20 Beers to try during the Philly Craft Brewers Conference

The upcoming Craft Brewers Conference (May 3-6) in Philadelphiais a full week of learning and networking capped off by the biennial World Beer Cup awards ceremony

BrewExpo America Trade Show at Craft Brewers Conference -Photo © Jason E. Kaplan

PHILADELPHIA, April 29, 2016 — Welcome to all the brewing industry professionals that are looking to get a head start on the upcoming Craft Brewers Conference (May 3-6) in Philadelphia by showing up early this weekend. You’ll have a full week of learning and networking capped off by the biennial World Beer Cup awards ceremony on Friday evening.

You’ll likely notice a lot of rabid beer fans showing up everywhere you go as you’re out and about making appearances at public beer events in bars and other venues. Last Friday, I published a list of some of the best looking events and have continued to keep the full list updated over at TheBrewLounge.com.

But let’s say you’re visiting Philly (maybe for the first time) and don’t necessarily want the crowds of a popular beer event showcasing out-of-state breweries. If you’re looking for some of the best that Philadelphia and the greater metropolitan region is brewing, let this be your guide.

While many of these beers should be relatively easy to find either bottled or on draft, consult PhillyTapFinder.com as an up-to-date reference of beers available by brewery, bar, style, event, and neighborhood.

In the city proper

The brewing scene in the city of Philadelphia continues to be anchored by Yards Brewing Company. The brewery was built in 1994 out of a garage in the hills of the city’s Roxborough and Manayunk neighborhoods and today sits prominently at the banks of the Delaware River with spectacular views of the Ben Franklin Bridge and the city skyline. They’re joined these days by a growing number of breweries of all sizes. For some, you’ll need to take a short cab ride to drink on the premises.

Others can be readily found around town.

2nd Story Brewing CompanyFritzie’s Lager; Vienna Lager, 4.9% ABV

If you were at the Craft Brewers Conference in Philadelphia in 2005, you may recall a brewpub called Triumph in the Old City neighborhood. Out with the old and in with the new — 2nd Story.

Fritzie's Lager - Photo courtesy of 2nd Story Brewing Company
Fritzie’s Lager – Photo courtesy of 2nd Story Brewing Company

Like any good brewpub, they’re serving up styles all across the spectrum. The one that is stylistically wonderful and encapsulates the city’s lager-brewing roots is the Fritzie’s Lager. Grab a pint or two of this beer that leads with the sweet Vienna malt and finishes crisp and clean. If you like the beer and want to try your own brewing skills on it, brewer John Wible has even published the recipe on the company website. Got room for food in the schedule? You can’t go wrong with Short Rib Poutine, Adult Grilled Cheese, Quinoa Salad, or Grilled Octopus off the menu that has strong ties to local farms and producers.

Dock Street Brewing Company Rye IPA; American IPA, 6.8% ABV
Here’s another old vs. new story. Since you were last here in 2005, Dock Street has relocated from its original location on 18th Street in Center City where they opened in 1989.

Rye IPA - Photo courtesy of Dock Street Brewing Company
Rye IPA – Photo courtesy of Dock Street Brewing Company

Now, a short cab ride or trolley trip into West Philly will take you to their current home (and some would say much more representative of the brewery’s personality) in a converted firehouse on 50th Street. The Bohemian Pilsner, which brings back memories to the brewery’s early days of the mid- to late-80s, is still available on a fairly regular basis as is the very drinkable Rye IPA.

The Trio Fries (white potatoes, sweet potatoes, and dried leeks) have survived the years and are still on the menu alongside an unbeatable list of pizzas including Flammenkuche, Fig Jam, and Parma. A fun project entitled Friends Don’t Let Friends Vote Drumpf that they’re currently working on includes a 4.5% ABV stout called Short-Fingered Stout.

Earth Bread + Brewery/Bar Hygge — List of current beers at Earth Bread + Brewery and at Bar Hygge/Techne

Photo courtesy of Earth Bread + Brewery
Photo courtesy of Earth Bread + Brewery

After shuttering their wildly popular Heavyweight Brewing Company in Ocean Township, NJ back in 2006, Tom Baker and Peggy Zwerver opened the likewise popular Earth Bread + Brewery in the city’s Mt. Airy neighborhood. Earlier this year, they opened a second location called Bar Hygge where Baker brews under the name Techne.

