Drinking Tradition Fuels Brewing Growth in Philadelphia
When Andy and Sean Arsenault decided to launch Brewery ARS, the 33-year-old twins were certain about two things. First, they would focus on producing distinctive, cold-conditioned saisons. Second, they would build their brew house in Philadelphia. Not the suburbs, not the “Philadelphia area,” but somewhere in the heart of the urban streetscape.
“We always wanted to be in the city,” Sean says, “because it’s got such a great beer-drinking culture.”
It took the Arsenaults nearly a year to find their location on West Passyunk Avenue, but Brewery ARS is now well on its way. It’s one of several new or in-planning breweries in the municipality, part of a metropolitan brewing boom that’s bringing makers back to town and starting a new chapter in the city’s long and rich beer tradition. Other recent additions to the in-Philly landscape include the Old City brewpub 2nd Story Brewing Co.; the South Philly reincarnation of Nodding Head Brewery (it closed in 2014 after nearly 15 years in Center City); Saint Benjamin Brewing Co., a production brewery that’s adding a tasting room; Bar Hygge/Brewery Techne, the new sister brewpub to long-standing Earth Bread + Brewery; and Do Good Brewing Co., a nano-operation that makes only enough beer for a handful of bars in its immediate vicinity.
“We think the increase in breweries in Philadelphia is fantastic and long overdue,” says Christina Burris, who became an early part of the mini renaissance in 2014 when she and partner Tim Patton opened Saint Benjamin in a historic carriage house in the Kensington section of town. “Before Prohibition, this city had hundreds of breweries and a neighborhood named after the industry.”
That neighborhood, Brewerytown, got its first working fermenters in decades when Crime & Punishment Brewing Co. opened its doors there in 2015. Run by a collective of former homebrewers, it has unusual-style beers—like grodziskie, a smoked Polish wheat ale—that have been readily embraced by drinkers who already enjoy unprecedented variety.
While Philly isn’t home to nearly as many breweries as other U.S. cities like Denver, Portland or San Francisco, it does offer a huge amount of beer-drinking choice. Even the dingiest corner dives tend to offer at least a dozen independent labels, and taverns with 14-tap systems are found on what seems like every block. Most high-end restaurants pay just as much attention to their beer menus as their wine program, if not more.
“People in Philly really care about their beer,” says Steve Wildy, beverage director for the Vetri Family of restaurants, which includes Alla Spina. “I spend just as much time tasting, sourcing and selecting beer as I do with wine.”
A lot of the beer on the lists Wildy builds comes from the region, with good reason.
Twenty years ago, Philadelphia was treated to a swarm of early alternatives to old-school standards, thanks to a cluster of brewery launches in the surrounding suburbs. Victory Brewing Co., Sly Fox Brewing Co., Weyerbacher Brewing Co., Flying Fish Brewing Co. and even Dogfish Head Craft Brewery all used Philadelphia as a prime test market, as did Yards Brewing Co., which was founded in the city. By the late ’90s, Philly was swimming in IPAs, bitters, ambers and barley wines, plus pilsners that were fuller and richer than nationally distributed counterparts.
When proto-gastropub Standard Tap opened in 1999 with a policy of selling only local draft beer, it wasn’t hard for co-founder William Reed to keep the lines stocked with good options. Even bars on the city’s outskirts got into the game, like Northeast Philly’s Grey Lodge Pub, which Mike “Scoats” Scotese successfully transformed from a shot-and-beer watering hole into a checkmark on beer geek’s must-visit lists. Thanks to proprietor Terry Berch McNally, a rare female member of the early cohort, London Grill became one of the first white-tablecloth restaurants to offer beer pairings.
In 2012, a second big suburban brewery surge greatly bolstered the local selection. Tired Hands Brewing Co. brought its “strange and beautiful” beers to nearby Ardmore, where its special one-off releases caused lines outside its brew cafe the likes of which the small town had never seen. On the other side of the city, Neshaminy Creek Brewing Co. took on the everyman beer lineup and did it well, garnering a Great American Beer Festival gold medal for Churchville Lager within a year. Free Will Brewing Co. gave the area its first dependable local sours, and Forest & Main Brewing Co. landed a hit with true English-style ales and wild yeast saisons.
