Get a taste of craft-beer bars on bus tour

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“I think we’re witnessing the critical mass of craft beer in this town. ”

Looking around nearly four years ago when I scrawled those words, it seemed clear that Philly was enjoying a surge in neighborhood bars whose focus was good beer. We’d reached a tipping point in which it was too late to go back to the same old lager.

The surge is only growing.

Local 44, Kraftwork, Brauhaus Schmitz, Jose Pistola’s, Kite & Key, the Institute, the Sidecar Bar and Grille, Lucky 13, Devil’s Den, Beneluxx Tasting Room, Varga, a second Tria Cafe, City Tap House, the Wishing Well, the Irish Pol, the Woolly Mammoth, Terrace Taproom, Pub & Kitchen, MidAtlantic Restaurant & Taproom, Resurrection Ale House and Prohibition Taproom are among the city beer bars that have opened since that column was published in January 2007.

In the past few weeks alone, we’ve seen the opening of a German restaurant in Fox Chase (Hop Angel Brauhaus, 7980 Oxford Ave.), yet another South Philly joint (Watkins Drinkery, 1712 S. 10th St.) and a gastropub in East Falls that’s lighted entirely by candles and serves only ultrapremium European brands (Fork and Barrel, 4213 Ridge Ave).

I mention all this not because Joe Sixpack is clairvoyant. In truth, I can barely see past the bottom of my glass.

Instead, it’s because I’m betting that you haven’t hit half the places I just mentioned.

Surely, the old standbys are worth visiting and visiting again. But the city’s beer scene has taken it up yet another notch, and it’s about time you started nosing around.

Naturally, I’ve got a suggestion: Grab a ticket for tomorrow’s Craft Beer Express.

It’s an all-day bus tour that links 11 beer bars, about half of which are among the new breed. Buses stop at each of them every 25 minutes. You can grab a cold one and move on, or just hunker down for a couple of hours.

Tickets are just $10, available at any of the stops.

It’s not just a great way to avoid DUIs. The express gives you a taste of the character of each joint, with different beer themes at each stop.

Here’s the rundown:

_ Kraftwork (541 E. Girard Ave., Fishtown): Twenty beers from Belgian/Japanese/Italian/German beer importer B. United, with live music.

_ Johnny Brenda’s (Frankford and Girard avenues, Fishtown): The Wet Hop Rodeo, with ales made with freshly picked hops.

_ Standard Tap (901 N. 2nd St., Northern Liberties): Imperial Pageant, with superstrong ales at the granddaddy of Philly’s gastropubs.

_ The Institute (549 N. 12th St., Spring Garden): The Power of the Dark Side, with stouts and porters at what one local rag called “the best bar in the middle of nowhere.”

_ Bishop’s Collar (24th Street and Fairmount Avenue, Fairmount): A classic corner pub that always seems to pour something extraordinary, this time with envelope-pushing brews from Southern Tier of New York.

_ Kite & Key (1836 Callowhill St., Franklintown): Just behind the main branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, it’s an Almighty Afternoon of Allagash.

_ Jose Pistola’s (263 S. 15th St., Center City): It gets loud here some nights, even louder with Big Bold Barleywine and live blues.

_ The Sidecar (22nd and Christian Street, Point Breeze): One of a handful of beer spots that have spiced up what they used to call Devil’s Pocket, it’ll pour the Bell Brewery Jazz Series, with music from the Sidecar Jazz Quartet.

_ The P.O.P.E. (1501 E. Passyunk Ave., South Philly): Breaking out the Randall 3.0 hop infuser at a day of ales from Dogfish Head.

_ Devil’s Den (1148 S. 11th St., South Philly): Founders Nemesis, a one-off from the highly regarded Michigan brewery, makes an appearance along with a bunch of other brands from Northampton County’s specialty suppler, Stockertown Beverage.

_ Brauhaus Schmitz (718 South St.): Chill-erasing doppelbocks take over the taps at this authentic German beer hall.

From new to old

McGillin’s Olde Ale House (1310 Drury St., Center City), the city’s oldest taproom (circa 1860), is hosting a very cool event to prep for Philly Beer Week. (Disclosure: I’m Philly Beer Week’s executive director. )

It’s an Election Night reception in which beer drinkers will vote for their favorite brewer. At the end of the night, a single ballot will be randomly drawn, with the winning brewer – and the person who voted for him – scoring an expenses-paid trip to Belgium.

There, they’ll brew a special collaborative beer with renowned Belgian brewer Dirk Naudts of De Proef Brouwerij for Philly Beer Week 2011 (June 3-12). The beer will be nationally released as part of the brewery’s yearly Brewmaster’s Collection.

The reception is from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, with beers from the participating breweries.

Speaking of old bars, the Khyber (56 S. 2nd St., Old City) – believed to be the second-oldest in the city, dating to the 1870s – reopened this week as the Khyber Pass Pub. The city’s original craft beer bar was to have become a Japanese restaurant. But when that fell through, it was back to good beer.

The draft system has been upgraded to 20 taps plus a beer engine, and the kitchen has been expanded with a Southern-influenced menu. (Look for the deadly bacon-grease popcorn. )

They’ve spruced up the side room (goodbye, live music) and tiled what had been one of the grungiest restrooms in the city.

One thing that hasn’t changed: the mirrored back bar. The fixture, salvaged from Brewers Hall at the 1876 Centennial in Fairmount Park, still dominates the room.

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