The City of Brewery Love: Philadelphia’s Rising Craft Beer Scene

by Alex Kalaf with Caroline Hatchett
Shannon Sturgis
February 2013

Liquid fuel for the Revolution and working-class masses alike, Philadelphia has long had a love affair with beer. This country's foundations were formulated over tankards of Philly ale, and German immigrants introduced Americans to lager in the mid-19th Century. At its pre-Prohibition peak, Philadelphia had close to 700 breweries, many of which were located in a neighborhood aptly named, Brewerytown.

Fast forward to the re-birth of American craft beer. In Philly, bars like Monk's Café built one of the first (and most impressive) Belgian beer lists in the country. As the local brewing scene developed, Monk's was one of the first bars to tap local brews. And a second wave of beer-centric restaurants and bars like Tria (whose generous Jon Myerow and Michael McCaulley introduced us to areas brewers) have worked to further educate consumers and elevate beer and food pairings.

The only thing holding Philly back from all-out beer mecca status is the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. Even while blue laws are disappearing in most states (including neighboring New Jersey), Philly residents have to put up with archaic laws. State-run stores have relatively limited hours and can only sell beer by the case. To buy anything less, say a six-pack, customers have to go restaurants or specialty bottle stores and pay marked-up bar prices.

But that doesn't stop them from drinking, nor did it prevent the StarChefs team from undertaking an epic beer crawl this January, where we drank the products of a beer scene that continues to grow and evolve. In the last few years, house brewpubs, including Vault Brewing Company, Forest & Main, Tired Hands Brewing Company, and Earth Bread and Brewery have opened with a focus on crafting exceptional beers on a small scale. And local production breweries, including Prism Brewing Company, Round Guys Brewing Company, and Neshaminy Creek Brewing, have positioned themselves to quickly expand distribution on local taps and move to sizeable canning and bottling operations.

Keeping up with the growth are old guard breweries that are dramatically increasing production and distribution. Yards Brewing Company doubled output in 2012 and is adding large scale fermentors to their Fishtown-based brewery. Flying Fish Brewing Co. has recently moved to a facility in Somerville, New Jersey, that will allow the team to boost production to 45,000 barrels per year with space to expand to more than 100,000. And Victory Brewing Company is poised to become one of the top craft breweries in America with the opening of a second location in Chester County.

Bigger may be better for established breweries, but big alcohol is on the wane in Philly beers. We drank a number of uber-flavorful, sessionable beers ranging from 3 percent to 6 percent ABV—Neshaminy Creek's Hop Nut Brown, Victory's Headwater Pale Ale, and Prism's Shady Blonde are prime examples. It's a good business plan—lighter beers equal more pints sold—and a welcome trend. After all, there are only so many mornings your chef will tolerate you sweating bullets on the line after a few bottles of barrel-aged barleywine. But if it's barleywine you crave, Philly's got it, along with some of the most exciting beers being brewed in the country. Here are some of our favorites.

Earth Bread & Brewery

Earth Bread & Brewery
When Brewer Tom Baker was forced to close his Jersey Shore-based production brewery in 2006, New Jersey's loss became Philadelphia's gain. Two year later, he and wife Peggy Zwerver opened Earth Bread and Brewery in Philly's Mt. Airy neighborhood. Baker's beers are heavy on English influence. And while he prefers malt-focused beers, he keeps the use of specialty malts to a minimum to achieve cleaner flavors. Having the freedom to brew small batches, Baker can focus on seasonal brews and try new and offbeat twists on traditional styles. The pub also serves excellent wood-fired flatbreads to gnosh on while drinking one of four in-house brews, as well as a few guest beers, on tap.

Extra Ordinary Best Bitter
This English-style bitter is all about English malts, complemented by the Fuller's yeast strain. The yeast lends fruity esters that pair well with the Maris Otter and caramel malts. Coming in at 5 percent ABV, this malty, clean beer is very drinkable and food friendly.

