Serious Eats: Drinks
Where to Drink Beer in Philadelphia: The Best Beer Bars
Philadelphia possesses one of the richest and most dynamic beer-drinking cultures in America. Tenured publicans flex on far-reaching friends to secure bottles and kegs that don't land anywhere else, while nationally recognized breweries in and around the city spread the hoppy love the opposite direction. Even the most rudimentary area bar will be able to provide you with a properly poured pint, but it takes some recon to organize a run-thru of Philly's best.
Here are 10 must-visits in the Philly beer bar scene, running the beer-geek gamut from Belgium, Germany and Italy back to the best America's got to offer.
Any Philly glass-emptying marathon, regardless of length, intensity or itinerary, should include a stool-warming session at Monk's. It was opened in 1997 by partners Tom Peters and Fergus Carey, but the charmingly creaky Center City institution "looks like it's been here forever," as Peters tells it. Its idiosyncratic Euro-style layout—two separate bars, connected by a hallway scattered with seats—seems the ideal spiritual home for what many consider the best Belgian beer selection in the country.
Peters' pioneering efforts as an Belgian beer booster in the US were rewarded with a 2004 induction into the country's Knighthood of Brewers' Mashstaff. In other words, he's got the hookup, translating to a staggering 300-plus bottle selection (broken down in the pages of the infamous "Beer Bible") and 20 constantly rotating drafts. If you have no idea where to begin, bend the ear of your bartender—all Monk's staffers go through rigorous tasting and sensory analysis training, so they know what the hell they're talking about.
Translating to "from the tap," Alla Spina is the most casual member of chef Marc Vetri's cabal of Philly Italian concepts. It takes its namesake duties quite seriously, too—just have a look at the gorgeous copper-plated draft system at the triple-sided bar, lorded over by "Alex," the eerily demonstrative sock-wearing pig mascot that lives above the liquid. Gregarious GM and beverage director Steve Wildy (check out his "Weekly Wildy" series on YouTube) fills his draft lines with choices both accessible (house exclusive Hundred Horse, a chestnut ale from PA's Victory) and esoteric (Madamin's Loverbeer, a pucker-inducing pour fermented with wine yeast in oak barrels).
The accompanying bottle list is broken down into unexpected and exacting styles, from fruit ales to Belgian tripels. All this plays nice with chef Mike Deganis' pork-obsessed menu, where agrodolce pig tails join swordfish BLTs and beer cheese-coated pretzel bites.
Perfect neighborhood bars tend to possess a hard-to-codify but easy-to-ID spirit, a bizarre, possibly supernatural air that both relaxes and energizes any thirsty pint-drainer who darkens the doorway. Fountain Porter's only been open since October of last year, but it's got this whatever-you-call-it for days. Industry veterans Evan Clancy and Scott Pawlicky teamed up to opened this small draft-only operation (no bottles/cans) in South Philly, with value as big a concern as variety. "We wanted to keep it honest and keep it grounded," says Clancy. "We didn't want to go the beer snob route."
Though roughly a quarter of the 20 taps are earmarked for locals (Kenzinger, from Philly Brewing Co., is always $3), the rest of the lines reflect a solid curatorial eye—label mainstays include Jolly Pumpkin, Green Flash, Bear Republic and Firestone Walker, with rotating rarities from the states (Hill Farmstead) and Europe (Dugges, Freigeist). An all-vinyl soundtrack, fed by Clancy's personal collection and regulars who work in record shops, is a unique draw, as is the cheap, intentionally simple food (backyard-style burgers for $5).
No one was surprised when Adam Ritter, owner of Graduate Hospital's easy-to-love Sidecar, nailed it a second time with Kraftwork in Fishtown. As tempting as it is to assume that it's an establishment obsessed with emotion-free computer music performed by Teutonic robots, the name's more of an homage to the old-school, hands-on practice of building something from scratch. Note the recurring construction theme of the decor, culminating with the enormous hop bud-etched saw dangling above the bar. It's under this conversation piece that the best work gets done—spunky, knowledgeable bartenders navigate the 24 taps (plus one cask) as drinkers take in the beer menu, displayed on info-packed print-outs designed to resemble a contractor's itemized order form. Recent draft choices included Mikkeler's Drinkin' in the Sun, a low-ABV summer session; and Oxbow's Farmhouse Pale, a smartly balanced saison out of Maine.
Khyber Pass Pub
Though we recently noted the Khyber as an excellent place to sip a Sazerac, Old City's rock club turned NOLA culture hub is known primarily as a beer bar. They pour 22 on draft at any given time, broken down by name on wall slats and in sardonic detail on the forearm-length bill of fermented fare. They're quick with sample pours here, so don't be shy to taste through a few before committing to a pint or tulip. If you're a sour fanatic, seek the counsel of bartender Jonny Medlinsky, who knows his way around funky brewing bacteria so well that he's leading a class on it during Philly Beer Week.
