Q&A: Lew Bryson
The Main Line’s own 2008 Michael Jackson Beer Journalism Award winner
MLT: How well do local restaurants educate consumers on beer-and-food pairings?
LB: I think it varies a lot, unfortunately, although it's come a long way. The best places to go, still, are brewpubs—Iron Hill, in particular, does a great job—and a few specialty restaurants like Teresa's Next Door and Monk's Cafe. Actually, I'm very impressed by Iron Hill's server training, the coordination between chefs and brewers, and the constant parade of beer-and-food pairings on the menu.
MLT: Can I twist your arm for your current top five?
LB: Sure, as long as I can make the caveat that these are unranked. Local beers: Sly Fox’s O'Reilly's Stout, Victory’s Yakima Twilight, Iron Hill's Pig Iron Porter, Stoudt's Pils, and Rock Bottom's Prussia's Pride IPA. (An aside here: Rock Bottom's Brian McConnell may be the most underappreciated brewer in the area. He's awesome). Local beer bars, on a combination of beer selection and "bar-ness": Monk's Cafe, Teresa's Next Door, Memphis Taproom, Drafting Room in Exton, and Standard Tap.
MLT: How should a newbie attack Philly Beer Week?
LB: Dive in. There are some big events like the opening fest, the real ale fest, and the big craft beer fest: pick one and enjoy the crowd. But get some of the smaller events, too: the meet-the-brewer nights at various places, events that focus on one particular type of beer or brewing area, and the beer dinners. That's where you've got the chance to learn something about the beverage we all love so much, and that will make the enjoyment that much more rich for you. The more you know, they say, the better it tastes—because you know what to look for.
MLT: What’s the best local brew for the buck?
LB: Not really that local, but in eastern Pennsylvania: The Lion's [Wilkes-Barre] Stegmaier seasonals have been excellent value for the money. Local, local? I’d probably say Philadelphia Brewing’s Kenzinger.
MLT: How does Philly rate against other cities?
LB: Oh, right up there. There's been a lot of trash-talking about this since we made "America's Best Beer-Drinking City," and if you define it on those terms, I think we're definitely top five. The variety is incredible, and there are some great beer bars in the area—and more opening all the time. But look: We're the sixth largest city in the U.S., and our brewpub rate is pathetic. The ones we have are great, and I'd stack them up against anywhere, but there are so few for [Philadelphia’s] size! There are huge areas of the city—North Philly, the Northeast, West Philly—where it's hard or impossible to find anything but the national brands and Yuengling. We've still got plenty of work to do. More brewpubs, people!
MLT: How hard is it for local brewers to create distinguishing craft brews?
LB: I think the brewers that’ve been around for 10 years or more are developing that “distinguishing difference.” Sly Fox is good craft beer in cans. Victory is very well-executed beers in a slightly tweaked classic style. Dogfish Head is innovative; they’ve got a national rep for that. Stoudt's has rock-solid traditional beers. Iron Hill does very well on the big beers. Yards is making mostly English ales. Philadelphia Brewing makes solid, almost blue-collar craft beers.
MLT: How can the city attract more microbreweries?
LB: Philly’s been paying more attention to the outside [for a long time]. I think a lot of the problem stems from the loud collapse of three major micros within months of each other: Red Bell, Independence and Poor Henry's. The companies failed from business problems, but all people saw was "that microbrew stuff" failing to stay alive. It hurt things—a lot. I think we're coming out of that, and we should see some more brewpubs, assuming the economy comes around.
MLT: How well does the city export its homemade brews?
LB: There's a lot of that going on already, and it's only going to get better. But I think what our area breweries should be doing is taking a tip from Pennsylvania's big-dog brewery, Yuengling, and digging deeper into their own back yard—[there’s] plenty of market here in the Delaware Valley, if you just get out there and sell it. Because, believe me, once Boston Beer gets that big Sam Adams plant outside of Allentown fully cranked up, we're going to be knee-deep in the stuff, and they make good beer. The time to strengthen your local position is now.