A strong ale with 8.5 percent ABV, the StarChefs team tasted some of the last of the Alcoholiday keg when we visited Earth Bread and Brewery in January. This seasonal beer has a bitter balance without the hoppy punch of an IPA. Baker gets creative by using 10 percent biscuit malt in the grain bill, as well as adding Lyle's golden syrup—both of which create a jaggery and toasty malt profile. A grapefruit hit of the Centennial and Cascade hops balances the brew, making it more gulpable than most big beers.

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Flying Fish Brewing Company

Flying Fish Brewing Co.
In the modern era, businesses are funded every day by crowd-sourced funding. And crowd-sourcing is exactly what launched Gene Muller's New Jersey-based Flying Fish Brewing Company—in 1995. In the Internet's infancy, Muller built a virtual brewery, attracted online contributions, and built a brewery in Cherry Hill a year later. After a successful launch and bringing on Casey Hughes as head brewer, Flying Fish has consistently received awards for their varied line of beers. Their catalog includes six year-round offerings with a few rotating seasonals that lean toward American- and Belgian-inspired styles. Flying Fish also produces limited runs of the popular Exit series, named for New Jersey Turnpike exits.

Struggling to meet demand for a few years, Muller and team relocated the brewery to Sommerville, New Jersey, in 2012. The new facility is housed in a former Motown Records vinyl factory and will allow them to quadruple production. It will also give Muller the chance to focus on sustainability—he's incorporating solar panels and rainwater capture into the design and hopes to build a park nearby to help promote endangered species of native New Jersey flora.

Exit 16: Wild Rice Double IPA
Muller and Hughes gave themselves a challenge to brew an excellent beer using rice, a grain the beer adjunct many thumb their noses at. (It's the main additive to America's most popular beer: Budweiser.) Exit 16 has a big nose dominated by tropical fruits, citrus, and pine. It has a light body for an 8.5 percent ABV beer, and the rice addition provides a welcome dryness to help hide the alcohol. It's a beer to enjoy on a summer afternoon, as long you don't have to drive the riding mower after.

Exit 4: American Trippel
An American-Belgian hybrid, this beer has an assertive pine, pineapple, and grapefruit hop nose with underlying notes of banana and clove from Belgian abbey yeast. The delicious love child of West Coast IPA and abbey-style tripel, Exit 4 is balanced for a big beer at 9.5 percent ABV and exceptionally clear and light bodied for the style.

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Forest & Main Brewing Company

Forest and Main
Forest & Main is a testament to how deep the love for quality beer runs in Philadelphia. You'd be hard-pressed to find any area where a converted 1880s Victorian house would support a brewpub specializing in both British cask ales and funky Belgian ales. Young brewers Daniel Endicott and Gerard Olson have managed the feat—no less, 30 minutes outside Philly in the quaint town of Ambler, Pennsylvania. The duo spent a year and a half renovating the building with help from family and friends and opened in mid 2012. Endicott brings his experience studying traditional cask ales in England to the beer list, and Olson balances the menu with heavily carbonated and funky Belgian farmhouse and sour ales. The varied styles give everybody a beer they can enjoy and ensure there's a brew to complement dishes on Chef Kaylin Miska's refined comfort food menu.

Kinch the Knife Blade Double IPA
Named after a character from Ulysses, this cask-served double IPA gets its English character from 100 percent Maris Otter malt and the esters of British yeast. But the nose is all American hops. The lower carbonation and higher temperature from the cask allows the citrus notes of Cascade, Chinook, and Zythos hops to cut the toasty malt and fruity esters—to create a beer that's dangerously drinkable at 9.5 percent ABV.

Queen Anne Dry Irish Stout
This stout, named after Endicott's old dog, is a prime example of why you don't need huge hits of hops, adjuncts, and specialty malts to make an excellent beer. It's bone dry with a rich tan head, chocolate on the nose, and a crisp finish. This beer, while light on alcohol at around 5 percent ABV, has serious depth and complexity.

