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Dec 18, 2014

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Philadelphia

August, 1999

By Bobby Bush

For all these years, the state of Pennsylvania, with one brief exception, has eluded my beer travels. Back in ‘95, a hurried to trip to Lancaster Malt Brewing Company, in the centrally-located city of Lancaster, became the only notch in my PA pistol. Until now, that is. Pleasure took me on a 4-day weekend stay in Philly and eastern PA, followed a week later by a business trip to Pittsburgh. Combined, these journeys saw another 18 brewpubs. Not bad for a state with around 35 brewpubs total.

The flight was late, but desire and thirst egged us on toward downtown Philadelphia’s famed beer bar, Monk’s Cafe. Small, dark and noisy, nonetheless Monk’s had the goods. In their beer menu, called “Monk’s Beer Bible,” owners Tom Peters and Fergus Carey claim they have a beer for everyone: “If you like Port, we have a beer for you.... If you enjoy scotch whiskey, we have a beer for you... and if you already love great beer, you have found beer heaven.”

Heaven indeed! Monk’s specializes in distinctive beers. Most are bottled, from domestic micros to typical imports like Spaten and Samuel Smith to unusual choices such as Finland’s Sinebrychoff Porter, Aventinus Weizenbock and seven different bottlings, starting with 1986, of J.W. Lees Harvest Ale. On tap, selections stick mostly to Belgian style brews. That is Monk’s real claim to fame. On this occasion, tap handles sported the colorful logos of Abbaye de Leffe Blond, Hoegaarten Blonde, Lancaster Malt Brewing Gueuze and Straffe Hendrick Blond.

Likewise, meal and appetizer selections, which included steamed mussels and authentically double fried and delicious pommes frites, were Belgian and often cooked with beer as an ingredient. The entree names alone were tempting- Duck Kriek, Trout Saison, Salmon avec Framboise and La Trappe Filet Mignon -but the hour was late.

Monk’s Cafe carries more beer styles and hard-to-find brands than any bar in the country. I believe them. They’ve served Belgian Ales since 1985 and have the biggest selection in North America. Go to www.monkscafe.com and see for yourself.

Following a quick museum tour the next morning, we headed to Poor Henry’s, a brewpub was a history and a future. Founded by Henry Ortlieb in 1997 in the same building that his family brewing business had utilized until closing in 1981, Poor Henry’s is thusly named because Stroh had purchased the Ortlieb name. And after sinking $800,000 into this old/new venture, it’s obvious where the descriptive “poor” derived. With the recent demise of Stroh, Henry has reacquired his surnamed brand. And, even more recently, Ortlieb took over local Dock Street Brewing’s entire brand.

Even before noon on a Friday, Poor Henry’s was a busy place. To the left of the loading docks resides the pub, a large, sparsely decorated room with an immense island bar, small dining area and a shiny, steamy and big functional brewery, actually a 60 barrel brewhouse and seven barrel pilot system, and bottling line in the background scene.

As we enjoyed South Philly Cheese Steak Sandwiches (what else?), we had to order two sampler trays in order to try all of Poor Henry’s beers. Summer Wheat was American-style, cloudy and smooth, while Old Stock Lager was beautifully amber, warmed by German Hallertau hops. Cascade hops nearly overpowered the 5% abv Awesome Ale. Representing the dark side of this first group, Vanilla Porter was chocolatey with dry finish, and Henry’s Stout proved to be richly smooth with a strong hops influenced ending. Round two saw a thin but mouth puckering Extra Pale Ale, an extremely nice Bohemian Pilsner and slick-finishing Cream Ale. With unusual fruity overtones, Ortlieb’s Select Lager was done “American style,” while the 7.9% Vienna Lager showed that Henry knows what real lager should be. The draft Dock Street Amber, a pale ale with plenty of hops finish, rounded out the bill, with the exception of Birch Beer. This family recipe soda, sweetened with honey was reminiscent of Hires Root Beer.

With concrete floors and thick brick walls, it’s big and boisterous. But Poor Henry’s is a sizable brewery, with a bar and restaurant on the side. I doubt Henry Ortlieb is poor anymore.

The journey continues Around Philly.

This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.

© Bobby Bush

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