I’LL TAKE Philadelphia’s cozy neighborhood taverns over those boring suburban P.J. McStripmall Eateries any day. But when it comes to brewpubs, I’ve gotta admit, the ‘burbs have the city beat, hands down.
There are all of three brewpubs inside the nation’s sixth biggest city, four if you count the faded Red Bell joint at the Wachovia Center. Which I don’t.
Cross City Avenue and head mostly west, and you’re welcomed not by the scent of cow pastures, but by the sweet aroma of freshly cooked malt and simmering hops.
In the nearby suburbs, there are no fewer than 16 brewpubs.
And more are coming.
Iron Hill, which already operates five brewpubs in the vicinity, is building yet another, in Phoenixville.
That means by this summer this tiny borough of 15,000 – a place that everyone thought had rusted away and floated down the Schuylkill 25 years ago – will have as many brewpubs as all of Philadelphia.
A few miles away in Malvern, brewer Scott Morrison is overseeing the installation of a second McKenzie’s Brew House (the other is in Glen Mills). The Lancaster Avenue pub looks like it’ll be the suburbs’ largest, with huge swaths of seating, outdoor decks and a basement game room.
How can Malvern, a Manayunk-wannabe whose main industry appears to be macrame shops, support a mammoth pub like this?
“Cars,” said Morrison. “The suburban lifestyle thinks cars first. “
He pointed up the road to the nearby Great Valley corporate park, which presumably will feed the pub hundreds of hungry office workers headed out for lunch. In the evening, it’ll grab parents and young singles looking for an affordable dinner.
Indeed, suburban brewpubs are generally marketed as restaurants first, watering holes second.
The irony is that while the dishes at some of these places would get laughed out of Center City, the beer is as good as it gets.
In the past five years alone, Philadelphia’s suburban brewers have collected 21 medals at the Great American Beer Festival. Some of these guys are positively world-class.
Last October, Patrick Jones of Triumph Brewing in New Hope took home three medals himself, including a gold for his Honey Wheat. Over the years, Iron Hill’s Chris LaPierre, Larry Horwitz and Bob Barrar have blown away audiences at beer festivals with unusual barleywines and sour ales.
And Morrison (who has won three GABF medals) is an emerging celebrity in East Coast beer circles after the New York Times heaped praise on his superb Bavay biere de garde – a beer that, like all of McKenzie’s, is available only on tap at the brewpub.
“I’m not sure what’s going on,” Morrison said, “but for whatever reason, there’s a great variety of beers being made out here. “
So, why aren’t some of these suburban brewpubs setting up shop inside Philadelphia?
Some complain about the city’s onerous licensing procedure and the lack of parking.
But I suspect the more daunting problem is that most are looking for a big, expensive hit in Center City; they might be better served by focusing instead on a smaller, neighborhood location. Morrison, for example, wonders why no one has put a brewpub into West Philadelphia.
(Triumph Brewing is said to be working on a location in Old City, but there’s no word when that will open. )
Meanwhile, a city boy like me can only grumble about the unfairness of the undeserving cul-de-sac set greedily sucking down beer that truly can be appreciated only by enlightened beings inside the city limits.
Thankfully, at least one suburban brewpub will begin sharing its beer with the teeming city masses. That would be Sly Fox, whose new Royersford brewpub includes a bottling line. Brewer Brian O’Reilly’s bitter Rt. 113 India Pale Ale is already on store shelves. By spring, he’ll be canning – yes, canning – his Phoenix Pale Ale and Pikeland Pils.
But even with that charitable gesture, if a city-dweller wants to sample the suburban brewpubs’ best – fresh beer served on draft – he or she has to climb into a car (or an SUV, if you wanna avoid detection), suffer the ugly traffic and make the rounds.
Never mind the subdivisions, the suburbs have beer.
Here’s a quick guide to the suburbs, with notes on those not covered above.
Crabby Larry’s Brewpub Steak & Crab House: 237 W. Butler Ave., Chalfont. Inconsistent beers.
Destiny Brewing: 119 S. Main St., Phoenixville. Comfy joint in the basement of a former Moose Lodge. No food, uneven beers but the $1 happy hour is a can’t-miss deal.
G.G. Brewers: 282 Keswick Road, Glenside. Just opened this month across from the Keswick Theatre; very small.
Gen. Lafayette Inn & Brewery: 6461 Germantown Pike, Lafayette Hill. Brewer/owner Chris Leonard is at the top of his game; food is improving.
Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant: 30 E. State St., Media; 1460 Bethlehem Pike, North Wales; 3 W. Gay St., West Chester; 130-138 Bridge St., Phoenixville (opening this summer).
John Harvard’s Brew House: 1001 Baltimore Pike, Springfield; 629 W. Lancaster Ave., Wayne. Many run-of-the-mill flavors, but you can always find at least one or two specialties.
McKenzie Brew House: 451 Wilmington-West Chester Pike, Glen Mills; 250 W. Lancaster Ave., Malvern (opening this spring).
Porterhouse Pub: 5775 Lower Mountain Road, Lahaska. Husband-friendly location across from Peddler’s Village.
Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery: King of Prussia Mall. Wife-friendly location next to Sears.
Sly Fox Brewery: Route 113, Pikeland Village Square, Phoenixville; 312 N. Lewis Road, Royersford.
Triumph Brewing: 400 Union Square, New Hope.
Victory Brewing: 420 Acorn Lane, Downingtown. You’re already familiar with its bottled products, but some of its best styles are available only at its on-site brewpub.
Joe Sixpack by Don Russell appears every week in Big Fat Friday. This week’s column was written with a bottle of Rt. 113 India Pale Ale. Enjoy this bottle with a slab from Ron’s Ribs.