What's so exciting about the region's current brewpub boom? The sheer diversity of the movement.
Yes, the area's corporate pioneers are still thriving. But the indie newcomers have gone well beyond the familiar templates, with quirky concepts in unlikely locales, from far-flung strip malls to bike paths along the river, colonial inns, emerging city neighborhoods, and vibrant suburban main streets.
Some have full kitchens. Others make the most of crock pots, induction burners, and a panini press. But a few things became clear as I grazed and sipped my way through 14 of the newest projects to open within the last few years, which I've listed more or less in order of preference. With so many choices now, those with a unique perspective, location, or focused concept were the most memorable. We've also finally begun to taste the glimmers of a post-IPA world, where the more balanced English bitters style has surged alongside wild yeast saisons, trendy sour Berliner weisse, black beers, and brews made with expensive but more deeply flavored local malt.
The food options are, foremost, still a work in progress. But there's little doubt the seeds of potential have been planted for the brewpub to become the new neighborhood cornerstone. In fact, they have taken root.
Brewpubs opened within the last few years. Listed in order of preference:
(CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
TIRED HANDS FERMENTARIA
35 Cricket Terrace, Ardmore. 484-413-2983 or tiredhands.com
The second project from Tired Hands' mad genius, Jean Broillet IV, is the most exciting and expansive example of the region's creative new generation of brewpubs. Set inside the noisy industrial shell of a former trolley works, world-class beers are the Fermentaria's primary draw, with an always-changing list of experimental IPAs and funky saisons aging to an elegant sour inside big oak barrels. The young kitchen could be more consistent (see the recent two-bell review), but the menu of unconventional tacos topped with curried cauliflower, fried oysters or carnitas, plus crudo plates and a good burger already hits the right creative spirit to keep the beer geeks fed and pint glasses flowing. Aside from stellar house standards HopHands and SaisonHands, beers change constantly. Past favorites include Cat Statue, Alien Church, Trendler Pils and Shambolic.
(ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
CRIME & PUNISHMENT
2711 W. Girard Ave., Philadelphia. 215-235-2739 or crimeandpunishmentbrewery.com
It's so small, this newcomer looks more like a coffee shop than a brewery. But inside the sleek glass facade of Crime & Punishment's Brewerytown storefront, you'll find cypress-topped community tables and benches filled with hip young locals (their toddlers often in tow) washing down handmade Russian-style dumplings with obscure but well-crafted beer styles like smoky grodziskie and gose brewed in back. Opened by seven young partners who've made the most of their handiwork and bare-bones style, C&P is an ideal model for the kind of quirky pocket breweries that I hope multiply in the city's future. The literary theme, emphasized by the bookshelves bearing classics, also informs the small kitchen's menu of handmade pelmeni stuffed with meat, mushrooms, or seasonal squash, the cream-swirled bowls of borscht and good local cheese plates from Doe Run. Meanwhile, I agree with C&P mentor Tom Baker (Earth Bread + Brewery), who's been wowed by the fast progress of beers that show personality and freshness. Try the English-style Baker St., salty Jesus Wept gose, vivid 100 IBUs to Life, or Grod Inquisitor.
(TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
VICTORY BREWING CO. BREWPUB
650 W. Cypress St., Kennett Square. 484-730-1870 or victorybeer.com; also 3127 Lower Valley Rd., Parkesburg (opens soon); original location at 420 Acorn Lane, Downingtown
With two huge new Victory brewpubs in 2015 (the latest to open this week at its big new production facility in Parkesburg), the nation's 29th-largest craft brewer has added 600 restaurant seats to 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, from Middle Eastern ideas (house-made laffa for the mezze; fried cauliflower with yogurt sauce) to real Swedish meatballs (chef Owen Kolva once cooked at Aquavit) The massive 30-tap system, meanwhile, will remind why Victory is not just big, but also one of America's best, from the uber-crispy and floral Braumeister pils and classic Golden Monkey to a completely addicting seasonal gose kissed with kirsch. With another brewpub planned for Virginia in 2017, Victory may be poised for big expansion.
