Before the recent boom of Philly-based breweries, the region's great beer-drinking spirit had long been fueled by suburban-based breweries.
Photography by David Swanson / Staff Photographer
Thursday, October 19, 2017
Some towns like Phoenixville (six brewpubs) and Ardmore (the Tired Hands cult) are now practically synonymous with their brewing cultures. La Cabra (Berwyn), Round Guys (Lansdale), Vault (Yardley), and Sterling Pig (Media) have become integral parts of their respective dining scenes.
The wealth of other options also noted here is proof that the suburban brewpub revolution is far from over, with projects drawing big crowds to the unlikely setting of industrial parks, far-flung strip malls, and now a new surge of breweries across the river, where beer entrepreneurs are priming Main Street revivals in small towns all across South Jersey. The go-local flavor is now as fresh in our glasses as it is on our plates.
Within just a couple years, this ambitious production brewery from the owners of Two Stones Pub and former Iron Hill prize master, brewer Bob Barrar, has produced some of the region's best imperial stouts (like the GABF and Brewvitational-winning "the Russian") as well as quaffacle canned favorites like Delco Lager and 2SPils that channel Aston's blue-collar spirit with crafty new takes on lager.
This laid-back cousin to Sean Weinberg’s Restaurant Alba has brought wood-fired Neapolitan pizza and craft beer to a colorful Bryn Mawr corner space, where locals gather around communal tables to savor the heat-blistered pies, veg-forward small plates, and a limited but satisfying selection of moderately-sized entrées and pastas that are well-priced for the neighborhood. Try Da Bomb, Daytripper and “Pepe’s” (for a clam pie!), but also the charred carrots, fried cauliflower, farro salad, rigatoni with chicken ragu and spaghetti alla chittara. A fridge stocked with 80 craft brews (plus six on draft) is an added draw for pizza-loving beer geeks.
Jenkintown has turned a brewpub disaster into redemption. The impressive industrial chic bones of a former Rolls-Royce showroom beside the Hiway Theater — which failed as Guild Hall Brewery after just four months — has been revived as an energetic outlet for Croyden’s Neshaminy Creek Brewing. The 20 taps of Neshaminy brews are reliably good (J.A.W.N., Concrete Pillow, Passive Though Kölsch, And Justice for Alt, Croyden is Burning). But now so is the food, with the team behind Revolution Taco turning out global small plates that are affordable and fun for beer-drinking nibbles, with dry-aged beef meatballs, fried chicken bao buns, some outstanding empanadas, and flatbread tossed with goat cheese and merguez.
Boxcar, which opened in 2010, added this lively brewpub in downtown West Chester as a smart alternative to the crowded distribution market. The space hosts frequent performances, but it's mostly been a showcase for the improved consistency of Boxcar's beers. Among its well-balanced takes on common styles, I liked the citrusy 1492 American Pale and the malty Passenger English mild. The locally driven menu, meanwhile, delivered a delicate salad with Chester County Asian pears and goat cheese to counter the hearty comfort of a tender chicken schnitzel over a sweet potato waffle and tasty Boxtoberfest-infused brats with house-fermented kraut and whole-grain spaetzle.
A wood-fired oven anchors the menu at this surprisingly ambitious duo of gastropubs, with solid pizzas, quality burgers, multiple uses for slow-cooked meats (duck confit and braised short rib) and a signature grilled pineapple app topped with hickory smoked pork and guacamole that speaks to the pile-it-high creativity of this kitchen. Even the decadent dessert shake gets topped with a cannoli. But it’s really the drink program that most impressed here, with one of the best whiskey collections in the burbs, serious cocktails and an outstanding list of craft beers on draft.
Conshohocken Brewing Co.
739 E. Elm St., Suite B, Conshohocken, 610-897-8962, visit website
Suddenly, Conshohocken Brewing Co. is one of the region's fasting growing brewpub chains, with a pair of new locations coming soon to Havertown and Phoenixville in addition to its existing two. The original is a bare-bones former industrial space with a limited menu but a thirsty cyclist's delight, since it's perched right on the Schuylkill River Trail. The Bridgeport location is a full-on brewpub with a beer-garden view of the river and big menu, including fun tacos and the loaded "Prof" Wagyu burger that's a favorite of celebrity partner, sports radio host Glen Macnow. Most importantly, Conshy's beer quality is rising, too, with strong finishers in the Inquirer's recent Brew-vitational competition (Type A IPA, Conshohopfen Hull Melon Helles) to go along with its already excellent Puddlers Row ESB.
