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Oct 26, 2014

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Philly pub crawl

By Gregg Smith

Could anything have personified Philadelphia more than the character Rocky Balboa asking his priest for a blessing to not get beat up too bad? In the recent past the city has endured an image problem of neighborhood crime, inept government, seemingly never quite good enough athletic teams, Legionnaire's disease, and some of the strangest liquor laws outside of Utah. But for the beer enthusiast there is good news; the City of Brotherly Love can also boast some terrific beer bars.

Begin out past the Franklin Institute near the Art Museum. There you can spend the first part of the day viewing the excellent collections while building a thirst. Of course you could also head directly to the start of the crawl at the corner of Aspen and 24th street. "Brigid's" looks, from the outside, like a corner neighborhood place. The image is furthered by a smallish horseshoe bar and walls decorated with posters of Belgium and Belgian beers, always a good sign. Find a seat at the bar and ask for both a beer and bar menu. The bar stocks both the common Belgians like Chimay and Orval and the more obscure such as La Chouffe. The food menu is worthy of some consideration. Not only because of the mission you are about to undertake, but also because the pris fixe bar menu of $5 buys you pasta with shrimp, or Belgian fries with mild sausage, or a generous anti pasto complete with pate and a variety of delicious cold meats and cheese. Try to avoid the high-test Belgian's like Duvel "the freight train to your brain." This is after all, only the first stop.

Before leaving Brigid's you may want to ask the bar-keep to call a cab. Walking distance to the second bar is twelve blocks, however, it might be just the right length to settle your meal. If you walk, head east to 18th, turn right, and follow 18th to between Arch and Cherry. There on the west side of the street is the Dock Street brewpub. Don't yield to the notion that you can have a Dock Street any time; this brewpub regularly serves up beers not available in bottled versions. If the barley wine's on tap be sure to try at least a small glass.

On leaving Dock Street make a right and walk south for six blocks, turn left (east) onto Sansom street and in two blocks you'll find the Sam Adams brewhouse on the south side (second floor.) An extract-based brewery, it does produce a reasonable ale and the backbar is one of the nicest around. It is significant for its claim as the first new brewery in Philadelphia. From Sam Adams continue east to 15th street, cross over and make a right, within three blocks, on the east side, isthe Copa Too. A much more noisy and brassy establishment than the previous stops it does however have a beer list ranging over 100 and has as its by-words "No crap on Tap." Belgian selections include Boon Gueze, Chimay Blue, Rodenbach, and Blanche de Bruge and the German beers include Paulaner Salvator and Spaten Optimator. Should it seem too crowded go upstairs where there is an additional bar.

Out the door of Copa Too take a left and another at the corner. This sends you east on the north side of Spruce street. Walk two blocks and turn left (north) on the west side of 13th street, continue until you come to Drury, a small side street. Turn left and look for the large neon sign which marks the entrance to "McGillans Old Ale House".

McGillans was established in 1860 and is Philadelphia's answer to New York's McSorely's, though cleaner, better lit, and with a fireplace instead of a pot bellied stove. The original license still hangs on the wall. Also look for the "Bell in Hand" a carved sign of the type taverns used to mark their entrances in the days when many patrons could not read. Among the selections are Sam Adams, Black Dog, Philadelphia's own Independence Ale, Guinness, Yuengling and a hoppy, copper colored house brand brewed by Stoudt's.

A departure from McGillans marks the halfway point of the tour and time to decide between a twelve block walk down nearby Walnut street, or a cab. Either way the next stop is at the corner of 2nd and Walnut - "The City Tavern." Originally constructed in 1773 it was "the" place for delegates to both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention to conduct after hours business.

The first City Tavern was demolished in 1854 but the National Park Service rebuilt this handsome replica on the same site in 1975. Today you can sit in virtually the same spot as Washington, Adams, and Jefferson and enjoy a choice of Thomas Hardy, Royal Oak, and 20 other bottles. The three tap selection includes George Washington Ale, made by Stoudt's, a dark and dry version of an English style porter. Or you may wish to help rebuild another early Philadelphia landmark by ordering a Tun Tavern beer. Part of the Tun Tavern proceeds go to reconstruction of this birthplace of the US Marines. In the summer you might even wish to try dining on the back porch. A warning though, it's not inexpensive, a round of four drafts can run twenty-five bucks.

On leaving the City Tavern, make a left and head north on 2nd street just past the intersection of Chestnut. This is the home of The Khyber Pass a bottle list more than 100 strong with an additional 10 taps. The Khyber sports an old, plain yet elegant wooden back bar and during the slow day-time hours it has the feel of an old classic bar. But one glance through the eclectic juke box reveals what a noisy, rockin' place it becomes at night. When you've had enough at the Khyber, watch the step at the door, take a left, walk a few doors, and give Sassafras Cafe a try. It's more subdued and though the beer selection is somewhat limited it still offers Sierra Nevada, 3 Mont's, Celis, Bass and Dock Street. Take some time to admire the tile floor and tin ceiling and contemplate ordering champagne by the glass. In 1994 Sassafras was voted the best burger in Philly but they also serve duck mousse and soft shell crab.

From Sassafras turn left again and walk to just before Christ Church where you'll spot a small unmarked street. This is Church alley where you make a left then start looking for a long sidewalk running to the right which marks the entrance to Sugar Mom's. Down a flight of stairs, the bar is located in what was a sugar refinery and the massive, oblique, brick structures that break up the bar once supported the building's heavy machinery. The bar menu lists Anchor Steam, Liberty and Porter, Thomas Hardy, Timmerman's lambics, Cantillion Kriek and more. For your diversion there are pool tables, bowling machines and foos ball while scattered about are toy soldiers, race cars and build your own parachute men. By the end of the crawl you may be ready for a little childish diversion.

Once one of the brewing centers of America, the bars of Philadelphia are out to regain part of the city's heritage as a US beer center. It looks as if they're succeeding. So the next time travel takes you there don't despair, remember: all in all even W.C.Fields would rather be in Philadelphia.

Gregg Smith

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