The dearth of Philly brewpubs

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SAMUEL ADAMS Brewhouse – R.I.P. 1999.

Poor Henry’s Brewery & Restaurant – R.I.P. 2000.

Dock Street Brasserie – R.I.P. 2001.

If the fresh, handmade ale from local brewpubs is the best defense against tasteless industrial lager, Philadelphia is losing the war. They’re dropping off faster than Taliban soldiers.

Today, there are just four, if you count the Red Bell facility at the First Union Center. And one of them (Independence, at Reading Terminal) was last seen serving . . . Miller Lite!

It would be easy to say the brewpub trend has maxed out, but that ignores the statistical evidence that brewpubs are still thriving nationwide. A new one opens every four days in America (though one closes every week). There’s a new one opening next week in Wilkes-Barre, for crying out loud.

No, this goes deeper than a so-called dying trend.

Sam Adams croaked when the owner got tired of the beer business and pulled out after a decent 10-year run. The location quickly reopened as Nodding Head.

Poor Henry’s suffered from its bad location on a dark Northern Liberties street and from some dumb cash-spending decisions that left the brewery with too much capacity and not enough customers.

Dock Street, which had a decent 11-year run, always had difficulty defining itself. It went from yuppie hangout to high-end restaurant to French brasserie to, in its dying days, a dance club. Throw in an internecine corporate flow chart that spun off a separate bottling company and a second brewpub with the same name, and Dock Street was restaurant roadkill.

But there’s more behind the dearth of brewpubs in the city than shaky management.

For one thing, there’s our city’s well-documented inferiority complex, aka skyscraper envy.

Under NYC’s shadow, we’re so dinky we don’t even make it onto the weather map. All our lives, we hear nothing but Manhattan – its mayor, its theaters, Central Park, the freakin’ Yankees, Al Roker. It’s a little hard to taste pride in your hometown when you’ve got the Big Apple shoved down your throat.

“It’s like, ‘Well, it’s from Philly, it can’t be as good as the beer from England or California,’ ” says Curt Decker, a veteran bar operator and co-owner of Nodding Head (1516 Sansom St., Center City).

Even if New York City produces few (Brooklyn Brewing) beers of note, our inferiority has us reaching for other slick, out-of-town labels that we’re certain must be better than the miserable stuff bottled by the slow-talking yokels in our own back yard. The mere existence of the thoroughly odious trio of Heineken, Beck’s and Corona in this town is evidence of our own butt-kissing obeisance to these supposed superiors.

I can name you 25 beers made within 50 miles of here that are 100 times better and just as cheap – but most drinkers could care less.

Blame it on Madison Avenue. Those brainwashers have us convinced there’s nothing better than a smooth-talking import.

The worst part is the complete lack of support for local businesses.

“Go to either one of the Portlands,” says Decker, “and every corner tap room has local craft beer on tap. Here, it just seems that people would much rather pour something from far away – and import or something from the West Coast. That’s just something we have to break through. ”

Yo, I’m as guilty as the next beer freak of reaching for a Sierra Nevada or Anderson Valley from California, when I could be draining a Stoudt’s or Victory from Pennsylvania.

Maybe it’s Ugly Cousin Syndrome.

You know, a few years ago, she looked r-e-a-l purdy – all those fancy flavors brewed in the shiny tanks just behind the bar. But familiarity breeds contempt, and, man, check out that new babe with the huge Cascade hops. Now our favorite hometown brewpub is just one ug-a-lee relative.

The thing is, every time I go to Nodding Head or Manayunk Brewing Co. (4120 Main St., Manayunk), I taste something that’s as good as those West Coast seducers. This week it was Nodding Head’s perfectly named Monkey Knife Fight Lager, delicately flavored with ginger and lemon grass and served at a Vietnamese beer dinner at Fork (306 Market St., Old City). Brewer Brandon Greenwood joked that it’s named after Decker’s imaginary garage band, but between you and me it sounds more like something out of Homer Simpson’s imagination.

Whatever, it was fresh and balanced and original – just the thing a beer-lover thirsts for. Makes me wonder why we don’t stick with the locals.

Decker thinks “Philadelphia has almost become too beer savvy for its own good. ”

“I don’t want to say it like I’m demeaning our beer drinkers,” he says. “But we’ve got such a good beer scene here, and we’ve been treated to so many good beers, that some of the beer-drinking public is outsmarting itself. ”


About that new joint in Wilkes-Barre . . .

It’s called Black Rock Brewing Co., and it’s opening in a former insurance office at 380 Coal St.

Owner Patrick O’Connor learned his chops at Chicago’s beer university, the Siebel Institute, and apprenticed at the Gen. Lafayette Brewery & Restaurant in 1999.

When I asked O’Connor if he had any misgivings about entering the business, he came back at me with a wad of stats. Among other things, he said, Wilkes-Barre is the largest town in Pennsylvania without a brewpub. “I felt it could easily support one, two or three of them. ”

More importantly, he added, “we have a rich brewing tradition up here, and it’s a rich beer-drinking area. It was a huge anthracite region, we had more bars per square mile than any other place in the United States at one time. It’s a really hearty beer-drinking area. ”

What’s his take on Philly’s diving brewpubs?

“Brewpubs are either run by people who know beer really well, or people who know restaurants really well,” said O’Connor. “But that’s not good enough for brewpubs. You need to know it all. You’ve got to put as good a product on the plate as in the glass. The novelty’s gone. You better have a good product or people aren’t coming back.”

Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of Appalachian Brewing Purist Pale Ale.



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