The wider world of national food TV celebs has lately discovered what locals have known for decades: this old-school Camden tavern serves one of the most irreplaceable cheesesteak variations in the region: a Kaiser roll piled high with tender griddled meat, cheese, and a juicy mop of saucy onions that’s actually almost more onion than beef. It’s a deliciously sloppy mess, even more intense when amped with one of the house-fermented hot sauces. Donkey’s recent embrace of craft beer also is encouraging, as a cold draft of Tonewood Fuego IPA, brewed just minutes away in Oaklyn makes the food taste all the better.
South Jersey has been on a tear of impressive new breweries since state laws were tweaked, though strict license regulations dictate that most are still tasting rooms rather than full-service brewpubs. Double Nickel in nearby Pennsauken has been one of the most successful, scoring multiple Inquirer Brewvitational awards for its Vienna lager (the thinking man's Yuengling), which opens an accessible door to DN's big tasting room, where bigger beers - including many barrel-aged specials - are available.
This rambling old house just off Ambler's main strip is the source for some of the region's most lyrical barrel-aged saisons, including some made with wild yeast harvested from cherry blossoms in the front yard, as well as outstanding bitters and IPAs. F&M seems to have lost much interest in being a dining destination, though, with a pub menu that is increasingly limited, inconsistently executed, and served by a young staff that simply didn't seem to care that our meal was off.
There's no kitchen at this brewery deep in the heart of thirsty Bucks County - just a lively food truck scene. But the crowds of beer tourists are impressive, toasting with cloudy "New England-style" IPAs, malty brown ales on nitro, and frothy mango-wheat brews at community tables amid shiny fermentation tanks on the production floor. Most of the excitement, though, unfolds in the basement where founder and brewmaster John Stemler has 1,500 barrels aging, lambic-style, to mouth-puckering sour beer perfection. If you can, get a taste of Olly, a rare curiosity that takes three years to age, or one of the younger sours with seasonal fruit and local grains like Provisional Funk w/Cherries. A perfect first stop to pick up something for a BYOB dinner nearby called Maize.
It's worth the ride out to Douglassville for a picturesque pint on the outdoor patio beside a stream leading to the nearby Schuylkill, or inside the spooky old barrooms hung with taxidermy (and apparently ghosts, too) of the 300-year-old Brinton Lodge. The tiny 93-gallon system puts out an impressive and ever-changing lineup of hyper-creative beers brewed with the Lodge's own well water and an array of unconventional seasonal ingredients (cucumbers? hot peppers? azalea trimmings?) that almost always work because of the pure freshness and balanced hand of the craftsmanship. I can still taste the summery punch of the dandelion saison (in a good way). And "Hairy Scary," a seasonal fall brown ale with house-smoked butternut squash and the surprising kick of habaneros, was far better I expected. The Transmutation of Species pale ale was hazy, fresh and quaffable. There's a small menu of panini and salads rooted in local produce, as well as charcuterie plates from Pottstown's Freeland Market, and exceptional local cheese. The house pretzel made from the brewery's spent grains is also not to be missed.
With 13 locations in three states (including one in the works for Center City), America's seventh-largest brewpub chain has earned national kudos for its polished dark wood decor and ability to balance well-crafted core beers with creative specials from talented individual brewers. They're comfortable and accessible, with food that's generally better than at most chains, even if the huge menu sometimes panders to trends (pumpkin sriracha wings; dandan noodles) and falls back on too much sweetness (ahi tuna salad) for my taste. I've enjoyed the fish tacos and jaegerschnitzel. And service is reliably informative about the beers, which always offer edgier offerings to balance reliable classics like Pig Iron Porter.
Can breweries revive a downtown strip? Yes. But how about a town that's been dry for over a century? Tiny Pitman, which is anchored by a 19th century Methodist camp, is now home to not just one, but two little breweries. And this postage stamp-sized storefront tasting room (also the first in Gloucester County) is an intimate place to meet some friendly beer-loving locals and sip a small range of well-made core brews at their freshest. The Endgrain Coffee Porter, infused on draft with a Randall device packed with fresh oranges, was unexpectedly memorable.
It's marked by a skull-shape hop flower and hidden down a ramp just off Kennett Square's downtown drag. But indie-minded drinkers have found their way to this darkly lit passion project from a former metalsmith and hang-glider designer, Mark Osborne, and his wife, Jossy. The menu is in flux under new chef Jesus Rodriguez, who plans to add both new Italian and Mexican accents to the pub fare. But Osborne's love of slow-boiled Brit-style brews is the biggest lure. I loved the Wee Wobbly Scottish 100 Schilling, the chocolaty Bollocks Baird Black IPA, and crisply honeyed The Kidd pale ale, all poured from taps topped with antique farm tools, and served on a copper bar Osborne fitted himself.