But Philly’s reputation as “America’s Best Beer-Drinking City”—a tagline recently trademarked by Philly Beer Week—was earned as much by the beers it drew from outside the region as those made within. In 2008, when the 10-day festival was founded, it was the first of its kind in the nation. Dozens of brewers and thousands of drinkers from outside the region descended on the city to participate in the many tastings, panels, dinners, tappings and carnivals. Eight years later, they still do. The economic impact of Beer Week on Philadelphia has been estimated to be upward of $20 million, and the city now sees nearly 150,000 in attendance over the course of the fest. Local beers are featured, but out-of-towners also make a big splash. The house band from Founders Brewing Co. often does a live show, and Oregon’s Deschutes Brewery debuted the “world’s largest” pop-up pub during the 2015 fest. This year’s festivities kick off June 3.
“We really are in a sweet spot,” said Fergus Carey, co-owner of the world-renowned Monk’s Cafe, along with three other prominent Philly taverns. “We get all the best Belgians and other beers from Europe, but also everything cool coming out of California.”
So much Belgian beer is served in Philadelphia that drinks author Stephen Beaumont coined the term “Brussels on the Schuylkill” to convey the depth and breadth of the scene. Philly is thought to consume more Belgian beer than anywhere outside Belgium, including, each year, a cross-oceanic collaboration brewed especially for Philly Beer Week. The connection between the two cities is in large part thanks to Tom Peters, Carey’s partner at Monk’s and the man who had the honor of pouring the first Belgian beer on tap in the entire country.
The year was 1995, and Peters was manager at a bar called Copa, Too. (Now closed, the space has been reincarnated as Jose Pistola’s.) He’d had trouble persuading Brewery Bosteels to send him a pallet of Pauwel Kwak because the brewers weren’t sure how they would get their barrels back.
“I’ll buy the cooperage!” Peters told them. The brewery sent 16 kegs, which promptly sold out. When Peters called back two weeks later to order another pallet, he was told to wait until the first one was finished. “It’s already gone,” he told the surprised Europeans.
Philadelphians’ thirst for Belgians continues to outpace the norm.
“There are probably more connoisseurs of lambic in Philly than anywhere else I go,” says Jean Van Roy, fourth-generation brewer at famed Brasserie Cantillon. When he has a limited-edition gueuze or a single barrel of a kriek, it’s just as likely to show up at Monk’s Cafe as it is in Brussels bars. Monk’s always scores a keg of the yearly one-off Cantillon brews for Zwanze Day (fewer than 25 make it across the ocean), and Peters recently persuaded Van Roy to brew a special cuvée for him with pungent Amarillo hops, a novelty for the 116-year-old brewery.
Many special releases from the West Coast also make it to Philadelphia. For many years, it was the only place east of the Rockies to pour Pliny the Younger, Russian River Brewing Co.’s cult-favorite winter seasonal triple IPA.
Russian River co-founder Vinnie Cilurzo, who visits at least once a year, has many times described Philladelphia as “a really great beer city.” He’s been sending his beer to Southeastern Pennsylvania almost since his brewery was founded, when he contributed a keg to a 1998 beer dinner at Monk’s organized by Peters and Lost Abbey Brewing Co.’s Tomme Arthur. Beers from Stone Brewing were also served at that event, and all three California breweries have continued to view Philadelphia as a fertile market, reliably supplying their best creations to the city 3,000 miles away.
There have been so many options available in Philly for so long—from both abroad and in town—that drinkers here almost feel spoiled. When much-lauded Fat Tire finally entered the market in 2015, Art Etchells, founder of popular food and drink blog Foobooz, asked, “Am I an awful beer dork if I can’t get excited that New Belgium is finally in town?”
Instead, what’s most exciting is that the city is finally growing its own crop of producers to add to the mix. With more breweries in the United States than ever before, many newcomers see focusing on their local community as the smart move. As the fifth-largest city in the country, Philly offers a dense potential customer base .
“Our goal is not to be shipping beer to California,” says Sean Arsenault. “We’re not trying to be the next Victory. Brewery ARS is for Philadelphia.”