Dock Street Brewpub finds its anchor… finally

A brief, confusing history of Dock Street beer:

First, there was Dock Street Amber in a bottle, the city’s first micro-brewed beer. Only, it was actually made in Utica, N.Y.

Then, there was Dock Street Brewing Co. Brewery & Restaurant on Logan Circle, the city’s first all-grain brewpub. Only, you couldn’t drink bottles of its amber at its own bar.

Then, Dock Street sold its bottled beer to Henry Ortlieb Brewing and began producing another line, called Savage Ale.

Then, Dock Street took over the Red Bell brewpub at Reading Terminal, and – for a few weeks – couldn’t serve any beer, period.

Now, the original joint is called Dock Street Brasserie, its Dock Street Terminal is finding its legs, and so is Savage Ale – but that familiar bottled Dock Street Amber is apparently dead.

I’ve given up trying to sort things out at Dock Street. Instead, as the ever-changing restaurant celebrated its 10th anniversary last week, I’ve rediscovered one true thing about Dock Street: Its beer is as good as ever.

Try a glass of its cask-conditioned porter. A pint of this dark, chocolaty ale is a filling treat on an autumn afternoon. It’s like a rich, crisp caramel-coated apple in a glass. . . only the apple is about 5 percent alcohol.

Earlier this week, I grabbed a pint and headed for the stool next to head brewer Eric Savage. After seven years behind the kettles, this guy qualifies as a Philly brewing vet.

Joe Sixpack: How much impact do you think you’ve had on Dock Street?

Eric Savage: Not that much. What I’ve done is try to push the envelope as far as possible, with our beer styles and beer quality. I really like to try to stay in front of the curve.

JS: How many styles do you produce?

ES: We’ve done 70 different styles in Dock Street history. Right now we do about 35 styles a year.

JS: What’s the best-selling style?

ES: Anything Irish. Irish Red, especially, but we could call something Irish Dunkel, Irish Helles, and it would sell. Irish stout sells like hotcakes. But call it a porter, and moves much, much slower.

JS: Do you think the restaurant’s patrons realize how good the beer is?

ES: Probably not. But I think that’s because our biggest recurring challenge has been in defining ourselves, who we are. First we were a brewpub with good food, then we were a fine dining restaurant that happened to have freshly made beer. We didn’t fit the typical restaurant experience.

JS: What kind of impact did the emphasis on fine dining have on your beer?

ES: A big impact on beer sales. In 1997, we got our [full] liquor license. We didn’t just have to serve our own beer anymore. We expanded our wine list, offered cordials. And suddenly people weren’t drinking as much beer.

JS: Did the emphasis on fine dining have any impact on the type of beer you’ve brewed?

ES: Never. I’ve never once been told what to brew. If I want to do something crazy, I go for it. The only thing anyone ever asked me to do was produce Savage Blonde, a light beer for our Coors drinkers.

JS: So where is Dock Street headed now?

ES: Our focus for the future is to move away from that snooty restaurant feel. Hopefully we can maintain a balance between high-brow dining and a totally casual experience.

JS: How do you do that?

ES: Establish a rapport with the people who visit. Have fun with them, entertain them, make them feel at home, like this is their place.

JS: You mean, like a bar.

ES: Like a bar. But enough talk about the business end. Let’s talk about beer.

JS: Well tell me, what are your personal favorites?

ES: I like making what I like drinking. Something with a lot of malt and a lot of hops. In general, I’m a hophead, so I like a more bitter beer. When I brew a smooth, malty beer, I don’t get as excited.

JS: Doesn’t that make it difficult to judge your own beer?

ES: Well, you’ve got to listen to what people say they like. If they tell you a beer is too sweet or too bitter, you tweak your recipe. You brew what people like. I guess it’s like being a musician, and you perform music that people enjoy. Then, people say that when you become successful, you’re a sellout, because you’ve changed what you do based on what other people like. But I don’t agree.

Fads change, and brewers react. When I started full time in ’95, everybody was making an effort to increase the body in their beer. More alcohol, more bitterness. Everybody turned up the volume. Now, people are scaling back, trying to focus on what it is that makes a truly good beer.

The trend is much more conservative.

JS: So what beers fit the bill, a “truly good beer”?

ES: HopDevil [from Victory] and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, definitely. And there are times when I think the beer I make is outstanding.

JS: You sound a little negative, as if you think there’s a shortage of good beer these days.

ES: I’m not negative at all. Just think, seven or eight years ago, the only – the only – good beer you could get was Sierra Nevada and Stoudt’s, if you were lucky and got a good bottle. Now I can walk into John Harvard’s Brewhouse, in Springfield of all places, and get an excellent IPA.

JS: The interesting trend, though, is how much good beer can be found in brewpubs. You couldn’t say that five years ago.

ES: There’s an easy answer: fresh beer for a brewpub is something that sells in three to five weeks, vs. beer that sits on a shelf for three to five months. It goes to show why fresh beer is the best beer.

JS: That’s one of the reasons I encourage people to get out and drink. Go taste these beers on tap, in a bar.

ES: I agree. But I have to admit, I work so much I don’t get out so often. Plus, there’s a lifestyle problem when you’re a brewer. You really have to be careful about how much you drink. I play soccer three or four times a week, just to keep me from spending too much time in bars. But I have to admit, if Standard Tap [Northern Liberties’ draft-only pub at 2nd and Poplar streets] was in walking distance of my house, I’d be there three times a week instead.

JS: Now that Dock Street has opened its Terminal brewpub, you have two separate breweries to run. How’s that affected your work?

ES: You become more of an administrator. The worst thing is not getting your hands in the malt enough.

That’s what I like about brewing. It’s real. I’m not pushing paper. I’m producing something. You feel like you are a real human on the planet.

Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a glass of Dock Street IPA.

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