ANYONE who thinks that Philadelphia’s beer scene ends at the Schuylkill River needs to take Regional Rail to Norristown, hop onto the Rt. 99 bus for an hour or so, get off in Phoenixville, curse SEPTA and start walking.
This once-stinky Chester County town has transformed its dinky downtown alongside an abandoned steel mill into a lively restaurant and nightlife destination. In just three blocks along its main shopping corridor, Bridge Street, there are two brewpubs, a pair of winery outlets and a distillery.
Center City – with four times the population and a zillion times the number of tourists – has exactly one brewpub.
That measly number was in the back of my mind as I pulled up in front of Stable 12, the new brewery just across the street from Phoenixville’s borough hall. Inside, Kelly Carbutt poured me samples, including an unusually strong (7.5 percent alcohol) and deliciously malty Helles.
Her husband, Chris, is one of the three young (just 27 years old) brewers who opened the place. They settled on Phoenixville after deals in King of Prussia and West Conshohocken fell apart.
“I think it’s is a real up-and-coming town,” Carbutt told me. “The demographics are exactly what you’d be looking for in craft beer: young, with disposable income. And the borough was very easy to work with. “
This didn’t just happen by itself, and it didn’t happen quickly. Phoenixville’s renaissance took millions of dollars in downtown investment, the renovation of the steel mill’s hulking foundry (now an event space) and 25 years of redevelopment projects, including a new 275-unit commercial-and-residential complex that will open shortly.
Jessica Capistrant, executive director of the Phoenixville Regional Chamber of Commerce, says the excitement surrounding that growth is what attracted the likes of Stable 12.
“It’s awesome that they chose Phoenixville,” Capistrant said. “They could have chosen other towns with more space or more parking, but they clearly saw something in the community. “
Indeed, Bridge Street on a Saturday afternoon is packed with pedestrians listening to street music, having coffee, grabbing bottles of wine for dinner at a BYOB. Cyclists from the recently extended Schuylkill River Trail catch their breath at Iron Hill Brewery’s outdoor seating area. Visitors try out the cocktails at the new Bluebird Distilling saloon.
Not surprisingly, police and merchants have reported an uptick in crime along Bridge Street.
But, overall, there’s a vibrancy that is only enhanced by the presence of locally made beer.
And it makes me wonder what Center City is missing out on. I’ll say it again: One brewpub! Thank the heavens for Chestnut Street’s 2nd Story Brewing.
I know I shouldn’t be so hard on the city. After all, its craft taproom scene is unparalleled, perhaps in the country.
But it’s locally made suds (think German-style pilsner and Belgian farmhouse ale) that defines a region’s beer. You can’t have your own identity if all you’re doing is selling out-of-town suds.
That’s why even city dwellers need to pay attention to what’s happening in Phoenixville.
Here’s a great opportunity: On Saturday, the town is hosting the daylong Phlight of the Phoenix Bar Tour, with stops at five locations in just a few hundred yards along Bridge Street:
Stable 12 Brewing Co., 368 Bridge St. It offers only a limited snack menu, but its 15-barrel brewhouse is already putting out a very wide selection. Try the Weizen and the Irish Stout.
Black Walnut Winery, 260 Bridge St. A range of hybrid wines from this Chester County winery, with live music.
The Barrel wine bar, 222 Bridge St. Across from the famous (“The Blob”) Colonial Theatre, it specializes in glasses from A’Dello Vineyard, in Perkiomenville.
Iron Hill Brewery, 130 Bridge St. Do not miss brewer Tim Stumpf’s outstanding Roggenbier at this brewpub, now in its 10th year.
Bluebird Distillery, 100 Bridge St. Located in a huge, former laundry, its saloon – with gin-based cocktails – is already an anchor at the east end of town.
Get your card punched at all five stops, and get a free T-shirt.