Category Archives: Beer

Let Me Tell You About My Favorite Place

Some famous writer once wrote about their favorite bar.  About how the customers were down to earth and funny and interesting.  The beer was good.  The food was delicious.  The prices were reasonable, if not downright cheap.  The staff was friendly and knowledgeable and accommodating.  The TVs always played what he wanted to see.  The music was never overpowering, and always good.  And then the famous writer revealed that no such bar existed.  In point of fact, he had created the bar by using the best attributes of his favorite four or so bars.

My friends, this bar exists.

Philadelphia is theorized to be one of the very best beer-drinking cities in the country, if not the world.  Michael Jackson, who is, perhaps, the patron saint of craft beer, once called Philadelphia the “Brussels of the West”.  Brussels, of course, is home to so many of the great Belgian crafts.  More Belgian beer is consumed now in Philadelphia, each year, than it is in Brussels.  There are a lot of good bars here. 

Monk’s gets a lot of love for having been at the Philly beer scene from the beginning.  The food is hit and miss, though the fries (excuse, frietjes) are always pleasant.  The beer is rare and extraordinary, but because of both those qualities, it’s also expensive.  The staff has a reputation for being unpleasant.  That hasn’t been my experience, but I wouldn’t call them chummy.  Is there music or TV?  I don’t know.  The place is often crowded.  So often crowded.  It’s a place to which someone Goes.  People from other states and countries go to Monk’s. And a few other bars of taken to joining them in spirit, if not history, like Eulogy with its 300 beer menu, and in the suburbs, Teresa‘s with their high-falutin’ taps chosen special by Beer Yard owner and brew demi-god Matt Goyer.

There are places like Johnny Brenda’s and the Standard Tap, who have godfathered the Philly gastropub phenomenon.  Good beer deserves good food, after all.  And they’ll always win a few people for being diehard in their commitment to local beer.  Bands will play there (or, at least, at JB’s).  You’ll like some of them, but live music does beat the stuff piped in.  But the place is dark and the staff can be as condescending as they are funny.

Of course there are the few, the proud, the Philadelphia brewpubs.  To the Yunk likes the Manayunk Brewpub, who are known for their fruity beers.  Not lambics, but fruity and sweet.  They’re part of that college scene, and among the brew faithful, more lovely might be given to the nearby Dawson St Pub.  Then there’s Triumph in Old City.  Part of a chain of mediocre brewpubs.  The architecture and music are more reminiscent of a club than a daily attended bar, while the food ranges from disappointing to acceptable, and the staff is barely competent.  In west Philly is the newest incarnation of Dock Street Brewing, which had good (though stylistically constant) beer, and inconsistent pizza, as well as a staff that seems to undergo wholesale changes every time I’m in.  The king of them all is the Nodding Head in Center City, with its legendary staffers, its big claim-to-fame (more NH Berliner Weisse consumed is consumed than any other kind, including those in Germany), its good food and music.  The only downsides, of course, are that it’s in CC, so it’s definitely pricey, probably far, and always crowded.

There is something for everyone in Philly, or at least, there’s a beer bar for any kind of beer you’d want, especially if you like your beer big and rare.

But let me tell you about the best bar in Philadelphia.  It’s in a part of Philadelphia which, depending on who you ask, is Fishtown, or East Kensington, or Port Richmond.  It’s a decently old brick building right where the southbound 25 bus intersects the eastbound 39.  The Memphis Taproom only opened in April, I think, but it might be the best bar in Philadelphia.

I have to admit–part of this proclamation might be geographic.  I live walking distance from the Taproom, which is great if I just want to pop in for a quick, or, if I have a marathon session, I can stumble home without concern.  I imagine the kinds of things I’m about to say about my favorite bar have some variation when people talk about the Gray Lodge, or the aforementioned Dawson Street, or the South Philly Taproom, or plenty of other places.  But outside of that distance, I don’t have any special relationship to the place.  I don’t work there.  I don’t get free food or drinks there.  I don’t know the owners or the staff, except in how I’ve gotten to know them by being at the bar so very often.

The place is owned by Brendan Hartranft, who used to help run the show at Nodding Head, and who is known in Philly as “Spanky”.  The guy introduced himself to me as Brendan, though, and so that’s what I call him.  Either he or his wife Leigh have been in the bar literally every time I’ve been there.  And I’ve been there a lot.  Both of them appear tireless, and, clearly, both have lively senses of humor.  They’ve managed to find a staff of excellent bartenders, like John, the daytime fella, who is the archtypal Everyman.  He’ll chat you up, he’ll leave you alone, whatever you’d like, and he’ll make sure you always have a fresh pint in front of ya.  Jess is there in evenings and weekend, often enough, draped in a tattooed map of the world.  After she started working there I found out she lives across the street from me, and have met her beau, Verne.  It might sound redundant, but good owners beget good staff, and good staff seems to beget good customers.  This is the kind of bar you can have a seat at the bar, and jump into the conversations around you without feeling like you’re intruding.  You wanna try that big bottle of beer over there, but don’t have anyone to share it with?  Fear not.  There’s someone who will happily split both the cost and the contents with you.