(CRAIG LABAN / Staff)
VAULT BREWING CO.
10 S. Main St., Yardley. 267-573-4291 or vaultbrewing.com
The safe door is swung wide open at this converted 19th-century bank in downtown Yardley. 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 new 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 nicely 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.
(TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
KENNETT BREWING CO.
109 S. Broad St. #2, Kennett Square. 610-444-0440 or kennettbrewingcompany.com
It's marked by a skull-shape hop flower and hidden down a ramp behind a rug shop 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. Chef Michael Hall (former chef-owner of Muse) turns out some surprising plates, including one of the best double lobster roll deals around and some addictively spicy Thai-glazed scrapple meatballs. (With such great local Mexican fare, skip the nachos.) 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 Kidd pale ale, all poured from taps topped with antique farm tools, and served on a copper bar Osborne fitted himself.
(MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
CONSHOHOCKEN BREWING CO.
739 E. Elm St., Suite B, Conshohocken. 610-897-8962 or conshohockenbrewing.com
This onetime industrial space tucked deep into a Conshohocken neighborhood is now a thirsty cyclist's delight. Transformed into a brewpub by a group of 20 partners (including sports radio fixture Glen Macnow), Conshohocken Brewing has neither the most artful beers nor the most ambitious menu. But its location right on the Schuylkill River Trail has made it a must-pedal destination worthy of extending the weekend bike ride. The limited kitchen turns out surprisingly tasty pulled pork and fresh chili with a kick (best over hot dogs). And though most beers here lack any notable finesse, my favorite - Puddler's Row ESB - is a fine example of the popular, malty English bitters style.
BOXCAR BREWING CO.
142 E. Market St., West Chester. 484-947-2503 or boxcarbrewingcompany.com/brewpub
Boxcar, which opened in 2010, added this lively brewpub in downtown West Chester in February as a smart alternative to the crowded distribution market. The former music club space still hosts frequent performances. But it's mostly been a showcase for the improved consistency of Boxcar's beers since the arrival of brewer Tom Connors. Among his well-balanced takes on common styles, I liked the citrusy 1492 American pale, the malty Passenger English mild, and a creamy nitro draft of the Boomer Brown. Chef Andrew Cini's locally driven menu, meanwhile, delivered an impressively delicate salad with Chester County Asian pears and goat cheese to counter the hearty comfort of tender chicken schnitzel over a sweet potato waffle with rosemary maple syrup, and tasty Boxtoberfest-infused brats with house-fermented kraut and whole-grain spaetzle.
(ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
BARREN HILL TAVERN & BREWERY
646 Germantown Pike, Lafayette Hill. 484-344-5438 or barrenhilltavern.com
Gastropub queen Erin Wallace of Devil's Den and the Olde Eagle Tavern finally gets some brew tanks of her own inside the rambling colonial bones (circa 1732) of the long-shuttered former Gen. Lafayette Inn. Look for collab beers with her gypsy brewer friends (like the imperial sour alt-bier made with German master Sebastian Sauer of Freigeist). But I was also impressed with the character of fun house brews like Ayla's blueberry-infused Berliner weisse, the biscuity 'ello English bitter, and pumpernickelly black ale. The popular brisket sandwich was chewy. But the house-made cheese empanadas were great, and two Devil's Den favorites - mussels in creamy Aventinus beer and bacon sauce, and poutine-ish french fries topped with duck confit, gravy, and cheese sauce - are sure bets.
(MICHAEL KLEIN / Philly.com)
IRON HILL BREWERY & RESTAURANT
ironhillbrewery.com (10 other locations in Pa., N.J., and Del.)
With 11 brewpubs in three states (plus a 12th for 2016 in Huntingdon Valley), 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, but the huge menu also panders to trends (pumpkin sriracha wings; tame dandan noodles) and falls back on too much sweetness (ahi tuna salad) for my taste. The fish tacos and jaegerschnitzel were our best bites at the year-old Ardmore location. Our server was also impressively informative about the beers, which ranged from good (Sorachi-hopped Samurai Saison, Sweet Leaf IPA) to classic (Pig Iron Porter is an all-time favorite) to just trying too hard with La Flama Blanca, an oddly flat Berliner weisse aged in overly vanilla-heavy tequila barrels.
(CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
ROUND GUYS BREWING CO.
324 W. Main St., Lansdale. 215-368-2640 or roundguysbrewery.com
Downtown Lansdale's blue-collar crowd has embraced Round Guys as a friendly hub for adventure brews, Quizzo, and brazenly unhealthy eats. Pay $24 for "All the Beer" - a couple of planks laden with 17 small pours - for the full range of Scott Rudich's prolific creativity, from bretty Strange Overtones #5 IPA to mango-kissed Cyrano saison and Misty Mountain Top ESB. Consistency remains an issue as Rudich's Brewvitational-winning Berliner weisse has lost some sour swagger (due, he said, to a drought-related change in public water supply). A bigger turnoff is a relentlessly heavy menu that is "round guy"-friendly to a fault, with a cheesy chopped Italian sausage-ground beef meat bomb (the Hasselhoff) and a crock of spicy cheese dip thickened with pulled "Goo Goo's chicken" that were almost gruesome. The local Bespoke Bacon platter is a worthy exception. But a promised veggie infusion for the menu is welcome.
TOWER HILL BREWERY
237 W. Butler Ave., Chalfont. 215-822-8788 or towerhillbrewery.com
This humble nano-brewery is a strip-mall surprise and welcome sight 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 some of the beers taste like beta versions still refining their balance, texture, and voice. The Lenape IPA is one modest success, and a solid backdrop to chef Stanley Kreft's pub-plus menu, built around pierogies made with his mom's recipe, with a superbly fluffy potato-cheese filling, a LaFrieda short rib burger, and a surprisingly tasty vegan option of Caribbean-spiced BBQ seitan. A creative drink alternative: the Black Velvet cocktail of Breakfast Stout brightened with local Pinnacle Ridge sparkling wine.
STERLING PIG BREWERY
609 W. State St., Media. 484-444-2526 or sterlingpig.com
There is so much potential in this sprawling, trilevel Media brewpub from ex-Rock Bottom brewer Brian McConnell and restaurateur Loic Barnieu (La Belle Epoque, Picasso). And the beers are far better than average, especially the signature Snuffler IPA, the recent Schweintoberfest made with local Deer Creek malt, and the hibiscus-tinted Snap Dragon grisette. Unfortunately, the enticing aroma of a wood-burning smoker and pizza hearth produced disappointing results, from amateurish BBQ to chicken wings that were tough and served still cold, and a pizza that was adequate but not exciting.
(MICHAEL KLEIN / Philly.com)
2ND STORY BREWING
117 Chestnut St., Philadelphia. 267-314-5770 or 2ndstorybrewing.com
The "second story" meanings are multiple at this bilevel Old City brewpub, from the brewery itself (on the second floor), to the second life for this smartly designed space (once Triumph) to the second careers of partners who've worked in Santa photography at the mall and local farming. Some of the produce (and hops) from co-owner Debbie Grady's Pottstown farm even makes it onto this pubby menu. Unfortunately, the menu's considerable ambitions stumbled over poor kitchen execution that brought "fried things" in a pale tempura batter as tough as plaster and smoked meats that lacked flavor and tenderness. The fairly conventional brews are more successful, especially the house Fritzie's Lager. On occasion, as with the locally malted PA Lager or coffee-infused Pour Me Stout, 2nd Story hits a home run.
BAR HYGGE (AND BREWERY TECHNE)
1720 Fairmount Ave., Philadelphia.
A December opening is slated for this anticipated new Fairmount project from Tom Baker and Peggy Zwerver (Earth Bread + Brewery) with partners Julie and Stew Keener (Baggataway Tavern). The 90-seat pub's name is inspired by the Danish word for "cozy camaraderie" (hygge is pronounced "hoa-guh"). Expect sharing boards with house charcuterie, seasonal vegetables, and house-baked breads. The virtuosic Baker, meanwhile, will continue his experimental and esoteric brewing ways. Ready for a Gotlandsdricka?
