too touristy to me, but twas the beer that drew me in. City Tavern boasts itself as the exclusive purveyor of beers brewed from the original recipes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin. All three are contract-brewed by the aforementioned Yards, and all three were outstanding. Jefferson’s ale was a medium-bodied, very lightly hopped amber number, and Poor Richard’s was almost like a dark herbal ale, with notes of spices and spruce tips. But Washington’s porter was the real standout: full-bodied, a touch of hops, and a toasty, mocha-like finish. Yum. Probably the best beer I had all weekend. Old George was said to really like his porter, and it showed in this fantastic beer.

By then I was ready for some football, so I hoofed it over to Buffalo Billards. Standard sports bar stuff: tons of big-screen TVs, rent-by-the-hour pool tables, dart boards. The beer list was passable, and I tried a watery Oktoberfest from Flying Fish, then an unspectacular golden ale from Sly Fox before switching to a tried-and-true Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest.

Once I had my football fix I made my way to the Plough and Stars, yet another “authentic” Irish pub. This one oozed hipness as well: soaring ceilings decorated with chic lighting, an Irish folk band plinking away on little stools in the corner, a metrosexual maitre’d posing at the host station, and black-clad blonde waitresses bouncing off the walls like over-endowed ping pong balls. If you took that as a recommendation, you’re probably at the wrong web site. The beer was standard-issue Irish pub blah, broken up by a Yards and a Sam Adams … which they were out of. The service just plain sucked. No apologies for being out of nearly half their taps, and when I did finally find a beer I wanted it took forever for them to bring it out. Again, not a simple “Thanks for waiting” or anything. Pointless.

Which was a real shame, because there are still tons of great bars in Philly that I didn’t hit—Eulogy, Monk’s Cafe, Nodding Head, just to name three. Hopefully I can give them all a visit on another trip, because I fully intend to go back someday. A wise man once said those who don’t learn their history are doomed to repeat it, but General Washington’s porter is definitely something worth repeating. And repeating. And repeating. And repeating …

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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