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Neshaminy Creek Brewing

Neshaminy Creek
Jeremy Myers, Rob Jahn, and Steve Capelli started planning their Bucks County production brewery in April 2010. After two years of navigating the logistical and legal steps to open, they finally got the go ahead to start pouring in Croydon, Pennsylvania. Named after nearby Neshaminy Creek, the brewery is fully focused on production—and filling the growlers of devoted Croydon locals—and already supplies its beer to the greater Philadelphia metro area. They also place a big focus community, hosting a monthly movie night—$10 gets you a bag of popcorn, a beer, and a flick. The team chose a building with capacity for growth, and they currently use a fraction of the space … for now at least. Neshaminy produces varied styles—from Belgian tripels and lagers to Russian imperial stouts. And though the majority of their production is rooted in the area's Germanic culture, the brewing team recently started experimenting with a small sour beer and barrel-aging program.

Hop Nut Brown Ale
Flavorful session beers were the biggest trend we came across in Philly. And at just 3.9 percent ABV, the Hop Nut Brown Ale more than fits the bill. Brewed from the second running of their Russian imperial stout and flavored with de-oiled peanut powder, the beer has a roasted, nutty depth that acts as a foil to the big tropical fruit and citrus notes from Citra hops. You can enjoy a few of these beers on a weeknight and not get caught sleeping at your desk the next morning

Traugner Pilsner
Borrowing heavily on the area's German history, the Traugner Pilsner is a traditional Bavarian-style pilsner with floral notes from Halletauer and Tettanger noble hops. A balanced brew, it has a dry, crisp malt backbone with an assertive bitter finish. Refreshing and quite drinkable at 4.8 percent ABV, it's a beer any brewery would be proud to call its signature.

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Prism Brewing Company

Prisim Brewing
Brewer Rob DeMaria got the name for Prism Brewing Company from a long-defunct Philadelphia channel that covered local sports during the day and soft-core porn at night. (He also has a healthy Pink Floyd obsession.) DeMaria’s off-beat humor is as evident in his brewpub as it is in the beers he makes at his North Wales, Pennsylvania, production facility and tap room. From a Jalapeño-Strawberry brown ale to a bacon-infused stout, DeMaria makes it a point to push the envelope by incorporating ingredients most brewers wouldn’t dare use. With the mixed mise en place of a kitchen and brewery, DeMaria make beers that are balanced, fun, and unlike any others you’ll drink in the market.

Bitto Honey IPA
With a recipe reaching back to his home-brewing days, DeMaria first made Bitto Honey for a party for friend, Tim Bitto. The keg was tapped and emptied, and friends began asking for their own batches. Now DeMaria makes this signature beer with locally sourced honey, honey malt, and an English yeast strain for less sugar attenuation. It has a great combination of floral hops and honey notes with a sweet, bitter balance, making it a memorable spin on a popular style.

Shady Blonde
There’s a story behind all of DeMaria’s beers. One of his friends—a redhead nicknamed “Shady”—loved blood orange margaritas at a local Mexican restaurant, and DeMaria vowed to brew and bottle those flavors. Shady Blonde is a light blonde beer with a big bready, blood orange nose. It has serious blood orange flavor with a dry pith-like bitter finish. This clean blonde ale is brewed with a large batch of hand-squeezed blood orange juice added during secondary fermentation, giving it mega flavor at a sessionable 4 percent ABV.