The prices have been designed to compete with the Applebee’s a few blocks down.  Entrees range from 8-15 dollars, or so.  The food is, at worst, pretty good, and at best, sublime.  Hitting the highlights: their ALT (that’s avacado-lettuce-tomato) might beat any BLT I’ve ever had; the Beef and Onion Pasties combine the sweetness of beef and onion with a salty pocket that balances as nicely as the malt in hops in your beer; King Rarebit with eggs and toast of Old Peculiar fondue…immaculate; they have vegan French Toast that goes down as wonderfully as any egg laden FT you’ll find; and the Port Richmond platter is the absolute best way to over-fill your stomach in the city.

Hartranft is sort’ve obsessed with Elvis Costello, so Declan MacManus gets a lot of play in the bar.  As does musical overlord Tom Waits, and spice appears in Fugazi and David Bowie and every other band you might love.  And if you don’t, fear not.  They keep the music loud enough that you can hear it, but not so loud that you must hear it.  There is one TV, but it’s big enough, and it’s got the sound off.  And it is almost always showing That Local Sporting Club.  Phillies games, Flyers games, plus the Tour de France, soccer games, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Eagles and Sixers games show up this fall there.  But, again, the sound if off.  You don’t want the TV, you don’t need the TV.

As for the beer, the philosophy there is different than a lot of the reputable places in the city.  There’s certainly no specific regional emphasis.  Beers will come from anywhere malt gets fermented, apparently, although there will always be one tap for the Philly Brewing Co which plies their trade just a few blocks away, and Sly Fox, which is, according to the owner, the best brewer in the area.  The rest of the taps and bottles seemed to be left to uncovering hidden gems.  Which is not, necessarily, to say RARE gems.  Yesterday, the gem meant Iron Hill’s Anvil Ale on the gravity cask.  The brew is an English Bitter, with loads of floral and grapefruit hops scents, but just a hint of their bite, and a rounding sweetness.  A great sipping beer, but the style isn’t bold or exciting, the alcohol content isn’t absurdly high, and, to the best of my knowledge, the beer isn’t oak aged or wildly fermented.  It’s just a perfectly balanced, well designed, well crafted beer that should drink just as well for the beer snob with Cantillon bottles in his basement (this guy) as it would for the middle aged guy who normally drinks Yuengling (the guy next to me at the bar yesterday).

Otherwise, special beers have included the Laurelwood Deranger Red, which apparently is pretty rare, even in Portland, but, again, doesn’t sport the popular style, nor is it known for the expensive fermentation process or the high booze content.  Sprecher’s Black Bavarian black lager is a creamy, roasted malty brew, which tastes like the best Russian Imperial Stout you’ve ever had, but with half the alcohol content, not to mention a lack of sticky flavors and syrupy consistency.  The surprise beers might be brews you’ve barely heard of, but didn’t realize how good they were until you finally drink them at the bar at the corner of Memphis and Cumberland.

Beautiful people, this is the best bar in the city.  Get yourselves to the Memphis Taproom.

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Especially You, HedonismBot!: Westvleteren Blonde

hedonism_bot.jpgAnd we’ve opened the Winter Beer Supply.  Thank God.

We debut the WBS on a sideways note, as we’re drinking the least acclaimed and respected beer from, perhaps, the most acclaimed and respected brewery in the world.   The Abbey of Saint Sixtus, which produces Westvleteren beer, produces three different brews–a dubbel, a quadrupel, and a blonde.  The blue and gold capped dubbel and quadrupel are sought the world over, and a six-pack of the beers will easily reach over $65 on eBay, and that’s before shipping.

The Missus and I have all three types Westvleteren beers, but we decided to open the WBS with the green capped blonde and save the best for later.

The blonde pours a hazy golden-wheat color, with a fuzzy head about one or two fingers tall, which bubbles away rapidly leaving a lacing of white foam around the edges of the glass.  The third glass in that picture is the blondie.

The scent is like wet grass and flowers and wheat and hay.

The beer is creamy, smooth, and grainy up front, and finishes with a quick ring of bitter hops.  Very crisp from start to finish, and dry on the palate.