Whether you stop by the new Center City location or the Mt. Airy one, Baker’s practice holds of rarely, if ever, making the same beer twice. If you’re fortunate, in addition to any Altbiers, Farmhouses, Sours, or Old Ales that might be on tap, you might find some of Baker’s work making Kombucha or other beer and gruits using special herbs and other unusual ingredients.

From the food menu, be sure to save room for the excellent flatbreads at Earth coming from the handbuilt hearth like The Caveman and The Seed or at Bar Hygge and the Grass-Fed Beef Burger or create-your-own Board of small food selections.

Iron Hill Brewery & RestaurantThe Cannibal; Belgian Golden Strong, 8% ABV

Just down the road a couple miles from Earth Bread + Brewery in leafy, cobblestoned Chestnut Hill — the last neighborhood within the city’s northwestern limits — is the ninth location of the continually growing family of Iron Hill brewpubs.

As the industry has grown, many Iron Hill alumni have moved on to new breweries. Chris Lapierre mans the mash paddle at the Chestnut Hill location and, as an avid cyclist, brews The Cannibal in honor Eddie Merckx. This beer has been awarded both GABF and WBC medals in the past and when it shows up on Iron Hill’s menu, it should not be missed.

A growler of this for your hotel room would not be a mistake.

I could recommend any number of beers served at Iron Hill from each location’s head brewer custom brews to the house favorites such as the excellent Pig Iron Porter, a straight-ahead no-excuses solid porter. The kitchen likewise puts out a diverse menu of selections aimed to please all age groups and foodies of all stripes, with special focus for vegetarians and the gluten-averse.\

Philadelphia Brewing CompanyFleur de Lehigh; Golden Ale, 4.75% ABV

Fleur de Lehigh - Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Brewing Company
Fleur de Lehigh – Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Brewing Company

Philadelphia Brewing Company may be new to you as well, formed in 2008 in the aftermath of the management split with Yards. PBC kept the historic building (where brewing occurred in the late 1800s under the name Weisbrod & Hess) and has a beer called Fleur de Lehigh that perfectly signals the arrival of spring each year. It’s a golden ale spiced with ginger root, lemongrass, rose hips, rhubarb, and cardamom. For baseball fans, the beer’s branding includes a nod to the old Shibe Park in North Philadelphia. Also easy to find on tap towers around town are beers with a nod to the neighborhoods like the refreshing and well-done, low-alcohol Kenzinger (4.5% ABV) and the citrus hop-forward Newbold IPA (7% ABV).

Saint Benjamin Brewing Company Foul Weather Jack; English Mild, 4.5% ABV

Foul Weather Jack - Photo courtesy of Saint Benjamin Brewing Company
Foul Weather Jack – Photo courtesy of Saint Benjamin Brewing Company

As the newest brewery on this city-based list, Saint Benjamin’s is grabbing beer lovers’ attention with beers of English and Belgian inspiration. They’re readying a new taproom to showcase their beers and hopefully you’ll be able to enjoy beers like the Liaison Saison (8% ABV), Inca Cream Ale (5.4% ABV), or the Tripel (9.2% ABV) from the Franklin Abbey Series when you’re in town.

But don’t miss the Foul Weather Jack, a perfectly executed English Mild sitting nicely in the sub-5% ABV range.

The brewery taps into the legacy of one of the city’s founding fathers and icons, Benjamin Franklin, who also apparently counted brewing amongst his many interests.

Yards Brewing Company ESA; Extra Special Bitter, 6% ABV

If you get into Philly early enough to attend the Real Ale festival at Yards on Sunday, May 1, then you’ve caught on to something that they’ve been doing for quite some time.

Extra Special Ale - Photo courtesy of Yards Brewing Company
Extra Special Ale – Photo courtesy of Yards Brewing Company

The ESA hearkens back to the brewery’s early days and can still be found routinely on handpumps around the city. It’s hard to believe that in barely seven years, Yards is nearly maxxed out in their location by the Delaware River and have begun the process of looking for an additional facility.

Also check out their nod to history in the Ales Of The Revolution set of beers that includes the food-friendly Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce (5.4% ABV), the dangerously smooth and easy-drinking Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale (8% ABV), and dessert-friendly General Washington’s Tavern Porter (7% ABV).