One of the local craft-beer scene’s newest stars can be found across from the Berwyn train station, where former Spanish teacher and garage cult brewer, Dan Popernack, has combined his love of beer and Spanish culture for a gastropub that dabbles in pan-Latino themes. The kitchen veers liberally from tradition, but leans on indulgent scratch cooking (lots of pork belly and duck confit) to embellish dishes ranging from tacos to Cubano sandwiches and foie gras pierogi. Don’t miss the corn crème brûlée for dessert. The initial beers were very good, but Popernack’s true passion — for funky barrel-aged brews — began emerging from La Cabra’s cellar this spring, with variations on Belgian sours and wild yeast lambics called the Aleatory Series that are impressive.
Levante is yet another testament to the power of great beer to bring a huge crowd of evening revelers to the back of a random industrial park edged by Dumpsters. It's not the food trucks that do it. It's one of the better-crafted broad line-ups of any suburban brewery, including Cloudy and Cumbersome NE IPA, malty Drachenstadt festbier, several refreshing sours, solid Split Rail Saison, and a roasty Clocktower porter.
The Stables, 160 Park Rd., Chester Springs, 484-999-8761, visit website
I don't really come for the floppy '50s-era pies at this classic Media pizzeria. I come for one of the best beer gardens and bottleshops in the 'burbs, with over 1,000 varieties to go in mix-and-match six-packs as well as 25 rotating taps, available to go in growlers or crowlers.
The standards are solid enough at this northern outpost for a deli fix, from the fresh turkey special to a grilled corned beef Rachel (with coleslaw instead of kraut) that was hard to stop eating, despite the fact the meat was sliced far thinner than I prefer. The standout flavors here were the crispy-edged potato pancakes — the centers a nice blend of pureed and chunky textures — and a mushroom barley soup flecked with tiny bits of carrot that remind why that hearty soup is often a sleeper hit. Also, since when did delis start serving craft beer? Pastrami tastes better washed down with Golden Monkey.
A new brewpub opens seemingly every month in this town, and Root Down is one of the newest. Set inside a deceptively large warehouse space of a converted Hires Root Beer plant, owner and ex-Marine Mike Hamara has paired with head brewer and Sly Fox alum Steve Bischoff to create a solid opening portfolio covering a broad range of styles, from a crisp pilsner to an ever-evolving IPA (Bine), and a “Cosmic” series of Imperial stouts like the barrel-aged Woodie that impressed me. A smoker turns out a BBQ picnic from the kitchen.
Downtown Lansdale’s blue-collar crowd has embraced Round Guys as a friendly hub for adventure brews, Quizzo, and brazenly indulgent eats. Go for “All the Beer” — couple of planks laden with 17 small pours — for the full range of Scott Rudich’s prolific creativity, from bretty creations and hoppy IPAs to fruit-kissed saisons and Rudich’s Brewvitational-winning Berliner. The heavy menu can be “round guy”-friendly to a fault, with a cheesy chopped Italian sausage-ground beef meat bomb (the Hasselhoff), myriad spaetzle riffs, and a local Bespoke Bacon platter worth indulging. There is “hipster hummus,” though, for a lighter touch.
Wings, burgers, and fried stuff in buckets at this predictable sports-bar-style venue in Phoenixville don't really do justice to the excellence and character of the beers from one of the region's finest breweries. Best to keep it simple with pizzas and pork sliders at the "Tastin' Room" at the Pottstown brewery, where the Pikeland Pils, Royal Weisse, Saison VOS and O'Reilly's Stout are as fresh as they get.
With a sprawling beer garden of picnic tables, competitive cornhole tossers, and occasional live music anchoring the western bend of Bridge Street, Stable 12 is one of Phoenixville’s most visible new breweries. Brewer Mike Deger, another Sly Fox alum, has been focusing on IPAs and darker beers and has landed some early hits with
Crowd Pleaser, a cloudy East Coast-style Double IPA full of juicy hops aroma without too much bitterness, and a hefty Russian Imperial stout called Rodeo Clown. There’s a menu of pub food and multiple burgers for ballast.
There is so much potential in this sprawling, tri-level Media brewpub from ex-Rock Bottom brewer Brian McConnell and restaurateur Loic Barnieu (La Belle Epoque, Picasso). And the beers are better than average, especially the signature Snuffler IPA, a Schweintoberfest bier that’s been made in the past with local Deer Creek malt, a Pata Negra schwarzbier, and the hibiscus-tinted Snap Dragon grisette. The BBQ and pizza kitchen struggled early on, but I’ve heard enthusiastic recent reports, especially about the brisket and smoked wings.