There is no alcoholic presence at all.  And the flavor is dry and quick and pleasant from start to finish.  Very sessionable, and very good to drink, but, given the scarcity and the cost, it’s probably not worth more than a taste.

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Especially You HedonismBot!: Storm King Stout

hedonism_bot.jpgAmong the many fabulous breweries in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, perhaps the most well regarded is Victory, in Downingtown, which is a little less than an hour from Center City.  The brewery is most well known for its HopDevil Ale, a nicely bitter IPA, with good malty body and a floral scent.  They also have excellent pilsener, Prima Pils, a big, grassy double IPA called HopWallop, and an outstanding, sweet weizenbock named Moonglow.  Oh, and they make one of the best imperial stouts I’ve ever had: Storm King

Storm King is the kind of unique, complex beer that can evoke strange, irrepressible desires in enthusiastic beer drinkers.  Or maybe just Mrs Thursday. 

Now, your average Russian Imperial Stout is a big, black beastie, with huge malty body, and generally tastes of chocolate and coffee, but without the bitterness of either.  There’s a bit of alcoholic warmth, probably, but, when the beer is done right, the boozy heat is hidden under the layers of malt sweetness. 

Storm King isn’t quite like that.  It pours a deep black, completely opaque, with a meager tan head, even when the beer is poured aggressively.  The beer smells sweet and bitter at once, with raisins and black currants and molasses and roasted coffee. 

Its taste is complete in the mouth.  It seems to sticky coat everything–all sides of the tongue, the insides of cheeks, the roof of the mouth, and all the way down the throat.  Everything gets its own impressions.  The dark fruit sweetness hits first, followed by a lightly bitter, lightly sweet coffee flavor, and then an everlasting, bitter, hoppy aftertaste from the back of the mouth on down. 

An utterly outstanding beer.  A lot of flavors going on, but each one so pleasant that the beer is remarkably easy to drink for something so big and bold.

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Session 9 – Beer and Music – The Message in a Bottle

The Sessionis a monthly event in which beer bloggers (and bloggers who just like beer) write about a common beer-related topic on the same day.  This month’s edition of The Session is being hosted by Tomme Arthur, brewmaster for Lost Abbey, and the topic is Beer and Music.  This is our first contribution to The Session.  For the words of more experienced beer writers, head to Tomme’s blog, where all the posts will be rounded up.

The best jukebox in the entire city of Philadelphia is in a non-descript bar at the corner of 22nd and Lombard called Doobie’s.  I know it’s called Doobies, because there’s a little chalkboard that rests outside the bar on nice nights–not too cold, no rain–and it sometimes has the word “Doobie’s” written across its top.  Sometimes.  It’s sort’ve a hole-in-the-wall.  Barely even looks like a business from the outside. 

Walking inside, the place is dark.  Dark wood, dark floors, dark walls.  Until Philly passed the smoking ban within city limits, the place was constantly smoky, too.  Mrs Thursday (before she became Mrs Thursday, hell, even before she became Mr Thursday’s girlfriend) went there first, with a couple of friends, a few years ago.  At the place, she tried a bottle of a beer called Aldaris Porteris, which is a Latvian porter with roasted malts and molasses and all sorts of other, lovely, flavorful stuff.  She adoredit.  It was her first real venture into craft beer, and Aldaris Porteris is about as big a step away from Bud-Miller-Coors as can be made. 

Inevitably, a couple of weeks later, she took me there.  It was just the two of us, and she wanted another Aldaris.  We get to the place around 10PM on a Saturday night.  It’s kinda crowded but there are two seats at the end of the bar.  The jukebox is on the right just as you walk in.  We plan to be there for a bit, and so, before checking out the beer selection, I look to the music. 

Now, normally, I hate jukeboxes.  They almost always contain that same 50 odds albums, most of them things like “I Love the 80s, Vol 3” and “The Best of Elton John” and “Monster Ballads”.  Generally, I can live without the music in your average jukebox.  But, what does this one have?  My personal holy trinity of musical goodness: David Bowie, Elvis Costello, and Tom Waits.  So we pop in a dollar, and sooner or later, “Queen Bitch” and “What’s So Funny ‘Bout (Peace Love and Understanding)” and “Big Black Mariah” come floating out across the bar. 

Doobie’s was all out of Aldaris Porteris, but they did have Paulaner Hefe-weizen in 500ml bottles and Yard’s on a handpump, both of which taste great in a dark, smoky, nameless bar.  If that’s the kind of place a girl brings you, Papa Thursday always said to me, you be damn sure you hold onto her tight.