Beers from Yards are some of the most easy-to-find of our local breweries around town, but a visit to their taproom — complete with pool table, shuffleboard, and an easy-going atmosphere and tours — makes this a brewery visit that should be high atop your list of things to do when in the city.

Just outside the city

The city of Philadelphia is certainly an oddly-shaped city. Depending where you find yourself on any given day, these following top-notch breweries could be close or far. But all are within just a few miles from the northern, southern, eastern, or western borders. And, once there, all are within an easy arm’s reach to a glass of great beer. Interestingly, as well, with the exception of Flying Fish, all are less than five years old.

2SP Brewing Company Baby Bob Stout; American Stout, 6.5% ABV
Head Brewer Bob Barrar is one of Iron Hill’s alumni that I mentioned earlier. After many years of winning awards at the Media, Pa. location, particularly for his Russian Imperial Stout (RIS), Barrar helped the Two Stones Pub (two locations in Delaware and one in Pennsylvania) open the ambitious brewery project called 2SP in Delaware County south of Philadelphia International Airport.

The Baby Bob is a junior version of the RIS and is worth seeking out a couple glassfuls of, as are the Pattina Saison (7.5% ABV), Bellcracker Double IPA (6.5% ABV), and DelCo Lager (4% ABV).

Conshohocken Brewing Company Puddler’s Row; Extra Special Bitter, 5.4% ABV

Puddler's Row ESB - Photo courtesy of Conshohocken Brewing Company
Puddler’s Row ESB – Photo courtesy of Conshohocken Brewing Company

The town of Conshohocken finally has a new brewery they can call their own. It’s located mere steps from the Schuylkill River Trail, giving cyclists and runners an opportunity to make a pitstop for some refueling.

Puddler’s Row is a perfect option, an exceptional malt-forward version of an English ESB. The IPA (6.4% ABV) and the Doll’s Eye American Black Ale (5.2% ABV) are also worth seeking out and they showcase brewer Andrew Horne’s love — and yours too, no doubt — for the hop-forward beers.

The brewery is preparing to open a full-fledged brewpub facility this summer across the river in neighboring Bridgeport. No doubt you’ll be hearing more from these guys in coming years.

Exit 4 - Photo courtesy of Flying Fish Brewing Company
Exit 4 – Photo courtesy of Flying Fish Brewing Company

Flying Fish Brewing CompanyExit 4; Belgian Tripel, 9.5% ABV

The Exit 4 won a gold medal at GABF back in 2009 and quickly became a year-round bottled offering.

The Exit Series highlights the area around the state’s famed NJ Turnpike exits, incorporating ingredients indigenous to the area or with some other significant relation. The Exit 4 was the first in the series and plays off the exit of the turnpike that takes visitors to the brewery.

The beer perfectly balances a honey-like sweetness with citrus hops and plays quite nicely with a plate of cheese and figs. Other can’t-miss beers from this NJ original include the Farmhouse Summer Ale (4.6% ABV), Exit 16 Wild Rice Double IPA (8.2% ABV), and multiple award-winning Red Fish (7% ABV).

Forest & MainSolaire; Saison, 4.5% ABV
There may not be a more charming venue for drinking locally made beer than at Forest & Main in the walkable suburban town of Ambler.

Solaire - Photo courtesy of Forest & Main Brewing Company
Solaire – Photo courtesy of Forest & Main Brewing Company

Charming, though, may not be how I choose to describe the beers from owners Daniel Endicott and Gerard Olsen. Very well-made Belgian-styled and English-styled beers might do better.

Whether you choose to sit indoors in one of the hundred-year-old Victorian building’s cozy rooms with creaky floors or on the former house’s front porch, grab a Solaire which I promise will be not be difficult to order two or more of or the Tiny Tim, a very well-constructed 5% Dark Bitter also in the sessionable ballpark.

If food is in order for your visit, don’t miss the Bacon Popcorn or the Saison Mussels. The pub is a very convenient 25-minute regional train ride direct from Philly.

Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company Trauger; Pilsner, 4.8% ABV

I’m more than happy to point you in the direction of J.A.W.N. (“Juicy Ale With Nugget” – because, when in Philly, you must get your jawn on), the Churchville Lager (4.9% ABV), or the Tribute Tripel (9.3% ABV). All are very good beers that this four-year-old brewery just north of the city puts out on a regular basis.