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Round Guys Brewing Company

Round Guys Brewing
You can’t credit the pharmaceutical industry for starting many parties, unless you count that time grandma got loopy after a few Vicodin. But after years in the industry, Scott Rudich and Rich DiLiberto decided to leave pharmaceuticals to pursue craft beer brewing. The idea to open Round Guys was born as all great ideas are. Late one night after quite a few beers, Rudrich called DiLiberto with the idea of starting a band or brewery. Since both had the musical talent of the average Nickelback fan, they decided to grow their home-brewing hobby into a viable business. Starting with five-gallon batches, the duo soon upgraded to a fifty-five-gallon brewing system in Rudich’s garage. After searching for a location, they met the mayor of Lansdale, Pennsylvania, and were swayed to open their production brewery and tap room off the town’s main street. Now making nine-barrel batches, they produce an interesting collection of beers with a focus on popular American styles and abbey-influenced Belgian beers.

A traditional German sour that originated in Berlin, the BerlinerWeisster-WeissterBerliner is made with a traditional non-boiled sour mash to create a tart, dry, and cloudy beer with a low 3 percent ABV. The beer is refreshing and food friendly—great for summer, especially with the additions of traditional himbeer (raspberry) or waldmeister (woodruff) syrups that balance the tartness. Rudich especially enjoys watching men order the pink, raspberry concoction for their “girlfriends.”

Fat Bob XVII Tripel
Rudich and DiLiberto make this Belgian tripel with a traditional Ardennes yeast strain and ferment it warm to develop big banana and clove notes. This ester-heavy beer is balanced by adding 10 percent rye malt for a peppery finish. Combined with Sazz hops, Fat Bob is a dry, gratifying beer that comes in at a respectable weight of 8.5 percent ABV.

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Tired Hands Brewing Company

Tired Hands
Tired Hands Owner and Brewer Jean Broillet IV started home brewing out of curiosity in college and eventually discovered his fondness for farmhouse-style French and Belgian ales. After refining his craft at home, he eventually won a local homebrew contest with a saison and got a job at Weyerbacher Brewing Company and Iron Hill, where he honed his craft. When he had the chance to opening his own brewery, Broillet devoted the beer list at his Ardmore, Pennsylvannia, pub to the farmhouse ales he first fell in love with. Warm, funky, and a tad ironic, Broillet's brewery would be just at home in Brooklyn as it in suburban Philadelphia.

Farm Hands
A saison brewed with oats, rye, wheat, and malted barley, this beer has an assertive malt character with a peppery hit from the rye malt. Lightly hopped and extremely dry, it's light and refreshing for a beer defined by its grain bill.

Hop Hands
A light, aromatic pale ale with bready Belgian yeast characteristics, Hop Hands has a big, juicy hop nose from Amarillo, Centennial, and Columbus Hops. The nose contrasts with an extremely dry, crisp finish—very much in keeping with the flavorful session trend we found throughout the market.

Vault Brewing Company

Vault Brewing Co.
Most people make it a point to avoid the bank. Long lines, surely tellers, and old people with bags of pennies are enough to keep us home eating ramen and drinking light beer. But if every bank had a collection of house-brewed ales and a few barrels of Russian imperial stout aging in the vault, we'd happily move in. Vault Owners John and James Cain spent quite a bit of time looking for a location to open their brewpub and came across a former bank space in Yardley, Pennsylvania—about 35 minutes outside Philadelphia. After gutting the building and keeping the namesake vault, they opened in late 2012. The brothers brought on Brewer Mark Thomas to head up the beer making, and he's currently brewing nine-barrel batches and on pace to produce 500 to 600 barrels in their first year. Vault beers are only available in the brewpub, served directly from bright tanks on view behind the bar. Thomas focuses on classic styles, aiming to make them drinkable and flavorful—all the while showcasing an intense attention to detail.

Sweet Potato Ale
Thomas believes that sweet potato pie is simply superior to the common pumpkin. And to create a seasonal beer without pumpkin's vegetal notes, he uses roasted sweet potatoes, cinnamon, and nutmeg as the dessert-like base for his Sweet Potato Ale. He also combines crystal malts and molasses to add a treacle-like sweetness. And like a topping of chantilly, he serves the beer on nitrogen to add a creamy, unforgettable mouthfeel.