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Especially You, HedonismBot! – Scratch #5

hedonism_bot.jpgTroegs is an utterly fantastic brewery in Harrisburg, PA, which is about 90 minutes or so from Philadelphia, with a reasonable amount of speeding and light traffic.  I’ve never actually been there, but I can find the brewery on a map, and, like, I’ve had the beers before, so I’m pretty confident in everything I’ve said so far. 

Troegs makes a number of excellent and popular beers.  Their Christmas beer, Naked Elf, is a spicy, big ale, and worth a try next to a fireplace.  Ya know, instead of hot chocolate.  Their Troegenator Doppelbock won an award at the Great American Beer Festival this year, and is probably on par, in quality, with Ayinger’s celebrated Celebrator Doppelbock.  Their Nugget Nectar is something of a legendary superhopped amber ale, especially since a local bar had the stuff on a hand pump, and it was pouring with unrivaled creamy smoothness.  As a bonus, almost all their beers can be had at reasonable prices, so this is a brewery to treasured, their beers to be hoarded and consumed greedily by grateful masses. 

The brewery was founded by two brothers, Chris and John Trogner (according to the website, Trogner, combined with kroeg, the Flemish word for pub, yielded Troeg).  Before starting the brewery, the brothers, obviously, had a significant interest in craft beer drinking, and as such, they would try different beers, making notes upon them, and then try to emulate the styles they liked as homebrewers.  Those early, homebrew recipes are what led to the Troegs Brewing Company.  This year, the 10th birthday for Troegs, the brothers decided to release a series of one-off beers, called the Scratch Beer Series.  Each beer would be made from one of their early homebrewing recipes.  The 5th Scratch beer was released last weekend at their 10th Anniversary Celebration.  The first four Scratch beers (1 – Steam beer, 2 – porter, 3 – tripel, 4 – barleywine), were so well received and the anniversary party so anticipated, that it was expected that Scratch #5 would sell out before the day was over. 

I could not go to the party, as I had plans in the afternoon, but was planning to get up early, drive to Harrisburg, pick up a case of the stuff from their bottleshop, and then drive back home to Philly–3 hours of driving for one case of beer.  However, things beyond my control waylaid my plans, and it was assumed that Scratch #5 was lost forever.  

And then, thankfully, a local bottle shop sent out their weekly email to let me know that they had, in stock, Scratch 5, and shortly thereafter I appeared to buy four of them. 

So, is there any point in telling you about this beer?  It was, in all likelihood, a one-off.  It’s a beer made a brewery that only distributes in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and Virginia.  So, only you readers in one of five states even have a chance of finding it, and even then, your chance is small.  So, no, there’s probably no point.  But in the hope that they do this again next year, I’ll tell you: Scratch #5 is a fantastic beer.

I sat drinking it last night, flipping back and forth between Houseand the Democratic Presidential Debate, which was happening in Philadelphia, at Drexel University.  Mrs Thursday was on a nearby chair, battling flu, and going through tissues at a prodigious rate.  Brother Goose was lying on the couch, his cheek swollen from having wisdom teeth removed, and his face swollen from an allergic reaction to medicine given to him by the dentist.  Everyone was miserable, except for me.  Scratch 5 is an oatmeal stout.  I don’t know the alcohol content, but I can tell you, you can’t taste it.  The beer is black and opaque, and it smells sickly sweet, like an oatmeal raisin cookie.  The beer feels heavy in the glass.  Much heavier than expected.  The taste isn’t nearly so sweet as the smell, but some natural oatmeal sweetness comes through, anyway.  The beer is thick like heavy cream, with just a touch of bitterness at the end, which doesn’t linger.  It’s an utterly fantastic beer.  I hope they make it again.

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The Bigger Room, the Smaller Room

When you’re in your little room
and you’re working on something good
but if it is really good
You’re gonna need a bigger room
and when you’re in the bigger room
You might not know what to do
You might have to think of
How you got started sittin’ in your little room

What?  Baseball season is, essentially over, as it appears that the Rockies cannot hit the crazy pitchers of the Red Sox juggernaut (though the Curious Mechanism hopes for turnaround once the series moves west), and so there’s not much left to do but read and drink.  For this post, it’s useful to do both.  Sick of beer-related posting?  Well, quit crying about it.  You find me another interesting story that allows me to use the beloved Irony tag, and I’ll write that one up, too.