With national supermarket chains big footing into the beer sales arena, the independents have been challenged. But Wayne’s Beer Yard, an important early source for the budding local craft brew scene, remains a prime hub for Main Line beer geeks to connect with a passionate and knowlegeable staff that’s plugged into the latest local beer projects and special issue bottles, as well as a national and international selection that numbers in the thousands.
With the garage doors rolled-up to reveal community tables inside its lively corner space, Jimi Hendrix blues jamming on the stereo, and the light strung sidewalk packed with picnic table beer drinkers and their families, some excitement has come to Oaklyn’s mini-downtown strip in the form of one of my favorite new breweries. Tonewood’s big hit is undoubtedly the Fuego, South Jersey’s dank and juicy answer to the hazy IPA trend (available in cans). But I was also impressed with their handle on classic maltier styles like the deep amber Dreadnaught Dunkel, a nutty Munich lager, and the creamy dark Barrel Bound stout full of roasty bittersweet baker’s chocolate notes that should booze-up nicely once a portion is done aging in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels.
What began a decade ago as a Belgian bar with a novel Mexican twist has settled in, refined its Euro-taqueria bistro menu, and evolved into so much more than just a great beer bar. There simply aren’t many places on the planet where you can order a bowl of delicate waterzooi seafood stew alongside some amazingly tender goat tacos — the meat braised down overnight with chilies. But even more compelling, TND, which is in fact right next door to the Italian-themed BYOB Teresa’s, has blossomed into what may well be the single greatest place to drink well in the suburbs, no matter what your beverage preference — a distinction that has elevated it to a third bell. There are nearly 400 whiskeys from around the world, available in flights as well as outstanding cocktails (the $10 G&T bar offers 16 different gins and eight different tonics). There’s a tap box that is entirely gluten-free, with several meads, ciders, sake, and wines on draft. Beverage director Chris Peters’ 75-bottle wine list is about to go to entirely “natural” — wines made with minimal intervention, with the bonus of a license to sell those bottles retail with just $9 added to cost. (Few, if any, are available in state stores.) And, of course, you can also still find some of the greatest beers in the world on draft here, from Russian River’s Pliny the Elder to Val-Dieu blond and Italian stout brewed with balsamic among the recent choices on its 24 taps, along with three handpumps, and about 150 bottles from which to choose.
Chef and partner Andy Dickerson does a fine job making sure the menu is up to all that booze, tapping my most elemental poutine bar cravings with the Disco Frites tossed in Mornay sauce with Brie and demiglace gravy. Corn-crisped long-stemmed artichokes make a sophisticated nibble, while the fricadellen give a beer-braised Belgian accent to little meatballs made from nutmeg-scented veal and pork. The carnitas tacos are my second choice when I’ve had my fill of goat. That’s when it’s time to explore those whiskeys for an after dinner nip — at which point I’m grateful Teresa’s is not far from the train, or an easy ride request with my phone. “Uber,” Dickerson says, “is our friend!”
Can you imagine a bumping Northern Liberties-style gastropub slipped into a quiet retail strip “out in the sticks”? That’s exactly what Standard Tap alums Cody Ferdinand and Gerard Angelini have created at the Butcher & Barkeep in Harleysville, channeling that “city vibe by turning the lights down low and the music up.” They’ve also loaded the 21-tap draft system (plus a vast list of bottles) with one of the best beer selections in the suburbs covering local, esoteric and international stars. But this is more than a beer bar. I had some of the best craft cocktails of my summer here, including a perfect Boulevardier softened by the vanilla oak of weeks in a barrel. Next time, I’ll be stepping up to the boozy pyrotechnics of a North Country Fair, a bourbon-apple jack and Cynar concoction that gets smoked to order with a star anise pod. Killer Bloody Mary’s anchor the chicken-and-waffles Sunday brunch.
