Although I have alluded to it in past columns, I have yet to come right out and say it — Pennsylvania is the greatest state in the union for beer drinkers. A bold claim you say? Why not California where all the hype-saturated, Sonoma County ex-vinter, bourbon barrel aging, wild yeast utilizing, 200 IBU pushing nanobreweries are? “But Bells and Founders are in Michigan! What about them?!” you decry.
To begin my defense of Pennsylvania (and the Greater Philly Area), it’s best to start with history. Like Wisconsin or Missouri, Pennsylvania saw waves of German immigrants during the 19th century who brought with them the knowledge and expertise for crafting fine beer. These small local brewers created a strong and lengthy indigenous brewing tradition that made well-made beer widely available, and people developed a taste for it. Many of those brewers have since gone under or disappeared, but some — like Yuengling — still give testament to Pennsylvania’s history. And numbers show that people still love it.
An entire book could and should be written about Yuengling. As of last month it is now the largest craft brewery in America, surpassing Boston Beer Company (Sam Adams) by producing almost 2.5 million barrels in 2011. Moreover, it is also the oldest operating brewery in America. It was founded in 1829 and is still family owned and operated.
When the numbers get broken down, it is even more impressive: Yuengling is available in only 15 states, exclusively on the East Coast. Even with a smaller distribution, it sells more beer than a nationally distributed brand like Sam Adams. The amount of loyalty that Pennsylvania beer drinkers have to the Yuengling brand cannot be understated, which in my opinion is a damn good thing.
Yuengling is not the only guest at the beer bacchanalia that is PA. On beeradvocate.com, 111 distinct breweries and brewpubs are in the state. Some of the biggest and best names include: Tröegs, Victory, Stoudt’s, Yards, Philly Brewing, Iron Hill, Nodding Head, Sly Fox and Weyerbacher. All of them produce a variety of styles and many have received national awards for outstanding beers.
Tröegs’ Nugget Nectar, released seasonally, is one of the most-hyped beers every year, but their year-round lineup of solid traditional German-style beers and a fantastic coffee stout are just as impressive. Brewed from untested recipes and available for one time only, their innovative “Scratch” batches — usually available only at the brewery — is a plus for drinking local. Check out the recently built tasting room for cheap and huge samples if you’re ever in the Hershey area.
Victory also makes head-splittingly good German offerings like the powerful Prima Pils, a tasty and session-able beer (that is, you can drink a lot) and examples of styles like their Kölsch and the rauchbier (or smoke beer), Otto. They also make one of the best Imperial IPAs on the East Coast, Hop Wallop and the exceptional Storm King Imperial Stout. Though their Belgian beers are a little underwhelming, by mastering tradition they keep beer drinkers happy.
Philly Brewing and Yards, both located in the city of Philadelphia proper, have an interesting and competitive history. Yards, founded in 1994 by Tom Kehoe and Jon Bovit, makes both an outstanding American Pale Ale (appropriately named Philadelphia Pale Ale) and an innovative and delicious Ales of the Revolution series. Brewed from recipes used by the nation’s founders, offerings like Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale are available year round and make palpable the area’s immense pride in its place in America’s early beginnings.
In 2001, one of the founders of Yards left over economic differences and established Philadelphia Brewing Co. on Amber St. in the Kensington neighborhood, right outside of Philadelphia. Though smaller than Yards, Philly Brewing makes great beers like Fleur de Lehigh that show local color.
Weyerbacher holds a special place in my heart as the brewery closest to my own home. Based out of a tiny warehouse in the middle of Easton, PA, the family-owned operation makes slightly more than 10,000 barrels per year, which to put it into perspective is 5.10204082 ×x 10^-8 percent of all the beer produced in America in 2009. Weyerbacher may be small but it makes some of the most challenging, delicious and unusual beers in the country. Specializing in Belgian styles, their tripel, Merry Monks, is a Great American Beer Festival gold medalist, and other standout offerings include American Wild Ales, Rapture and Riserva and the Old Ale Idiot’s Drool.
The innovation doesn’t end there — their anniversary beers are brewed each year with only one requirement: it must be over 10% ABV. Last year, Weyerbacher released Sixteen, a braggot, which is an ancient English style that is a mixture of stale ale and honey-based mead. On beeradvocate.com, this is one of 47 braggots ever recorded by users. More on Weyerbacher in the coming weeks.
Finishing off the unfortunately truncated list of Pennsylvania’s beer-centric qualities is distribution. Due to the material difficulties of cross-country shipping, many locally produced beers are brewed in a single plant and are generally sold only in the local vicinity. Pennsylvania sits at a fantastic intersection of regional distribution circuits and Pennsylvania drinkers have available an almost dizzying number of options. To give an extremely illustrative example, let’s check out Russian River Brewing Company.
Makers of Pliny the Elder, Russian River is quite possibly the most critically acclaimed, mouth-wateringly geeky brewing company on Earth. Their releases sell out in minutes and people on the Internet will trade literally anything to get their hands on Russian River. To make matters worse for the Atlantic half of the country, it is not distributed to any state East of the Missipippi. Well, more precisely almost every state. Russian River is distributed only in the Philadelphia area because it’s just that damn cool.
Brad is a junior. You can be reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org