It's a bit difficult to know for sure, but Brauhaus Schmitz co-owner (and dual American/German citizen) Doug Hager thinks he's got the broadest German draft beer selection in the United States. Typically, 28 of the always-mirthful bar/restaurant's 30 taps, spread between the main hall and the adjoining Brauer Bund room, are German imports, many of them rare or exclusive. The distinction might be intermittently lost on a percentage of Brauhaus' more party-hardy soccer crowds—they draw droves for Bundesliga, English Premier League, and Philadelphia Union matches—but those in the know get there early enough to stake out a stool. Lately, Hager is excited about his impending kegs from Andechs, the Benedictine monastery whose beers enjoy a fervent cult following, but he's constantly motivated by landing the new, unusual and challenging-to-wrangle. "It's a tedious and time-consuming job," he says, "but hell if there aren't worse jobs in the world."
American Sardine Bar
The first (and, at the moment, only) craft beer bar in Philly's Point Breeze 'hood, this welcoming two-story pourhouse works off 16 exclusively American tap handles, with credence given to the kitchen's sandwich-heavy, eat-with-your-mitts approach. "In order to match the food, I seek out sessionable, pintable beers," says bar manager Kathryn Wiggins, who also minds the taps at sister bar South Philly Tap Room. Picks from Bell's, Left Hand, and Russian River, mixed with local mainstays like Dock Street Dude de Garde and Manayunk Brewing's ASB-exclusive Sardine Ale, dominate the current lineup. For more choices (including imports), look to the bar's cold case, stuffed with upward of 30 pop-toppable craft cans. ASB has also got one of the best jukeboxes in town for those of you tired of The Shins Pandora.
To find West Philly's quirkiest, coolest beer destination, locate the side door of Ethiopian restaurant Abyssinia, open it and scale the stairs till you can't scale no more. At this point, you'll be inside Fiume, Kevin James Holland's gem of a bar that, at first blush, resembles Kevin James Holland's gem of a living room. A lifelong beer geek, Holland has always admired rarefied liquid, but he didn't begin marrying personal passion with Fiume's selection until about six years ago. "That's about the time we started offering truly special beers—Holy Grail kind of stuff," says the jovial barkeep and musician, whose 120+ lineup is exclusively bottled.
While more heavily trafficked bars will run out of stuff in a single shift, Fiume's out-of-the-way locale translates to a stockade of treasures—Founders 2011 Breakfast Stout, J.W. Lee's Harvest Ale 2000—that Holland can hand out, or continue to horde, at his whim. There's no secret password or handshake to gain access—simply glance up and down the beautiful wall placards, hand-drawn by longtime bartender Brian Nothing, to figure out what to drink.
Years back, restaurateurs Michael and Jeniphur Pasquarello installed a cute little brunch spot called Cafe Lift on a dull industrial block of North 13th Street. Since then, they've introduced two additional concepts to the strip—the brand-new Bufad, a wood-fired pizzeria; and Prohibition Taproom, a friendly neighborhood tappie with a well-rounded approach to craft drafts. The bar's most distinct physical feature is its actual bar, which features two odd but accommodating peninsulas jutting out of it. (Staffers take advantage by sliding shots down the polished wood—be ready to receive or cry over spilled whiskey.) The beer selection is also of note, and enthusiastic GM Jon Lyons is the guy to talk to. Oft-overlooked styles like English strong ale (21st Amendment's Imperial Jack) and Russian imperial stout (Monster Mash, from Jersey's Boaks) have slots on the latest draft list, which is small but formidable. One mainstay: Hoppy Lil' Hudson, an eminently drinkable American IPA Philly's own Yards brews especially for ProTap.
Philly's a national leader in craft beer, but we lag a bit behind other cities in the brewpub tally. Luckily, the ones we do have are badass. One of the longest-running, Center City's Nodding Head, displays plenty of skill and seasonal acuity in its on-premises approach. Head brewer Gordon Grubb keeps busy making the mainstays, like the English-style brown ale Grog and the malty, cask-conditioned 60 Shilling, but he also makes some sick-good limited runs—see his refreshing traditional Berliner Weisse (woodruff syrup available upon request), or Lava, an unfiltered lavender and vanilla blonde ale. The second-story brewpub's name is a nod (heh) to owner Curt Decker's bobblehead doll collection, which is displayed prominently in a glass case at the top of the stairs.