Many people think Pennsylvania’s complicated laws around wine, beer, and liquor are annoying. But, bear with us, it may be why Philly’s beer scene is so special.
Yes, you can’t buy beer and liquor in the same store, and that can be inconvenient, says Jason Miller, marketing director at 31st and Wharton and longtime Philadelphia beer professional. “But I think that’s allowed beer distributors to really expand the variety of beer available,” he said.
“For such a long time, bottle shops couldn’t have wine and they still don’t have spirits, so they had to focus on beer, and they put together these really large and well thought out beer lists.”
The sheer volume of beer available in this region is apparent at local beer bars and breweries, but it’s even more evident at the bottle shops that dot the neighborhoods and towns in the Philadelphia area.
Here, shop owners stock fridges with a carefully curated selection of beer bottles and cans, ranging from local favorites to hard-to-find brews from faraway states and countries. You can build your own six-pack or pick up a four- or six-pack from the fridge. At many, you can even find wine (a recent addition due to changes in state regulations), some food options, and a place to sit down for a drink and a snack. So, you can choose to crack open your beer at the shop’s bar area or just pick up some brews to enjoy at home.
Essentially, bottle shops fuse your casual neighborhood bar with a well-stocked beer store.
For Liz Einhorn, a consultant who spent 10 years working in beer distribution in the Philadelphia region, the selection of craft beer in Philadelphia is one of the best in the country.
Which means that you can sometimes find beers that aren’t widely available yet elsewhere.
“Philadelphia was one of the first cities on the East Coast to get access to beer from [California’s] Russian River Brewing Company,” Einhorn said. “That’s a testament to Tom Peters at Monk’s Café, and it’s indicative of the culture in the city: We celebrate local, sure, but we also celebrate great brewers in general.”
Peters, widely regarded as the grandfather of Philadelphia’s beer scene, has been nominated for three James Beard Foundation awards for his work at Monk’s Café, which he opened in 1997. Monk’s is known for its collection of Belgian beers, and its influence has helped establish Philadelphia as the drinking city it is today, encouraging nationally regarded brewers to bring their beers to the East Coast, increasing availability not just for Monk’s, but for bars and bottle shops across the city.
The result: An enormous diversity of bottles are sold in and around the city. But that diversity can also present a challenge to bottle shops.
“I think the number one thing that leads to a bottle shop’s success is having a well-manicured selection,” Miller says. “There are tons of bottle shops that constantly over-order on beer, which leads to beer not getting rotated appropriately.”
Miller recommends checking package dates on bottles and cans. Different styles can age differently — a hazy IPA, for example, should be consumed as soon as possible, whereas some heavier styles like porters and stouts can benefit from aging. In general, he says, if a shop is carrying bottles and cans that are older than 120 days, that’s something to be concerned about, unless they’re intentionally aging.
Whether you’re seeking out special bottles for your collection or just a six-pack for an afternoon with friends, here’s where to shop for beer in Philly.
Einhorn calls RyBrew the triple threat: ice cream from Harper’s Ice Cream, beer (both bottles and drafts), and sandwiches. Owner Ryan Pollock arranges the beers by brewery, which he prefers because it lets you try new beers from familiar names. Cult beer chasers should sign up for RyBrew’s newsletter, which does a good job of letting customers know when something special or limited comes into the shop.
Out in Quakertown, owners John and Susan Dale (and now their daughter, Anna Kate Dale, the general manager) have been running the historic hotel since John took over the bar from his parents in 1975. Sometime in the early 2000s, he introduced a menu of about two dozen Belgian, German, and English beers, and quickly realized the demand was there for beers that no one else in the area was offering. Since then, they’ve put in 17 draft lines and carry more than 300 beers, specializing in Trappist beers, as well as hard-to-find domestic craft beers, all available in the bottle shop. Look for special collaborations and allocations from local breweries like their bourbon barrel-aged Russian Imperial stout called Anna’s Ralphius with Free Will Brewing, or just peep to see what special bottles are behind the bar.
In addition to the 20 taps in the main bar, West Philly’s Local 44 operates a small bottle shop next door. The focus is split between local breweries and the classic Belgian, German, and English styles of beer that first got owner Brendan Kelly into beer. Its enormous selection beers are organized in display cases by flavor, including Belgian-ish, hoppy, and funky.
Attached to the side of a family-run restaurant in Norristown is one of the best bottle shops in the region. Employees estimate there are more than 800 bottles in the small space, which regularly gets single cases of super rare beers. Proprietor Matt Capone has spent years building relationships with craft breweries across the country, gaining access to some of the smallest allocations in the state. Occasionally, Capone will even hold back bottles to age, releasing them later, an indication of his curation and care of the selection. Sign up for his weekly email to get inside info on what’s new, but know that some of the most special bottles are released by in-person raffles to help even the playing field for his dedicated customer base. The restaurant also has 30 draft lines, many of which are available for growlers. Another draw: The bottle shop at Capone’s is open 365 days a year.
The original Foodery location has been open since 1976 at the corner of 10th and Pine. The space, which you could easily mistake as just another corner market, is snug but well-stocked. Fridges with regionally organized bottles from around the world (which is also its slogan) line the walls. There is as much space dedicated to Belgian, British, and German beers as there are for local brews, and you’ll even find a small selection of Asian craft brews, plus a cooler dedicated to seasonal and special release options. Near the door, the sale selection regularly has gems available for a deal. The other, newer locations (in Northern Liberties, Roxborough, Phoenixville, and Chestnut Hill; the Rittenhouse location is unaffiliated) all have more space (and less 1970s corner store vibes). The small, original space is, as Einhorn says, Philly’s first craft bottle shop.
Passyunk’s bottle shop also operates just as much as a neighborhood bar, with comfortable outdoor seating perfect for people watching on the Avenue and plenty of tables inside as well. The collection of bottles and cans isn’t the largest in the city, but it’s mostly focused on local breweries, allowing out-of-towners to get a sense of what the city has to offer. Up front, you’ll find a couple of rotating drafts, as well as the occasional boozy ice pop, frozen slushies, and snacks. Take your bottles to one of Passyunk’s BYOs, or enjoy them on-site. The Bottle Shop also delivers its entire selection of beer, wine, and canned cocktails.
There’s no rhyme or reason to the beer selection at Monde, but close inspection will reveal hidden treasures, like a selection of well-priced bottles from Russian River, and a surprisingly large offering of Belgians among a broad swath of local and international craft and commercial beers. If you know what you’re looking for, or at least how to identify something that you might want to drink, this is a great place to browse — but don’t expect much guidance from the cashiers. There’s currently no indoor seating, but the food counter also turns out hoagies that pair well with whatever you select.