The 1500 block of North American Street — lined with vacant lots and a few blank-faced commercial buildings — is dark and desolate when I arrive on a Wednesday evening. The lone beacon of life is a sandwich board placed optimistically outside Original 13 Ciderworks, beckoning passersby (on the off chance there ever are any) to step inside, warm up with a hot buttered cider, and settle in over a board game or casual dinner.
I've taken it up on the neighborly invitation so I can try, once again, to develop an appreciation for hard cider, heretofore known as the beverage I sample once every few years before immediately reverting to beer.
Here, though, is not the place to express such reservations. "It's weird that cider has that stigma," a woman tells the bartender as she picks up a six-pack. He nods. "Some people come in here and I say, 'Can I get you a cider?' They say, 'No, I need a real drink.' " Then they agree that such people are the actual worst.
After all, the number of cider makers in the U.S. has doubled in the last four years, and Pennsylvania, one of the nation's top apple producers, is helping drive that trend. In Philly, two more cideries — Kurant in Fishtown and Hale & True in Queen Village — are on the way. But Original 13, maker of Sir Charles Hard Ciders, beat them to the punch when it opened two months ago. Marketing manager Maddie Bird says a gluten-free customer base has given them a big boost, and they're catering to that base with a menu heavy on gluten-free offerings.
As for the cider itself, the flagship offering — the Sir Charles Semi Dry, named for founder John Kowchak's cider-making grandfather — is drinkable even in my estimation, sweet but not aggressively so and tasting of actual apples. I also try On Wings of Cherry, hoping it will be somewhat like a lambic beer (ultimately, I find it to be a bit more Luden's than Lindeman's), and a holiday seasonal, which tastes like a cross between chai tea and apple juice.
Though I'm not a cider convert, I'd still find reasons to stop by if I lived nearby. There are several local beers on tap, and cocktails made with Pennsylvania spirits. The servers are efficient and happy to explain the ciders and the menu. The kitchen aims to get creative, with offerings like a smoky beet burger, Carolina barbecue chicken sandwich, and cider-and-ghost-pepper-glazed cauliflower in blue cheese sauce, with a crunchy, vinegary carrot-celery slaw.
And the minimalist, industrial space, converted from an 1870s coal yard and rail depot, is not my idea of cozy, yet in other ways it invites visitors to hang out. There are lots of outlets for charging your phone and a big stack of board games along one wall. It's bright enough that you can sit and read a book and quiet enough to allow for conversation. But if you're going to converse about how cider isn't really your thing, maybe keep it down.
Original 13 Ciderworks
1526 N. American St., 215-765-7000, original-13.com
When to go: Happy hour, from 5 to 7 p.m. on weeknights, means $3 pints of Helles Lager. The bar is open 4 p.m.-midnight Wednesdays and Thursdays; 4 p.m.-2 am. Fridays; 2 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m.-midnight Sundays.
Order: A flight of six ciders ($15) to sample them all, or, if you're on the fence about cider, opt for a mix-and-match flight ($12) with ciders and local beers like Yards Love Stout and Neshaminy Creek County Line IPA. There are also cider-based cocktails, like a Gingertini with Sir Charles Semi Dry cider and Boardroom Spirits' ginger vodka and gin.
Bring: The gluten-intolerant folks your life. Your friends who like to play Risk. The type of date who'd be into craft cider and Boggle.
Bathroom situation: Two single-stall, any-gender bathrooms that are probably cleaner than your bathroom at home.
Sounds like: The last time I heard a soundtrack like this, I was in an orthodontist's office waiting to get my braces tightened. That is to say, low-key 1960s and '70s classics at a tranquil 83 decibels (though a bartender's shimmying dance break during "Jump in the Line" was an interesting change of pace).