Beer Travels: Philadelphia and Lancaster County

IMG_3196If you’re looking for a place with stranger alcohol laws than Ontario, let me introduce you to the state of Pennsylvania. This fine state (which I briefly touched on after a visit to Pittsburgh) only allows single bottles and six packs of beer to be sold by establishments serving food, meaning mainly bars and the odd convenience store that sells hot dogs. Cases can be sold by beer depots, but these are not usually the best places to find craft beer unless you’re looking for a two-four of Rodenbach or Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA (a couple of brands I saw last week  and would buy a case of). Licenses are hard to come by and usually handed down within a family, severely limiting competition. All of this causes higher beer prices, though the selection can be quite inspiring.

Only having one night in Philly, there wasn’t much time to explore much but what I did find was mighty impressive. My hotel was conveniently located near a great beer store and a world-class bar. The store was the fairly new Corner Foodery, a combination of beer store and artisanal sandwich shop. With apporximately 500-600 bottles, the Corner Foodery had an ample selection for someone looking to do a quick shopping trip. Belgium was well represented, as were a number of Californian breweries that I was surprised to see so far from home (Russian River and Lost Abbey) in particular. The dead of the afternoon was a great time to slowly browse the fridges and pick out some goodies. After inquiring if the Founder’s KBS had arrived (it arrived in most stores in Pennsylvania around the time of my visit, according to Twitter feeds), the person working behind the bar said it wasn’t going to go on sale till that evening, but was kind enough to preemptively sell me a bottle.

IMG_3189The downside of the Pennsylvanian liquor laws is that the beer stores I went to did not have any six packs, meaning that single bottles ($2.50-4.00) add up to be quite expensive. It’s great for sampling, but a hard hit on the wallet. The larger bottles were very expensive compared to what I have seen in other states. A lot of the Californian bottles were priced around $30, which quickly steered me in other directions. (Okay, I admit it – there was a splurge on one fancy bottle.)

After a dinner that had very little to do with beer (that is to say beer was consumed, but it was not a beer restaurant and not warranting a mention), a short walk lead us to the Monk’s Cafe. This is a bar that I’ve known about for years, though have no recollection why I know anything about it except for the fact that it is awesome. Belgian beer is the specialty here, both in bottles and a substantial draft menu, combined with an array of mussels. It was about as packed as I expected for a Wednesday night, which means it was busy but seats could be found. (Warning, though – tables are only for people ordering food.) The Monk’s Cafe actually consists of a front and back bar – the front is smaller and covers mainly American style offerings (hello again, Russian River!), while the back has all the Belgian goodies. Most beers came in tulip glasses, which was perfect considering the ABV of the majority of beers. Only a couple of lighter IPAs and ales came in pints, which is just as I think it should be. Prices were reasonable considering the size of the glasses. A short, but impressive visit. Philadelphia definitely warrants another trip.

For those who have never heard of Lancaster county, that’s probably because good beer is a little tougher to find. About an hour and a half outside of Philly, the county is home to a large Amish and Mennonite population that do not drink. Alcohol is allowed in the county, but there are less people looking for it (and even fewer by the time you factor in the rural farmers). The city of Lancaster is home to a couple of breweries though, but their results are mixed. The four beers I sampled from the Lancaster Brewing Company were disappointing – thin and watery with muddled flavour). The Lancaster location of the Iron Hill brewpub chain was more impressive, but some of the chain-wide house brands disappointed. They did make a killer Black IPA though, so that’s something. The interior of the brewpub felt a little too much like you were in a chain restaurant and lacked character, but did well enough when you’re away from a major urban center.

Lancaster does have at least one nice bottle shop in the form of The Fridge (which also makes nice looking pizzas, though I cannot speak to their quality). With limited space, they also don’t carry six-packs so it clearly wasn’t just a problem in Philly. The selection was more skewed to American beers and while they didn’t have the rarer beers I found at the Corner Foodery, there were more bottles and cans that piqued my interest (partially because they weren’t as expensive as the rarities). It was very to do a lot of damage.

Pennsylvania is obviously a little strange in terms of its liquor laws, but it also has few well known breweries for a state its size. Victory and Troegs are probably two of the more reputable craft breweries, but their beers are also easier to find in other states. Of the beers I tried, nothing really seemed to be pushing any boundaries – they were hoppy and delicious, but haven’t really past that point. Still, there is clearly a lot of good beer flowing around Pennsylvania and I heartily recommend that any beer lover gives Philly a visit.

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