All About Beer Magazine - Volume 26, Issue 6
January 1, 2006 By &

When we were growing up in New Jersey, our families never thought of vacationing in Philadelphia: on weekends, we went to the Shore. Those were the days before “weekend escapes.” And long before we became beer travelers.

This summer we spent a weekend in Philadelphia, a city that has rediscovered its centuries-old brewing tradition. Your high school history teachers probably didn’t tell you, but that tradition played a definite role in our country’s founding. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence over pots of ale in a local watering hole. The Continental Congress met in Philly because of its abundance of taverns. So did the Framers, who celebrated their drafting of the Constitution with drinks and dinner.

The City is Ours

We began our exploration of beer and history at the Manayunk Brewery & Restaurant (4120 Main St.). It’s located in a neighborhood whose name comes from the Native American word meaning “where we go to drink.” It still is; Main Street is filled with restaurants and bars. The brewery is located in the former Krook’s Mill, a textile factory established in 1822. (Krook’s Mild, an American pale ale, honors the former owners.) The building afforded Manayunk plenty of room in which to grow.

In addition to the bar area, where a scale once used to weigh cotton serves as a conversation piece, there are brick-walled dining rooms, an upstairs game room and a deck overlooking the river. Recently, the owners added a sushi bar—the first one we’ve seen inside a brewpub—and a wood-burning pizza oven. The beer lineup included several lagers: Schuylkill Ale, a raspberry ale named for the unpredictable river, and California Dreamin’, an imperial IPA. Soon after our pints arrived, a fellow enthusiast joined us at the bar. He praised the quality of the local beer and pointed us to some of his favorite places to drink it.

By the time we left Manayunk, the downtown office workers had gone home for the weekend, leaving Center City for us to roam. First stop: the Independence Brew Pub (1150 Filbert St.), where we were welcomed by none other than Ben Franklin. He graces the logo on the brewery’s sign, holding a tankard of ale and wearing a rakish grin. The picture windows look out at the Reading Terminal Market across the street, a Mecca for foodies. A long wooden bar dominates the interior, curving around the stainless steel brewing vessels, and two barber-pole-style pillars guard the bar area.

We ordered an India pale ale and a red ale from the six-beer range, which also included a kölsch and oatmeal stout on both conventional draft and hand pull. Tourists and what remained of the after-work crowd created a steady buzz of conversation while we compared notes and figured out where to go next.

Philadelphia is surprisingly walkable. Downtown is laid out on a grid, and street maps are placed at strategic locations. Even better, we found two days’ worth of beer destinations within a short walk of one another.

Within minutes, we arrived at our next stop, Ludwig’s Garten (1315 Sansom St.). It’s only a few years old, but it has the ambience of a Bavarian beer hall from King Ludwig’s days. Its two rooms are decorated with portraits of long-dead royals, Bavarian flags, and well-dried hop bines, along with a few old dueling swords. The wait staff wore traditional costumes, and the host answered the phone with “Guten Tag.” But to remind us that we were still in America, Steely Dan played in the background and a couple of Eagles fans got into a heated, but friendly, debate over their team’s chances this season.

As for Ludwig’s beer selection, it exceeded our expectations. There were more than 100 different bottles in the cooler, and the draft choices included such hard-to-find beers as Köstritzer Maibock and Gaffel Blonde.

Of Bobbleheads and Trappist Monks

Bobbleheads were the rage during the Fifties. Along with fuzzy dice, the bouncy little toys adorned young men’s cars. They also provided the inspiration for Nodding Head (1516 Sansom St.), a brewpub located above an oyster house. The tap handles are shaped like bobbleheads, and a display case full of them stands at the top of the stairway. Even though the interior was dark and packed wall to wall, we still managed to pick out President Bush, the Phanatic (the Phillies’ green furry mascot), and Snap, Crackle and Pop (of Rice Krispies fame) among them.

Nodding Head reminded us of the hole-in-the-wall pubs we’d visited in London, complete with brown wainscoting, wooden floors, and a game of darts in progress. The beer selection ranged from Grog, a dark mild ale, and 700 Level Ale (a light beer named for the infamous top deck at Veterans Stadium), to 3C Extreme, an aggressively hopped double IPA. Somewhere between those extremes we found BPA, a maltier version of an American pale ale. It was our choice for the weekend’s Best in Show.

Monk’s Café (264 South 16th St.) isn’t the beer world’s best-kept secret; many of the world’s top brewers and writers have found their way there. Nor is it a place for the antisocial. Even on a Saturday afternoon, we faced plenty of competition for seats. Rather than fight our way to the formal back bar, we grabbed seats in front and contorted ourselves to avoid becoming obstacles.

Over a Belgian-style fruit beer called Supplication, we read from our bible—our Beer Bible, that is. It’s a guide to Monk’s ever changing, 200-plus beer selection. Beers are grouped by style and country, and punctuated by commentary as tart as the house Belgian brown. Predictably, Belgians dominate the menu—all six Trappist breweries are represented—but the selection also features offbeat beers from other parts of the world, such as a milk stout and a hefeweizen from a brewery in Japan.

Monk’s boasts that it introduced the Belgian tradition of cuisine à la bière to America. The menu includes such exotic entrees as rabbit braised in Cantillon, along with less formal dishes, such as mussels served with a choice of eight sauces and pommes frites with bourbon mayonnaise.

Last Call for Alcohol

Our weekend had to end somewhere, and we called it a night at a brewpub recommended by our friend from Manayunk: the General Lafayette Inn (646 Germantown Pike, Lafayette Hill), which wasn’t far from our hotel. It has been a place of hospitality since 1732, and Lafayette himself met there with American officers during the Revolutionary War. In the 1990s, a local preservationist brought the inn back to life as a colonial themed pub, complete with rifles mounted over the fireplace and a flag-draped portrait of Lafayette. That preservationist later added a bed and breakfast inn, reviving the tradition of the colonial tavern.

The food served at the General Lafayette Inn is influenced by dishes of that era, and there are weekly three-course beer dinners. Brew master Chris Leonard (whose family now owns the inn) offers both regular and inventive versions of the house ales. We ordered pints of All Fuggled Up, a red ale kicked up with a generous helping of Fuggles Hops, and The Bachelor, a British pale ale with a single variety of both malt and hops. Then we bade farewell to Philly by toasting William Penn—founder of Pennsylvania, champion of tolerance, and last, but not least, brewer of beer.

Maryanne Nasiatka