Philadelphia Bars may be as good as English Pubs; A Sorry confession.Posted: January 31, 2012
Consider the scene; I am shopping with a friend when we stop into a Bar in south Philadelphia to buy some take away beer, we sit at the bar and she asks the barman; “I want a six pack for my Husband, something really Hoppy but not an IPA”. There then follows a brief interlude where the bar staff discuss very seriously amongst themselves about the best possible beer they could offer my friend. They attempt to offer her a Dark Beer from a California microbrewery. A man three stools down proclaims that particular beer to be ‘Awesome’ as it is ‘Hoppy as Hell’. My friend shakes her head. “No, he’s already tried that, he doesn’t like it.” The Bar staff nod at this and continue to discuss very seriously my friend’s beer situation; the event concluded satisfactorily to everyone, however around the time at least five strangers were weighing in on my friend’s purchase, something struck me; I live in a city of Beer Nerds; more surprisingly, an American City of Beer Nerds.
As a European, the words “American” and “Beer” trigger immediate feelings of contempt. There are justifiable reasons for this; Miller Highlife is one, Bud light is another. For some reason however, the fine people of Philadelphia, and Eastern Pennsylvania as a whole have worked out that beer flavoured water doesn’t cut it. It’s not just the east of the Keystone state, where brewers have begun to get their act together, far from it; Micro and Craft Breweries have been springing up all across America for the past twenty or so years, however eastern Pennsylvania is different as instead of isolated groups of nerds drinking a small supply of tasteful beer, Philadelphia seems to have a consistent wider culture of quality beer.
There are good reasons for this; one is probably something to do with the existence of brands such as Yuengling, The Philadelphia Brewing Company, and Yards which are somewhat up to the standard of many of its European counterparts – certainly better than some British brands – and don’t fall under the pretentious term “specialist” but are cheap and plentiful enough to enjoy most evenings. this is something that has made Pennsylvanians, on the whole, used to being much more discerning about the beer they drink; a second, is that Philadelphia in particular used to be a hub of beer brewing in the north eastern United states, having a neighbourhood named for its prominent past. This close association with drinks that match the quality of those of Europe isn’t such a strange anomaly considering Eastern Pennsylvania was primarily colonized by Germans to such an extent that Philadelphia was a bilingual city for a time – a fact my wife of Pennsylvania German decent brings up whenever anyone complains about Latin American immigrants who apparently refuse to learn English.
Unfortunately for the limited amount of national pride I have; the culture of fine brews in this part of the United States is coupled with nice places to drink them in. There are a few obvious reasons for American Bar’s superiority for this that are apparent to anyone who spends an evening in any American Bar; the standard closing time is 2am in Philadelphia, a time considered early by people from New York – closing time being 4am. This means that 10.45pm is not full of mad dashes to the bar, and that 11pm does not cover the streets in crazy drunk people fighting as most people leave before closing time. Not only do you get to stay in bars longer in a significant amount of them you get to smoke. Sensibly the Pennsylvania state legislature has ruled that if you don’t serve food in your drinking establishment you can allow the use of tobacco products. I am not a smoker, however when I was growing up my parents took me to an open air concert every summer with some of their old friends; all of whom smoked profusely, this as well as the fact that smoking in English pubs were banned the year I could legally drink, has left me with a sense of nostalgia for enclosed public spaces that wreak of tobacco. This has meant that I have begun to enjoy sitting at the back of dive bars reading, and enjoying other people smoking.
I do miss Pubs in England, for one thing I miss the much calmer attitude a lot drinking establishments back home take to under aged drinkers who behave themselves, the greater social acceptability of taking a child to a pub in Britain – something bordering child abuse in the minds of the average American – and the greater social acceptance of drinking outside of a designated drinking establishment in the UK; something that is much more of a pain in Pennsylvania. As a result of the Quaker origins of the state obtaining alcohol from a shop is an ordeal. Off the bat, without a speciality licence, no shop can sell alcohol alongside food, as well as this, no one accept State government owned stores, can sell wine and spirits. Being effectively government offices, liquor stores are closed on federal holidays and their monopoly on grain alcohol means high prices and shit service, beer distributors are somewhat better, being privately owned, but they are few and far between meaning you can’t casually buy alcohol, you have to go out of your way to obtain some. For all England’s faults I certainly miss being able to buy crisps, vodka and condoms in the same place on a bank holiday Monday at 8am.
Despite this weird legal relationship with alcohol that Americans suffer from and Pennsylvanians seems to endure particularly – lest we forget than an American can vote three years before he or she can legally drink – Bars in Philadelphia are a treat for someone in their early twenties to live amongst. They’re not the kind of places I would like to spend my retirement in; eating Sunday roasts followed by local ale as I sink into an armchair, reading a book, but they are fun individualistic places to drink interesting hop based products, which is a lot more than I can say for some pubs in England.