But, it was the spot-on Trauger Pilsner that first put Neshaminy Creek on the map and placed on the region’s honor roll of lager brewing.

Tired Hands Brew Cafe & Fermentaria SaisonHands; Saison, 4.8% ABV

Something about the Philadelphia region and its Belgian tendencies (does it tie back to Brussels On The Schuylkill?) brings out the best from our local brewers. Tired Hands is sought after for many of its clean beers, funky beers, and hoppy beers. Countless styles and unique riffs on styles have passed through the lines at Tired Hands through the years. One that has remained is the impeccable SaisonHands, quenching and crushable, particularly in the summer months. If the hops interest you more, try the delicious HopHands (5.5% ABV). For either of these beers plus more, including delectable plates of charcuterie, tacos, pickles, cheese, and kimchi, check out the spacious new Fermentaria location or the cozy original Brew Cafe just a few blocks away. Like Forest & Main, Tired Hands is also easily accessible from Center City by a short regional train ride.

A bit farther abroad
While you may not find yourself physically at any of the following breweries during your stay in Philly, their beers are readily found in most of Philly’s first-rate beer bars (and even many of the second-rate!) Be sure to keep an eye open as you navigate the city’s beer menus for the following breweries and their beers.

Dogfish Head Craft BreweryBeer To Drink Music To; Belgian Tripel, 9% ABV

Beer To Drink Music To - Photo courtesy of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery
Beer To Drink Music To – Photo courtesy of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery

Dogfish Head is as close to Baltimore and Washington, DC as it is to Philadelphia — roughly a two hour drive. That makes it difficult to call it a Philadelphia-area brewery. Yet, with owner Sam Calagione’s ties to Philadelphia as well as the amount of time that he and his sales staff spends on the city and region, it can’t hurt to include on this list as well.

Like many locals, you may be taking one of the CBC’s bus tours to this Delaware powerhouse while you’re in Philly for the conference. If you do, you’ll taste a full lineup of Dogfish Head’s old standards along side newer releases.

Two that are generating a lot of excitement with just cause are the Romantic Chemistry IPA made with mangos and apricots (9.2% ABV) and the Beer To Drink Music To, a very well-balanced sweet and spicy Belgian Tripel.

Free Will Brewing CompanySour Cherry Powered Rocket; Sour Ale, 5.5% ABV

Sour Cherry Powered Rocket - Photo courtesy of Free Will Brewing Company
Sour Cherry Powered Rocket – Photo courtesy of Free Will Brewing Company

What has brought Free Will to where it is today might be debatable. Coffee Oatmeal Brown (8.3% ABV), The Kragle IPA (6.6% ABV), or the interesting Sputnik Series have all been fan favorites through the four years that Free Will has taken up residence in central Bucks County.

What generates the most excitement these days, however, is less debatable as the Sour Series of beers has grown over the past year into something that has made the brewery a destination in the region. Added recently to the Grape, Key Lime, Pomegranate, Peach, and Kriek family of sours is the Sour Cherry Powered Rocket.

This beauty delivers a blast of big sour cherry as the name suggests along with notes of strawberry and brett, lacto, and pedio funk. You may want to take some bottles of this home with you.

Sly Fox Brewing CompanySaison Vos; Saison, 6.5% ABV

Saison Vos - Photo courtesy of Sly Fox Brewing Company
Saison Vos – Photo courtesy of Sly Fox Brewing Company

I mentioned earlier that this list contains quite a few references to the Saison style and the region’s tendency to do it quite well. Sly Fox has been doing the Saison Vos long before the style became a mainstream phenomenon and has been served up from my home taps more than any other beer through the years.

If you don’t find yourself into a few glasses of this beer, you’ll do quite well to learn about Sly Fox through its Black Raspberry Reserve (8% ABV), SRT Ale (4.6% ABV), or the award-winning Grisette (5.6% ABV) and Pikeland Pils (4.9% ABV).

Similar to the Yards event calendar mentioned earlier, if you arrive into Philly this weekend, the annual Goat Races & Bock Festival (likely the country’s largest one-day Bock festival) takes place on Sunday, May 1 and is quite the scene to behold.