All the great libations are only part of the reason 550 people can cycle through its spacious series of barn-like dining rooms on a busy Saturday. Chef Jeff Sacco has created a neighborhood-friendly menu with bold flavors that adds up to an admirably affordable experience for the quality, with fresh takes on (fairly large) small plates almost entirely under $15 (the confit of rabbit hits $17), rotating meat and cheese boards, sandwiches built with scratch meats (house-corned beef for the Reuben), and a frequent Southern flair, from the decadent shrimp and grits with tasso ham and andouille pepper cream, to tender St. Louis ribs and a convincing shrimp gumbo over dirty rice. A thick slice of cashew-crusted mahi mahi over sweet potatoes ringed by chive cream was both creative and a stellar value at $14. But the can’t-miss dish here, no doubt, is the “sexy fries,” a mountain of fresh cut, excellent frites tossed in truffled hollandaise and shaved Parmesan with the crunchy lift of scallions. It is such a no-holds-barred decadent mess that resistance is futile. Yes, “sex” can sell French fries in a strip mall. But it’s really the complete package of the right concept in the most unlikely place that makes the Butcher & Barkeep one of the region’s great neighborhood restaurants.
As if there wasn’t already enough beer in Phoenixville, this mega-branch of Center City’s famed by-the-bottle beer shop chain has opened what may be the single largest collection of craft brews for sale by the bottle in the entire region. Yes, there’s a sandwich deli, too. But it’s the 28-yard bank of fridges holding as many as 1,400 choices, including many rarities from around the country and world, that give this town of local microbrews plenty of global beer choices, too.
No brewery has done more to put a suburban town on the national hipster map than Tired Hands, the iconoclastic producer of funky saisons and experimental “milkshake” IPAs that can incite blocks-long lines of beer geeks who’ve traveled from far and wide in hopes of scoring the latest release. (The owner of a beer store in Vermont recently told me he’d been to Ardmore “many times” — but never visited Philly.) In many ways, its swift organic growth into four separate facilities (including the Dispensary “oak throne room” aging warehouse) has helped to stamp Ardmore’s status as the Main Line’s coolest Main Street.
The sprawling Fermentaria brewpub is the primary draw. Set in the noisy industrial shell of a former trolley works filled with big oak barrels, this is the place to taste the widest array of the ever-changing brews along with a menu of traditional and unconventional tacos — curried cauliflower, carnitas, chicken verde — as well as hummus plates and a good burger topped with HopHands mustard. The original Brew Café is a more intimate destination for a distinct set of beers to sip along with house pickles, sandwiches, and tasty bread baked from beer yeast served warm with local butter. The General Store right next door, meanwhile, is the place to load-up on T-shirts, cyclist gear and growlers to go.
This humble nano-brewery is a strip-mall surprise amid the slim pickings and pizza shops in the far Bucks County 'burbs. The 50-gallon system at the former Crabby Larry's is tiny, and lately has featured some British styles - a malty Welsh ale, a special bitter and a porter homage to Colonial Philly's Robert Hare. Chef Stanley Kreft's pub-plus menu, built around pierogies made with his mom's recipe, a LaFrieda short rib burger, and a kielbasa twist on a corn dog.
While the kids frolic in the chocolate park next door, grown-ups can tour the impressive brewery, sit in the soaring industrial tasting room surrounded by the gleaming brewhouse, sample 15 Troegs beers on tap, and graze at a "snack bar" with the gourmet ambitions of cider-glazed duck confit, house-cured charcuterie, escargots, and fondue made with Mad Elf.
The safe door is swung wide open at this converted 19th-century bank. But the gleaming brewery behind the bar (not to mention the wood-fired pizza oven) cue the space’s current incarnation as one of the most well-rounded entries in the brewpub field. The beers excel with twists on familiar styles like local malt and hops for the Penn Harvest ale, sweet potatoes (instead of pumpkin) for a creamy seasonal brew on nitro draft, a little smoke in the Robust Porter. Vault’s hearth-driven kitchen delivers with nouveau takes on pizza (duck confit with caramelized onions, bacon, and apples), cauliflower roasted in vivid orange Buffalo glaze, big salads (couscous, kale, and goat cheese), and oven-roasted s’mores with oozing beer-infused marshmallows.
Victory Brewing Co. Brewpub
650 W. Cypress St. (also 3127 Lower Valley Rd., Parkesburg (opens soon); original location at 420 Acorn Lane, Downingtown), Kennett Square, 484-730-1870, visit website
One of pillars of this region's craft-brewing scene - and now the nation's 13th-largest craft brewer, since merging in 2016 with Southern Tier - Victory has three large brewpubs with seating for hundreds in Chester County. The stock brewpub menu of burgers, wings, and hand-tossed fresh pretzels is solid. But at its best, the cavernous K-Square branch pushes the edges of what a large-format brewpub can be, sourcing quality local ingredients and strutting chef creativity on specials with international inspirations. The massive 30-tap system, meanwhile, will remind why Victory is not just big, but also one of America's best, from the crispy Braumeister Pils and classic Golden Monkey to a completely addicting seasonal gose kissed with kirsch.