Friday, May 13, 2011

A Crafty Resource to Locate Artisanal Beers in Philadelphia

The descriptors earthy, spicy, floral, and acidic are typically used to reference the flavor profiles of wine, but in today’s hops-infused beverage market, they are as frequently spoken to describe beer. We live in a time where our father’s bottle of Bud or can of Schlitz are afterthoughts. While high-production labels such as these are entirely one-dimensional, the real beer movement in America right now is about skilled artistry, multi-layered tastes, and low-volume/high-quality output. It is defined by the crafting of a product that not only incorporates traditional techniques with innovative, distinct flavors, but is also strictly made for a palate-strong, inquisitive and discerning niche of consumers rather than for mass appeal. Brewers are now gaining the same recognition as winemakers, much like in the 1970s when California wineries Stag’s Leap and Chateau Montelena put American vintners on the map after the famed 1976 Paris Tasting

The craft beer industry in the United States is comprised of many small-batch producers who utilize local ingredients and wild yeasts to create artisan ales and lagers reminiscent of old-world European styles but with a more aggressive and unique edge. Beer is not just made of water, yeast, malt and hops anymore, like it had been done in this country until about 30 years ago. While Belgium, England and Germany have inspired certain styles, America is now becoming known for its own methods and non-traditional ingredients that produce aromas and flavors that are complex, rich, extraordinary and exciting. Much of this movement has even started in the home, a nod to the entrepreneurial and creative spirit that is clearly and historically American (i.e., Dogfish Head and Samuel Adams). 

Reflecting the growth of this revolution is the expansion of craft beer programs in the city of Philadelphia. Gastropubs like Standard Tap and Varga not only serve refined and eclectic bar food, but also local and national artisan beers that mirror and complement the flavor-driven cuisine. Craft beer dinners have grown so much in popularity that there seems to be a special food pairing with terrific producers like Mikkeller or Sixpoint each week. The city itself has seen a resurgence of breweries, from Yard’s to Philadelphia Brewing Company, reminiscent of its heyday before Prohibition, when a part of Philly was even known as Brewerytown. Frommer’s recently listed Philadelphia as one of the top fourteen cities in the world for beer, and Esquire named it as one of the top seven craft beer meccas in the country. 

Keeping track of where to find craft beers has unsurprisingly become increasingly more challenging, given that many of the existing and newly-opened establishments must incorporate a serious beer list and philosophy to survive a weak economy as well as a demanding clientele in search of specifically-stylized brews. Fortunately for us, a local website called has been created in the last six months to assist the novice beer drinker and self-proclaimed beer-geek in their search for significant suds. Similar to the craft beer movement, was started at home by creators Jared and Kristy Littman, married residents of the Queen Village neighborhood who not only make their own beer from homegrown hops, but also seek out distinct and specially-crafted beers in the city (when they’re not practicing law). Realizing an easy-to-use web-based resource did not exist for beer seekers to find a particular producer’s beer or what was currently on-tap at a new or favorite bar, the husband-and-wife team developed the website as that means to an end. PhillyTapFinder allows its users to easily search for a craft beer by name, style, bar, neighborhood or characteristic. All results are up-to-date, which is critical given that many craft beers tend to be small-batch and are rotated quite often. Over 60 member bars have been enlisted, and there are more on the horizon, which Jared attributes to the overall demand for beer knowledge and availability by those who browse (“brewse”) and frequent his site. There are even hopes of expanding into the Philadelphia suburbs and South Jersey, and eventually nation-wide. 

A recent coup by PhillyTapFinder is its selection to maintain all of the beer lists for the ever-growing and nationally renowned Philly Beer Week, which occurs at multiple city bars and restaurants from June 3rd to the 12th. Special tastings, discussions and beer dinners will be held throughout Philadelphia, requiring a go-to site that provides the names and descriptions of the beers to be presented and poured. Jared and Kristy are visibly and understandably excited and honored at having been chosen for such a task, but it’s all part of their vision and hobby. Being able to assist fellow craft beer enthusiasts while fulfilling their own quest for the perfect pint is clearly a “win-win.” 

I met Jared and Kristy at a very memorable Stillwater Artisanal Ales dinner at the now-closed James a few weeks ago. Stillwater’s beer-maker Brian Strumke is known in industry circles as a “gypsy” brewer, because he brews beer on the go rather than at his own facility.  He literally travels from one brewery to the next, in Baltimore or Belgium or Eastern Europe, renting out their excess capacity and using his own recipes (very floral-driven) to create limited edition batches and labels (which are themselves quite artistic). It’s a practice that is quite unconventional, and a nomadic subculture to the craft beer movement that is gaining both practitioners and followers. I personally had followed PhillyTapFinder to satisfy my own need for beer knowledge before meeting the couple, so I was excited to have been introduced to them. I loved their business model so much that I asked Jared to talk hops with me at the Khyber Pass Pub, an Old-City haunt that has recently been refreshed and refurbished. It now serves Southern and New Orleans-inspired cuisine with a serious draft list of craft beers that complements the menu quite perfectly. It's one of my favorite destinations for happy hour (when drafts are reduced by $2), Benton’s bacon grease popcorn (the ultimate beer-drinker's bar snack) and comfort food. As the Khyber’s sidewalk chalkboard states, there is “no crap on tap,” fitting beer lingo that can easily be used to describe the Philadelphia craft beer scene. I couldn’t have stated it more poetically. 

Check out my conversation with Jared Littman to learn more about’s origins, how it is serving the local craft beer fan, and why he and Kristy are taking the burden off of the bars to bring you the most up-to-date information and insider tips on what they are pouring in town.

Many thanks to my friend Brett Kane of Lost Boy Entertainment for post-production services.

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