Stoudts Brewing CompanyFat Dog; Oatmeal Stout, 9% ABV

Fat Dog - Photo courtesy of Stoudts Brewing Company
Fat Dog – Photo courtesy of Stoudts Brewing Company

Fat Dog from Stoudts might be the one exception on this list of beers that I described as being relatively easy to find. The objective of this list was to provide you with beer that you’d have a good chance of tracking down during CBC in and around Philly.

This excellent imperial stout might prove a bit more elusive but is a longtime favorite from the 30+ year old brewery in Lancaster County. You could spot it at one of Philly’s better bottle shops, such as The Foodery or Bottle Bar East, but if not then keep an eye open for the likewise excellent Smooth Hoperator (7% ABV), Scarlet Lady ESB (4.8% ABV), and Pils (5.4% ABV), which took a bronze medal at the 2014 World Beer Cup competition.

Tröegs Brewing CompanyTroegnator; Double Bock, 8.2% ABV

Troegenator - Photo courtesy of Tröegs Independent Brewing
Troegenator – Photo courtesy of Tröegs Independent Brewing

If the last time you thought about Tröegs was when the conference was in Philly back in 2005 (and how could that be possible with this perennial GABF and WBC winner?), then there are two quick things you should know.

They’ve relocated from the state’s capital of Harrisburg to Hershey, further adding to what makes that city the “Sweetest Place On Earth”. And, they experienced astounding growth, most recently installing 800-barrel fermenters and getting work underway on the Splinter Cellar, where they’ll be aging some of their wood foeder-aged beers.

The Troeganator has won a combined 11 GABF and WBC medals from 2006-2014. Get a glass of this rich, chocolate malt-forward beer and find out why.

Victory Brewing CompanyBraumeister Pils; Keller Pils, 5.1% ABV

Victory has been in the news moreso lately for their announced combination with Southern Tier under the Artisanal Brewing Ventures banner. But what they’ve done so well over the years has continued to focus on exceptional lager brewing and that may be nowhere more evident than in the Braumeister Pils.

A perfect presentation of German malt and noble hops, the beer goes along nicely with their brewpub kitchen’s menu featuring burgers, pulled pork, and creative pizzas. If you’d like to go in the other direction, you couldn’t be criticized for falling prey to their Hop Ranch Imperial IPA (9% ABV) or if you find bottles of their Java Cask Coffee Bourbon Stout (14.3% ABV), both similarly exceptional but completely opposite styles. Victory’s beers, along with Yards’ and Tröegs’, are readily found in the city and region.

If you have time in the schedule, however, consider taking a roughly one-hour drive to their original Downingtown location or their new brewing facility in Parkesburg that has the potential to nearly triple their pre-existing output capacity.

Weyerbacher Brewing CompanyDouble Simcoe; Double IPA, 9% ABV

This Lehigh Valley brewery has been around for 21 years and has been mostly known for its bigger beers, even giving its Imperial Stout (11.8% ABV) the name Tiny. Other big beers with big flavor include the immensely fruit-forward Riserva (10% ABV) and the Blithering Idiot (11.1% ABV).

That shouldn’t take anything away from the lower ABV beers like Verboten (5.9% ABV) and the Tarte Nouveau (3.9% ABV) which are spectacular in their own right. The Double Simcoe, therefore, falls somewhere near the average ABV for Weyerbacher and has been delighting fans of the brewery with its 100% Simcoe-based flavors for more than ten years.

About the writer: Bryan Kolesar has been on the trail of great beer for over twenty years and writing about it for more than ten. In 2015, his Beer Lovers Mid-Atlantic book was released and in a mere 416 pages covered the diverse beer scene of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Find his book online and in bookstores and follow him on Twitter @BrewLounge.

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Bryan Kolesar
Bryan Kolesar has been tracking down great beer for over twenty years. In 2005, Bryan co-founded The Brew Lounge blog/website as a canvas to illustrate the best of the craft brewing industry and to document his own travels within it. Though he has lived in Philadelphia and is currently headquartered in the city's western suburbs, Kolesar shares a wealth of information and images that he collects from his travels around the world and some of the best beers that he has tasted along the way. While the beer - its tastes, aromas, and incredible pairing opportunities with food - is often the beginning of a story, he often finds it more interesting to dive into the stories behind the people, places, and events associated with the final product. In 2015, Kolesar's first published work hit the streets, the 416-page Beer Lover's Mid-Atlantic documenting the best of Del., Md., NJ, and Pa.