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West of Philly

August, 1999

By Bobby Bush

Pennsylvania has some of the most bizarre prohibition-leftover beer laws in the entire 50 states. Want a six pack? You have to go to a bar and pay a premium for the pleasure. Beer stores can only sell by the case, hot or cold. And brewery ownership must be held separate from the adjoining restaurant. So, technically speaking, there are no brewpubs in Pennsylvania. They’re all restaurants with independently owned microbreweries. At least there’s no alcohol percentage limit.

In spite of this nonsensical insanity, there’s good beer to be had in the great Liberty State. So, we headed west toward our ultimate destination, Stoudtburg, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Using Lew Bryson’s informative “Pennsylvania Breweries” as our guide, we found John Harvard’s Brew House in Wayne, PA. Part of an ever-expanding East Coast brewpub empire, this Boston-based corporation has fine-tuned the restaurant-brewery-bar combination about as perfectly as a chain can. There are 14 John Harvard’s, and counting.

This John Harvard’s opened in February 1997 in a former free-standing shopping center restaurant, a typical John Harvard’s scenario. Though beer recipes vary little from brewpub to brewpub, there’s nothing wrong with the beer they’ve got. To the amazement of the locals, we sauntered in, grabbed seats at the bar, ordered up a sampler tray, which we promptly slurped down, and then, bidding adieu, marched out the door. Our trip was rushed, mind you, not because we weren’t satisfied with the beer, but because there were more brewpubs to be discovered.

We started with the training wheel All American Light Lager- it’s name says all you need to know -then on to something with flavor. John Harvard’s Pale Ale was nice with just a tinge of roasted barley showing through. Kolsch and Altbier (two German ales) were equally as good, with warming malt taste. Nut Brown Ale, which should have exhibited some caramel tones, was chocolatey instead. The requisite fruit beer, Raspberry Wheat, was as sweet from real berries as the Belgian White was tart from yeast. Topped with tan froth, Irish Dry Stout was full bodied but not as boldly flavored as it should have been. Not bad beer. Not great either. See www.johnharvards.com.

Time to move on to another Wayne establishment. Valley Forge Brewing Company was one of the first brewpubs to open in the Philly suburbs, in May 1995. Another shopping center locale, the place was jumping with an after-5:00 crowd as we pushed toward the extremely long bar. Noticing the barn-decor around us and an exceptionally appetizing menu, we decided to start with those small tasters once again.

Valley Forge, which has a sister brewpub in Blue Bell, PA, keeps four beers up regularly. King’s Gold was light, thin but flavorful. An English Pale, Regiment Pale was medium bodied and mildly hopped, while Red Coat Ale, though deceiving in name, was an cascade-fused IPA. Reddish brown in hue, George’s Porter was complexly malty with nary a hint of bitterness. As seasonal beers, Valley Forge offered a cloudy yellow Raspberry Wheat, which held its berry-ness until the very end; another IPA, this one more prominently hopped than the Red Coat; and Java Stout, which held within its unusual red-brown color, a rich dark chocolate, hopless flavor.

Valley Forge was a friendly, hospitable place. I hated to leave my conversation with the dusty construction workers seated beside me, but the beer road goes on forever.

The next stop in this brewpub leapfrog trip was in Phoenixville. Another shopping center location, Sly Fox Brewing Company opened for business in December 1995. Brewer Bob Waterman had eight beers on tap. From the beginners’ thin Fox Golden Light to succinctly hopped Amber Fox IPA to the alarmingly tart Belgian Wit and wonderfully balanced yet complex Stout Fox, the beer was agreeable. Foxes were everywhere. The dinner crowd, on two floors, was noisy, bustling with food and beer. Pull up www.slyfoxbrew.com for more info. A fun stop. Stoudtburg
was our next destination.

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

© Bobby Bush

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