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Philadelphia’s Brewerytown Has a Complicated Story to Tell

August 30, 2018

By Mike Greger, August 30, 2018

“Of course you do!”

That’s the reaction when I tell people that I live in the Brewerytown neighborhood of Philadelphia. As a self-diagnosed “beer nerd,” it only makes sense that I would choose to reside in a ten-block radius built on beer. I can stumble out of bed—sometimes still wearing clothes from the night before—and get a growler filled at the eclectic brewery next door.

Brewerytown was founded by Otto C. Wolf, a German immigrant and leading architect, who loved tossing back a refreshing pilsner at the end of a hard day. Wolf oversaw construction on many of the estimated 700 breweries operating in Philadelphia during the 19th century. At the time, the city was the largest producer of beer in the country.

Two of his breweries remain standing as tributes to his ingenuity: F.A. Poth Brewing, which was revived in 1996 and reimagined as the short-lived Red Bell Brewing Company, and Louis Bergdoll’s imposing City Park Brewery, a sprawling space that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and turned into high-priced condominiums. The latter is the new normal for this old brewer’s town.

On a recent summer night, with a crisp beer in my hand, I ventured around Girard Avenue to see what was buzzing in Brewerytown.

7:05 p.m.: Rybrew

From the outside, this former toy shop doesn’t look like it would offer much more than a frosty six-pack of Miller Lite from their takeout fridge. But the intoxicating smells of slow-roasted pulled pork and house-baked soft pretzels draw you into a vast and unexpected craft beer paradise. Inside this bi-level building, owner Ryan Pollock is serious about supporting local breweries. On a recent visit, five of his six taps featured local microbrewers.

I open the fridge and pull out Cape May Brewing’s Bounding Main, a DIPA loaded with a “gale of hops”—a whopping 5.5 pounds of hops per barrel, according to the brewery. Each sip takes me to a different fruit orchard, from pineapple to mango, guava and orange. As I sip the hazy beer, my eyes gravitate towards the wall where a mural pays homage to the neighborhood’s past. It tells Brewerytown’s proud, and sad, history in one short and poignant paragraph, explaining Philly’s brewery boom from the mid-1800s through the 1920s. By 1987, the ramifications of Prohibition had taken their toll and no operating breweries existed in Brewerytown.

Crime & Punishment Brewing

8:02 p.m.: Crime & Punishment Brewing

In Crime & Punishment, they play on Cold War imagery and minimalistic white walls provide a jarring backdrop for aspiring local artist to showcase their work. Its food and beer menus further that mission, with beer names like Gulag Uprising, a high-octane Russian Imperial Stout, as well as composed dishes from Chef Kurt Miller such as Textures of Borscht, a plate of roasted and pickled beets with sour cream, parsnips, sweet and sour broth.

At Crime & Punishment, the joke is the Cold War never ended. When it opened its doors in 2015, it was the first brewery to operate in the neighborhood since 1987—that’s a 28-year hiatus, a devastatingly long drought for an area called Brewerytown. As I approach the bar, Colin, the bearded bartender who doubles as the face of the brewpub on social media, says , “We have a fresh batch of Space Race on.” Space Race is the brewery’s flagship IPA, loaded with oats and hopped with Citra, Mosaic, Simcoe, Columbus and Chinook. It’s old world meets new.

8:42 p.m.: Pizza Dads

Michael Carter and Joe Hunter are the guys behind Pizza Brain, a pizza museum and parlor in Kensington, and they started slinging pies in this former hat shop in 2017. They focus on making pizzas using hand-tossed starter dough, limiting how many they bake each day and incorporating locally-sourced ingredients. My favorite is the Henrietta Blanch, topped with mozzarella, aged provolone, grana padano, peppers and sausage.

After scarfing down a slice, I strike up a conversation with the guy behind the counter. He tells me about “Juicy Chewsdays,” when the staff buys a case of PBR and gives out free beer to everyone. In Brewerytown, it’s about bringing the community together, preferably through beer and friends.

