Manayunk Brewpub serves the masses

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BETWEEN THE Saab convertibles attempting to make illegal U-turns into 25-cent parking spots and the overpriced gift shops selling third-world trinkets, Manayunk has always rubbed me the wrong way.

Not the real Manayunk – the old neighborhood of rowhouses cramped beneath the SEPTA trestle, of Pretzel Park and towering St. John’s church, of the Wall and the canal.

But the fake Manayunk, along Main Street, with its trendy coffee shops and overbooked restaurants and pretentious boutiques. I mean, really, a storefront Vespa scooter outlet?

Main Street Manayunk is Philadelphia Lite. It’s a shallow, tasteless place that reminds you of the city but exists primarily to painlessly empty the pockets of boring suburbanites who are otherwise too timid to drink the real thing.

So, you wonder: What kind of beer could they possibly be pouring at Manayunk Brewery & Restaurant?

That’s the question that has mystified many of the city’s beer freaks since the place opened seven years ago. It’s a great-looking bar in an 18th-century yarn mill, a perfect location on the banks of the Schuylkill. Yet, even suds fans with a more charitable view of Manayunk than mine were turned off by the Friday night scene. Big crowds mean lowest-common-denominator beer – y’know, Coronas for everyone!

I stopped in for the lowdown in preparation for tomorrow’s Manayunk Beer Festival, an annual spring event that will include brews from 26 regional breweries.

It turns out, the brew is much like Manayunk itself.

There’s the stuff I can do without – notably, Schuylkill Punch, a catchy name for an unfortunate brew. It’s a fizzy raspberry wheat beer intended, I think, for 18-year-old girls with Jersey IDs.

And there’s real beer, lately including a decent Belgian-style ale and a smoked lager called Shamokin Rauch.

“People get the misperception that we’re not selling good beer here,” said brewmaster Larry Horwitz, a Midwesterner who took over the brewery last July.

“I just did a barleywine with 50 IBUs,” he said, referring to a measure of international bittering units that would please any hop head. “And they’re drinking it like crazy.”

Out of the brewery’s 2,000-barrel-plus capacity, he said, “We brew 1,000 barrels a year of big, hoppy beers.”

Sure, he shrugged, about one-third of the brewery’s production is a light blond Helles-style lager – a beer that, in polite circles, is referred to as “drinkable.”

But there’s no need to apologize. As Horwitz sees it, “It’s an all-malt beer with Hallertau hops and no adjuncts. It’s not a dumb beer. Anyway, blondes pay the bills.”

Especially in a place with seven bars (and a mammoth chicken rotisserie) serving 30,000 square feet of floor space. Manayunk Brewing might be the biggest bar in the city this side of Dave & Buster’s. On weekends, it’s wall-to-wall, especially on the outside deck overlooking the Skook.

Even if you can find a spot at its handsome, wooden main bar, this is not a place to quietly contemplate one of the traditional mainstays of America’s best brewpubs: the pint of handcrafted cask-conditioned ale. A fickle beer that undergoes a secondary fermentation or conditioning inside the keg, it is often viewed as the ultimate test of a brewer’s talents. But it goes untried at Manayunk, and not just because some 20-something in designer jeans would complain about “stuff floating in my beer.” With so many miles of clogable tap lines, all of the brewery’s beer must be filtered – a process that removes some of the brew’s natural body, including the unspent yeast needed for fermentation.

The large crowds are also the reason the brewery serves a handful of bottles (Corona, Amstel Light) and Guinness on tap. A brewpub that sells factory-made beer – that’s like serving Maxwell House at Starbucks.

Horwitz explained, “Our demographics are so big, we don’t have any choice.” He doesn’t complain, but he’s quick to add, “My porter outsells Guinness every day.”

No surprise. It’s rich and tastes great.

More importantly for beer lovers looking to support the local brewing scene, it wasn’t shipped in from Ireland or Canada.

Fresh beer in Manayunk . . . The truth is, there is much to like here, even on Main Street. Get past the image of snooty shop owners and the annoying suburbanites, and you discover there’s a real town here.

And real beer.

Skip the mainstream stuff, and on any night, you’ll find at least three kegs that will make you glad you stopped in for a pint. Manayunk, after all, is named after the Lenni Lenape word for “place where we come to drink.”

   Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Piraat Ale.

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