APPALACHIAN BREWING CO.
50 W. Third Ave., Collegeville Station, 2d floor, Collegeville. 484-973-6064 or abcbrew.com; (seven other locations near Harrisburg);
America's ninth-largest brewpub chain produces decent versions of some familiar styles to go along with somewhat predictable bar food.
DOCK STREET BREWERY
701 50th St., Philadelphia. 215-726-2337 or dockstreetbeer.com
Started as Philly's first brewpub in 1985, sold, then reacquired by the cofounding Certo family and opened in a new location in 2006, the current brewhouse and pizzeria has been part of the revitalization of its West Philadelphia neighborhood.
EARTH BREAD + BREWERY
7136 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia. 215-242-6666 or earthbreadbrewery.com
Brewer Tom Baker and wife Peggy Zwerver's first brewpub has become a Mount Airy cornerstone known for quirky, well-wrought beers and flatbread pizzas best with simple toppings . . . like "seeds."
FOREST & MAIN BREWING CO.
61 N. Main St., Ambler. 215-542-1776 or forestandmain.com
This personal favorite, where unique saisons are barrel-aged with foraged yeast and low-fizz English-style cask ales are served in a cozy Ambler house, has streamlined its eclectic pub fare (fish and chips, burgers, and banh mi) in preparation for a large new tasting room addition set for early 2016.
MANAYUNK BREWING CO.
4120 Main St., Philadelphia. 215-482-8220 or manayunkbrewery.com
This nearly two decade-old Manayunk standby in the old Krooks Mill is ideal for mild-weather alfresco sipping on a patio overlooking the Schuylkill. The catchall menu ranges from pizza to sushi.
McKENZIE BREW HOUSE
324 Swedesford Rd., Devon. 610-407-4300 or mckenziebrewhouse.com (other locations in Chadds Ford and Malvern)
This trio of suburban brewpubs has fairly typical beer and food menus but has also garnered well-deserved kudos for reserve brews like its award-winning Vautour saison and funky Bière de Garde.
RESTAURANT & BREWERY
1001 King of Prussia Plaza, King of Prussia. 610-230-2739 or rockbottom.com
The mall hosts Eastern Pennsylvania's only location of the country's biggest brewpub chain, which is big on IPAs and somewhat Mexican-theme bar fare.
BREWHOUSE & EATERY
520 Kimberton Rd. (Rt. 113), Phoenixville. 610-935-4540 or slyfoxbeer.com
SLY FOX TASTIN' ROOM
Pottstown Airport Business Center, 331 Circle of Progress Dr., Pottstown. 484-300-4644 or slyfoxbeer.com
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 newer "Tastin' Room" at the Pottstown brewery, where the Pikeland Pils, Royal Weisse, and O'Reilly's Stout are as fresh as they get.
STOUDT BREWING CO. BLACK ANGUS RESTAURANT & PUB
2800 N. Reading Rd., Adamstown, Pa. 717-484-4386 or stoudts.com
One of Pennsylvania's craft-beer pioneers is also the state's longest-running brewpub, a Lancaster County institution known for dry-aged prime steaks, Black Angus burgers, and a repertoire of textbook-excellent German-style brews.
TIRED HANDS BREW CAFE
16 Ardmore Ave., Ardmore. 610-896-7621 or tiredhands.com
The eccentric "brew cafe" where Tired Hands rapidly developed its national reputation as a darling for funky and innovative saisons has retained its character, despite its larger Fermentaria sibling nearby. It has its own set of ever-changing beers, house pickles, sandwiches, and tasty bread baked from beer yeast served warm with local butter.
TROEGS BREWING CO.
200 E. Hershey Park Dr., Hershey. 717-534-1297 or troegs.com
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.
YARDS BREWING CO.
901 N. Delaware Ave., Philadelphia. 215-634-2600 or yardsbrewing.com
The limited menu makes the most of its bison chili (in a bowl, in a burrito, on nachos) while the local beer faithful drink the historic Tavern Ale series, ESA, and Philly Pale Ale with a glassed-in view of the big Fishtown brewery.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Elements in Princeton.