Good pubs, Good Beer, Good People

Monday, June 8, 2009

Fine Time at Philly

By Kurt Epps—The PubScout

June 6, 2009

Because it's a 45 minute train ride—on one train-- I frequently go to New York. I go less frequently to Philadelphia. The train ride is longer and more complicated because I have to switch from NJ Transit to SEPTA in Trenton. And, like most men, unless I have the clicker in my hand, I'm not into switching. NY is closer and faster; Philly is farther and longer.

But NYC just doesn't seem as welcoming as Philly does, especially if my destination is GoodBeer. Not that there aren't great brewpubs and beer bars in NYC…there are, and I've written of them extensively. But there's just "something" about the beer scene in Philly that makes me wish the COBL was closer.

Take, for example, the recent invite I got from the lovely Irene Levy Baker at Spotlight Public Relations. She invited me to join the Craft Beer and Artisanal Cheese Tasting hosted by Eric Matzke of City Food Tours. The adventure originated at Triumph Brewing--Triumph's newest Brewpub-- on Chestnut in Old City.  Described to me as an introduction to craft beer at Triumph for newbies  to the beer scene (which I am not), the tour culminated with a visit to Old City Cheese, and an introduction to artisanal cheeses for tyros (which I am).

So my eldest son Brett (who's probably been in more bars and breweries in his 21 years than many twice his age, given his father's avocation) and I took the trusty '99 Elantra and drove down Rts. 1 and 95 before noon to Philly for a 3:30 appointment with Matzke. We got there in a little over an hour (no train schedules to negotiate), parked in The Bourse parking garage and sallied forth into the historic district.

McGillin's Old Ale House

Our destination was McGillin's Old Ale House on Drury St—about 11 blocks from where we were. As Fate would have it, the Ford Motor Company was demo-ing a neat little new car called the Fiesta, due out in the US next summer. The comely lasses employed to attract attention to the car asked if we wanted to take a test ride. I asked if they'd give us a ride to McGillin's, and they assented. The car was nimble, powerful and well-appointed; at $13 K base price, we'll definitely be giving it serious attention when our Elantra dies.

It was Brett's first visit to McGillin's. Having frequented McSorley's in NYC with me often, he noted the similarities. We tried the McGillin's sampler—a truly great value at $8.50—and he claimed his favorites as McGillin's Lager and Walt's Wit. A growing lad, he wolfed down a BLT as an appetizer, then finished it off with an order of McGillin's outstanding Crab Cakes. I can't resist the Shepherd's Pie, which is without doubt the finest I have yet tasted. The McGillin's Ale and Yards PPA were excellent accompaniments to the authentic Irish dish.

Sated by an absolutely delightful lunch and superb beers at my (and now Brett's) favorite Philly Pub, we lit up a couple of Alvarez Robustos and sauntered down Chestnut on a sparkling Philly afternoon to our rendezvous at Triumph.

Triumph at Philly was somewhat reminiscent of the Princeton Pub, what with the towering tanks on the second floor looming over customers on the first. One difference, of course, was the large number of patrons outside the Philly joint soaking up the sun and quaffing some of Brewer Patrick Jones's fine beers. Eric Matzke greeted us and eight other attendees, and invited us to sit and survey the semicircular flight of beers he had laid out for each of us. The idea for City Food Tours, he confided, came to fruition about a year and a half ago. His partner Robert's sister—Joyce, in New York City—is credited with the idea. We didn't get to meet Robert, but if he manages the tour half as well as Eric did, it's bound to be a winner.

Matzke is at once personable, informative and entertaining in his delivery, and his approach is perfect for those just dipping their beer toes in the wort. He simplifies rather than obfuscates, taking an occasional swipe at the mainstream beer hucksters who would have ad-watchers believe that adding hops to beer is some kind of modern advancement. He is knowledgeable about beer , yet decidedly un-snooty, unaffected by doing occasional wine tours. (Only kidding, wine-lovers.)The beer nut—neophyte and veteran alike—will have no trouble discerning that Matzke loves beer. He also loves when newbies like Eliza yell out things like, "Bananas! Yes! I tasted bananas!" Or "Omigod—BUBBLEGUM! Yes! Yes! I tasted bubblegum, too!"

He apparently also loves artisanal cheeses, and he seemed just as at ease talking about curds and whey in The Old City Cheese Shop, where we traveled to sample the second half of this particular tour, as he did talking grain, malt and hops during the beer portion. The cheeses we sampled ranged from goat cheese with lavender blossoms, to a creamy taleggio, to asiago to an incredible Stilton, and they were presented attractively along with things like crème de balsamic vinegar, prosciutto, apple and chorizo.

In fact, The PubScout heartily endorses what Matzke and Company are doing, and I encourage anyone who has the slightest interest in learning about beer—not to mention enjoying better beer—to sign on for one of these tours. They are held on the first, third and fifth Saturdays of each month, which means Father's Day is the next one (HINT, HINT). In fact, they've added a Sunday tour on 6/21, to accommodate beer-loving Dads. Matzke allowed that his tours—and Philly beer and food establishments in general—seem to have been insulated from the current economic downturn, and he sees the concept growing even larger. City Food Tours, which has seen cheese, chocolate and coffee tours rolled into the experience, has strict regulations as to which businesses they will incorporate into their tour. "They must be family-owned, generally speaking, they must within walking distance and their products have to be exceptional," says Matzke. "This is my baby."

It's that attitude that makes Philly such an attractive place to visit, beer-wise or otherwise. My buddy Don Russell (AKA Joe Sixpack) often says that Philadelphia may be the best beer drinking city in the country. I think he may be right.

Though I've never been to Pittsburgh.

©Kurt Epps All rights reserved 2009

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