Breakfast Stout
Beer for breakfast is generally frowned upon, but Vault's coffee stout may be the next great hair of the dog—or late night pick me up. Thomas starts the brew with a house oatmeal stout recipe that uses English yeast, along with chocolate and roasted malts that add cocoa nib character to complement the beer's creamy oatmeal notes. He then adds fresh, French-pressed coffee—made from house-roasted beans—and maple syrup to the serving tank while racking. This last minute addition creates a bold coffee nose and flavor that give way to the chocolate malts and oatmeal body.

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Victory Brewing Company

Victory Brewery
With a production of 86,000 barrels in 2011 and the current construction of a new 212,000-square foot brewing facility, Victory Brewing Company is the craft brewing leader in the Philadelphia market. And at the heart of the growth and roster of delicious beers are Owners Ron Barchet and Bill Covaleski. From meeting as kids on a school bus in 1973 to a running a company that distributes beer in 29 states, Covaleski and Barchet have managed truly impressive growth in Victory’s 17 years.

When their second brewery opens later this year, their current Downingtown location—home to a fully automated brewing system—will serve as a souped-up testing facility for new beers. As it stands, Victory produces an impressive range of beers, from its flagship Prima Pils to barrel-aged barley wine, and the brewing team here maintains about 40 different yeast strains to avoid developing a house yeast character.

Covaleski and Barchet are also committed patrons of the Philadelphia dining scene. They run a 300-seat restaurant in Downingtown, host numerous beer and food pairing events, and collaborate with Philadelphia’s best chefs to create custom brews. Deeply ingrained in the Philly community, and quickly becoming a part of the fabric of American beer drinking, Victory is set to become one of the top craft breweries in the United States.

Golden Monkey
A crystal clear pale yellow with a sly herbal nose and subtle hints of banana, Golden Monkey is deceivingly strong at 9.5 percent ABV. It has a wine-like sweetness that fades to a mineral dryness. The brewing process of this abbey-style tripel has evolved over the years to a cooler fermentation for a less estery brew. While deemed the “catch-up” beer for Philly chefs leaving their shifts, the ease with which the drink goes down demands that you respect the monkey.

Prima Pils
Barchet and Covaleski could (and probably do) drink Prima Pils every day. And if they had to pick a favorite beer child, this is it. Using a standard pilsner recipe with pale malt, the brewers aggressively hop the beer with whole flower noble hops. The result is floral and aromatic, with a crisp lager finish and clean bitterness. Prima Pils is a fantastic foil for all types of foods—from seafood to a rustic flatbread—and at 5.3 percent ABV won’t put you to bed early.

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Yards Brewing Company

As the elder statesmen of the Philadelphia beer scene, Brewer Tom Kehoe and his Yards Brewing Company have maintained their popularity and quality in the face of hundreds of area microbrews being built, bought, and sold since the company was founded in 1995. Yards produces five year-round British ales, as well as their historical ode to American beer with their Ales of the Revolution series. And his devotion to American craft beer led Kehoe to purchase Thomas Jefferson's Monticello journals for the original recipe of what became Yards' Tavern Ale. These successes are fueling serious growth. Yards currently employs 40 full-time employees and is projected to double its production to 40,000 barrels in 2013.

Brawler English Mild
A malt-forward British session ale with a dominant bready and caramel profile, the Brawler has slightly fruity finish from the English yeast. It's food friendly and flavorful and lends itself to a day of outdoor drinking at a summer barbecue.

Philadelphia Pale Ale
Yard's Philadelphia Pale Ale is a variation of the standard pale ale style, using predominantly pilsner malt. The resulting beer has a crisp, lager-like body; a clean, bitter finish; and a nice pine and citrus nose from the Simcoe hops. The perfect session beer, this chameleon can play the role of a pale ale, pilsner, or cream ale by pairing with a variety of dishes.

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