9:02 p.m.: Krupa’s Tavern

Nestled in a row home, Krupa’s Tavern is the type of bar a Hollywood producer might choose to set the Philly spin-off of “Cheers.” It is a cash-only bar, with an ATM on premise. Long-time bartender Joe Ferry retired in 2016, but his uncanny knack for knowing everyone’s name lives on, amid a certain “if these walls could talk” feeling permeating from the old-fashioned air conditioning unit hanging high above Eagles paraphernalia.

On this particular night, I opt for a Yards Signature IPA and Jameson chaser. In between an intense game of PhotoHunt, I take note of the steady stream of regulars patrolling this neighborhood institution. They all have kind words for owner Elaine Hepp and how she runs an honest establishment. Coors Light and Yuengling are available for $3 per bottle and, if there is a beer you want that isn’t on the menu, tell Elaine. She’ll order it. When the Eagles are playing, Elaine even breaks out a makeshift buffet to fuel the masses cheering on the Super Bowl champions.

Otto’s Taproom

9:44 p.m.: Era Bar and Restaurant

Injera bread—which is traditionally made from teff flour, the world’s tiniest grain indigenous to Ethiopia—is used in this porous sourdough flatbread that doubles as a plate to scoop up lentils, greens and seasoned meats. It’s simple, and is the fuel of Brewerytown. Era makes the best version in town.

The corner bar is musty and rundown, a neighborhood staple known for dark cedar-stained walls and authentic Ethiopian food. In recent years, Era has made a concerted effort to capture the growing craft beer audience in this gentrifying neighborhood. Peer down the bar and you’ll find an endless supply of Lion’s Head bottle caps—an ode to their “Citywide Special” featuring a shot of Heaven & Hill whiskey and bottle of Lion’s Head deluxe pilsner.

Cheap beer may be the draw, but their list is filled with fancy and unexpected names, such as Chimay, Kwak and Duvel, which sit alongside reliable domestic options including Victory, Dogfish Head, and Allagash. Pro Tip: Pair one with the Derek Tibs, cooked and crisp beef cubes sautéed with onions, tomatoes, jalapeno peppers and spiced butter.

10:20 p.m.: 2637 Brew

The walk to 2637 Brew is a fun dip into the melting pot that is Philly, with hipsters donning knit caps on one side of the street and guys in white t-shirts playing dice in front of the “Nonstop Beer” store on the other. A young entrepreneur who goes by the name “San Diego” is hawking CDs, while greenbacks lay on the concrete in a lively street version of casino craps. It’s beautiful, nostalgic and Brewerytown at its truest.

Brian is the Bar Manager at 2637 Brew. He smiles and points to the “Hoppy” part of the beer menu when he sees me saunter in. Brian curates the beer list, and there is always a great selection, from hoppy goodness from Peak Organic and Pizza Boy to wild ales from Captain Lawrence and The Lost Abbey. Owner Mino Nguyen-Cruz sits on a stool in the corner talking to customers and hyping up the bar’s boozy and barrel-aged cocktail program. To prove her point, she sends out the Smoked Manhattan, made with Woodford Reserve bourbon and blistering with ghostly hickory smoke. It’s a subtle reminder that spirits are enjoying a renaissance in a town once known for suds.

11:35 p.m.: Otto’s Taproom

Otto’s is named for Otto C. Wolf and, fittingly, there is a heavy German theme going on here, highlighted by the Bavarian stalwarts on their beer menu: Rothaus, Kostritzer, Reissdorf, Weihenstephaner and Jever. For me, an American IPA called Unity, from Love City Brewing, jumps off the page. The word-of-mouth brewery is located less than 20 blocks away.

I’m thinking about another round when a gentleman claiming to be trend-setting Philly drummer Earl Young strolls in. He matches Young’s age and description, and says all the right things when providing background on the creation of the Philly Soul sound. Still, something isn’t adding up and there is a stench of stale pee in the air as he sits down next to me. His story unravels into a fairy tale, filled with fantasies of ghostwriting for Jay-Z and performing on Saturday Night Live. He wildly starts humming “Disco Inferno” with that infectious hook: "I couldn’t get enough, so I had to self-destruct." I order that second Unity IPA and can’t think of a more perfectly named beer to bridge the gap between the old and new versions of Brewerytown.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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