In Bethlehem, there’s plenty of room at the bar

“Drink, pilgrim, here. And if thy heart be innocent, here too shalt thou refresh thy spirit.” – Stone marker, Bethlehem, Pa.

“Dallas sucks” – Cotton T-shirt worn by fans at Eagles training camp, Bethlehem, Pa.

Drinking beer and watching football may be two of the best ways to waste an autumn afternoon, but as any seasoned pro can tell you, it takes weeks of devoted, single-minded preparation to hit your stride.

Most of us are amateurs – we lose our edge over the summer, working up an easy sweat and guzzling those fizzy lawn-mower beers. Then, on the first Sunday of the new season, we pull up lame before halftime of the 4 o’clock game, unable even to finish off a measly sixpack.

Friends, now is the time to get into shape. And the best place to do it is 50 miles north of the city, in the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton vicinity.

That’s where you’ll find the Eagles limbering up this weekend, as they open training camp at Lehigh University in Bethlehem. Though the trip is a pretty good haul from Philly, it’s worth the ride if only for the chance to bend your elbow at a handful of very fine pubs.

Consider this your pre-season playbook, a guide to beer at the Eagles training camp.

Main Street, Bethlehem, where that stone marker above is planted, is a quaint – almost too quaint – row of rehabbed commercial buildings across the Lehigh River from the Eagles’ camp. Park for 50 cents an hour at the municipal lot and do a quick stroll before heading into Bethlehem Brew Works (Main & Broad streets, 610-882-1300).

A fairly standard modern brewpub, the brewery has a faux industrial look with a long bar, roomy booths and a restaurant. Pints are $3.50 and fresh.

Across town, you’ll find J.P. McGillicuddy’s (25 E. Elizabeth Ave., 610-868-0200).

Normally, Joe Sixpack avoids Irish pubs with initials like the plague. But this joint boasts the largest number of tap handles within 100 miles of Philly – 72 faucets.

A disproportionate number, unfortunately, are yawners, either mainstream industrial lagers or micros that are widely available (and probably fresher) in Philly. But with six dozen taps, it’s impossible not to find something drinkable, and for me that was a robust glass of Reading’s Neversink Oatmeal Stout. Give the place a chance, and you’ll undoubtedly find something that suits your taste.

For my buck, though, the Old Brewery Tavern (Monocacy & Spruce streets) is classic Bethlehem.

In an aging steel mill town, it’s a real bar with real bartenders, not out-of-work pretty-boy art-school grads. A buck will get you a glass of Yuengling, served up by a hairy-armed mate. If you’re hungry, the cheese curls are on the house. Hang out for dinner, and grab a New York strip steak and mashed potatoes for under $10.

From Bethlehem, it’s just a 15-minute windsprint east on permanently-under-construction Route 22, into downtown Easton. Gritty in an appealing way, Easton is home to the Crayola factory, Larry Holmes and three very good taprooms.

A stop at the Weyerbacher Brew Pub (20 S. 6th St., 610-559-0340) is worth the trip alone. Unlike most of the trendy brewpubs that have cropped up in recent years, this one is a simple adjunct to the larger Weyerbacher brewery and bottling plant. No frills, just great beer and a very good bar menu.

The spigots feature Weyerbacher’s excellent selection of ales, including its newly released Hop Infusion Ale. If you’ve sipped this nuclear-powered ale by the bottle, you know you’re in for a hop blast when it’s pulled fresh from the brewery’s own kegs. Loaded with seven varieties of hops, the brew is not for the timid. It assaults your senses with the subtlety of a William Thomas sack.

If you can pull yourself from your barstool, find your way to Porter’s Pub (700 Northampton St., 610-250-6561). The beer list is a healthy mix of 60 labels (smoky Schlenkerla Rauchbier caught my eye) and a handful of drafts, including an ESB that’s brewed specially for Porter’s by Weyerbacher. I was particularly impressed by the bar’s library, which included an edition of the thoroughly bawdy “The New Limerick” and a copy of the thoroughly banal “Pennsylvania State Liquor Code.”

In the center of town, the highlight of Pearly Baker’s Ale House (11 Centre Square, 610-253-9949)is a long granite bar and a huge backroom chandelier. I plowed through a couple of the bar’s 30 taps, keeping up my strength with an ample bowl of onion soup, deliciously made with Brooklyn Brown Ale.

That’s a lot of brew, so bring along a D.D. to help you crawl home. And if you’re looking for souvenirs, stop in for cases at Tanczos (rhymes with Kansas, at 2330 Jacksonville Road, Bethlehem, 610-866-8039) or the massive Shangy’s (1,500+ different labels, 601 E. State Ave., Emmaus).

Joe Sixpack (written this week with a bottle of Old Lehigh Virgin Crystal Wheat Beer) appears every other Friday.


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