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Jan. 12, 2007 | It used to be hard to find craft beer in Philly, but it's growing now

WATCHING THE girls in G-strings do their thing atop the bar at the Penn's Port Pub, I get this tingling sensation that something is growing in Philadelphia.

Beer, my friends, craft beer.

Over there next to the Miller Lite is a fully erect Yards Philly Pale Ale tap handle. A microbrew in a topless bar - that's about as common as a 40 of malt liquor in a piano lounge. But adding it to the tap list was a no-brainer for bartender Tommy Brown.

"People go out, it doesn't matter where, they want something different, something better than the usual stuff," Brown said. "With the cost of beer the way it is, maybe they're only drinking 2 or 3 instead of 4 or 5, they want something good."

When even a topless bar - a joint where patrons typically don't pay much attention to what's in their glass - can sell pints of expensive suds, something's going on. I think we're witnessing the critical mass of craft beer in this town.

Critical mass is the stage when a social movement gains enough momentum to sustain itself. It's a tipping point where it becomes too late to go back, in this case, to the inertia of the same old lager.

The evidence is pretty much everywhere - not just in Center City's finer places, but in neighborhood joints as well. Yards at Keating's River Grill inside the Hyatt on Penn's Landing, Victory at Chickie's & Pete's Sports Bar in South Philly - places that never would've bothered to serve anything besides some factory-made domestic or generic, overpriced import.

Meanwhile, better beer bars are cropping up in surprising neighborhoods: the Sidecar Bar & Grille in Point Breeze; the Old Eagle among the rowhomes of Manayunk.

This week, I watched the NCAA championship bowl in a sports bar along a formerly seedy stretch in Bristol where they were pouring eight or 10 craft beers, then I dropped in at the new Thumper's East Falls Grill (four crafts on tap), a spot that had been mainly known as a college pickup joint.

Five years ago, there might've been 25 places inside the city that served more than two craft beers. Today, I have a spreadsheet on my laptop that lists no fewer than 230 Philly taverns with microbrews, and there's another 200 within 25 miles of City Hall.

What's going on?

Some of this is a reflection of a national trend. Craft beer is the only segment in the beer business that's growing substantially, up 11 percent in the first half of '06, while imports and macros stagnated.

That growth has been enhanced in the city by a shake-up in local distribution rights.

Last summer, longtime craft-beer wholesaler Edward I. Friedland Co. sold out to King of Prussia-based Kunda Beverage. But Yards - which had been distributed by Friedland - balked and, after a court battle, retained the right to deliver its own kegs and bottles. Yards believes it now has a tighter relationship with city taverns.

"We're in more places inside the city than ever," said Yards founder Tom Kehoe, whose company delivers kegs of Philly Pale Ale - now the brewery's flagship brand - to 72 different accounts around town. Some of those taverns now carry Yards instead of the longtime pale-ale standby, Sierra Nevada of California.

But other new accounts - places like Helium Comedy Club on Sansom Street and the Manhattan Room on Girard Avenue - had never carried micros.

Meanwhile, a decision 2 ½ years ago by Victory Brewing in Downingtown to sell its beer in the city through the local Anheuser-Busch wholesaler, Penn Distributors, appears to be paying off as well.

Penn's sizable sales force - armed with a craft portfolio that also includes Vermont's Magic Hat, Troegs of Harrisburg and San Francisco's Anchor - is pushing into still more taprooms whose idea of variety had been Bud and Bud Lite.

The result: Citywide keg sales of Victory's flagship, HopDevil, were up 35 percent in 2006, according to John DiRenzi, Penn's on-premise director.

Mind you, we're talking about a bold, exceptionally hoppy India pale ale, the kind of beer that used to make the average beer-drinker wince. But as DiRenzi noted, "Yuengling Lager used to be a stretch in this town, but not any longer."

He added: "Bars aren't even flinching when you sell them a $100 keg. We sold out of Troeg's Mad Elf [a cherry-flavored, high-alcohol Christmas beer that retails at $190 a keg] and we could've sold another 500 halves. And not one person asked us how much they cost... .

"These days, it's not just the Standard Taps [the Northern Liberties tavern] of the world that are serving craft beer."

No kidding. Lolita, Melody, Ashley and the other girls at the Penn's Port Pub could've told you that.

Tap list
Enjoy the critical mass of craft beer at these local joints:

• Sidecar Bar & Grille, 2201 Christian St., Point Breeze.

  • Yards Philly Pale Ale
  • Stoudt's Scarlet Lady
  • Flying Fish Grand Cru Winter Ale
  • Troegs Troegenator Double Bock
  • Sly Fox O'Reilly's Stout

• Old Eagle Tavern, 177 Markle St., Manayunk.

  • Harpoon Munich Dark Lager
  • Blue Point Winter Ale
  • Troegs Mad Elf
  • Troegs Dreamweaver Wheat
  • Sly Fox Christmas Ale
  • Flying Fish Grand Cru Winter Al
  • Dale's Pale Ale

• Just Sports, 600 New Rodgers Road, Bristol.

  • Victory Golden Monkey
  • Rogue Dead Guy Ale
  • Sly Fox Dunkel
  • Stoudt's Double IPA
  • Troegs Mad Elf
  • Southampton Double White
  • Flying Fish Grand Cru Winter Ale
  • Oskar Blues Old Chub

• Thumper's East Falls Grill, 3521 Bowman St., East Falls.

  • Anchor Steam
  • Rogue Mocha Porter
  • Stoudt's Winter Ale
  • Victory HopDevil




© Copyright 2006 Joe Sixpack