The Boston Beer Company–Sam Adams to you and me, though just Sam to people in Boston–is the fifth largest brewer in America.  Smaller than Budweiser, Coors, and Miller, obviously, and also smaller than Pabst.  It is, by far, the largest craft brewery in the US, and probably one of the largest in the world.  And so, there are two sides to the Boston Beer Company.  The corporate, commercial side that runs commercials during baseball games in an effort to pry some of the Budweiser-Miller-Coors (BMC) audience away from their blander brews is one half.  The other half is the craft brewing side, that does things like create Utopias (a 25%ABV beer that sells for $100 per 750ml bottle), and their Hallertau Imperial Pilsner (a mega-hopped lager). 

The lyrics at the top of this post, and in the title are from a song called “Little Room” by The White Stripes.  The song makes use of almost the exact same irony that the Boston Beer Company has going on right now. 

First, the corporate nonsense: the current mayor of Portland, OR, announced that he would not be running for another term, and stepping up to run was a city politician named–you guessed it–Samuel Adams.  When Adams started advertising (with a Sam Adams for Mayor website), he was sent a letter from the Boston Beer Company, who have had the name Samuel Adams trademarked since 1984, demanding that he surrender the sites.  The politician, of course, recognizes their trademark, but figgered that being born with the name Samuel Adams in 1963, he’ll be allowed to use his own name in advertisements for, well, himself.  Here’s the AP story.  The Boston Beer Company didn’t even realize that the candidate’s name really was Sam Adams.  This sort of corporate paranoia and laziness–hearing about a local ad involving Samuel Adams and immediate moving to quash it, without bothering to learn what was going on, is something that could be expected from a corporation, from the BMC, or from any large business. 

The Boston Beer Company is trying to play with the big boys, and as such, they are playing like the big boys.  And coming off as jerks. 

And yet, this week, they remain the greatest champion of the little guy–the smallest brewers there are–home brewers.  Jim Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Company, started his brewing in 1984 in his home, selling the beer for the first time in 1985, to a local pub for Patriot’s Day.  The company was able to grow out of Koch’s kitchen because of a massive amount of support from the American Homebrewer’s Association.  Now that Boston Beer is as large as it is, Koch and company are giving back to the little guy.  Each year at Denver’s Great American Beer Festival, Boston Beer hosts the Longshot Homebrewing Competition.  Homebrewers from all over the country enter the competition, and regional judges bring the best brews to Denver.  Festival goers then try the beers and vote upon them, and the winning beers are packaged and sold by the Boston Beer Company. Here’s the excellent story about it from Joe Sixpack.

The fifth largest brewer in the country is going to package Joe Schmo’s beer, put his face on the label, and sell the stuff all over the country. 

It’s so odd and fantastic, I think, that one company can do two diametrically opposed things in one week.  Hooray for irony!  Hooray for beer!

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Especially You, HedonismBot! 7: Oktoberfest (Stoudt’s)

hedonism_bot.jpgOktoberfest, the famous German holiday, does not, of course, take place in October.  Originally, the holiday was a celebration of the wedding of Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese in mid-October, but since German reunification, the holiday has begun in September, and ended in October.  Good enough.

The four tradition Munich breweries are the only beers sold at Oktoberfest–Paulaner, Augustiner, Hacker-Schorr, and Spaten-Franziskaner.  In the tents, a blonde wheat-beer is served to patrons.  In America, however, beer drinkers looking for a little taste of the fine Bavarian autumn grab a case of Marzen–the Oktoberfest style–and pour the beer into a glass only to discover their beer is a dark amber color.  Why the difference?

Well, once upon a time, when German breweries started shipping their Oktoberfest to the US, they were forced to change the recipe a bit.  Refrigerated compartments didn’t really exist, and this delicate brew couldn’t stand the long voyage and the dramatic temperature shifts that can occur in the galleys of a ship.  This Special Export Marzen, however, became popular wherever it sailed, and as the American craft brew movement started growing in the 1980s and 1990s, breweries inspired by German craftsmen, and attempted to create their own. 

Stoudt’s isn’t, necessarily, a German inspired brewery, which is odd, because the brewery resides in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County, which possesses an overwhelmingly German population.  The brewery, I think, is distinctly American, though it’s influences range from Germany, to Belgium, to England and Scotland, and all the way across the country to the West Coast hop bombers.  They’ve made their impression on styles of beer all over the world, and with fantastic success. 

That said, I’m not overwhelmed by their Oktoberfest.  The beer pours an excellent dark amber color, with a pillowing white head of foam, and smells of sweetness and citrus hops.  The latter flavor was unexpected, certainly.  The beer feels a bit thin in the mouth, and the citrus tang that follows every sip isn’t for me. 

It’s not a bad beer, by any means, but I’m not a fan of it, and I much preferred both of the Marzens I had from Victory (their Festbier and their Wiesen) this fall. 

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