Two Beer Drinkers and Two Wine Drinkers Go on a Bar Crawl...
This is longer form article, written in 2016 as a review of the budding beer garden scene in Philadelphia.
"Philadelphia is proudly a beer drinker's city - and rightfully so; the beer scene here is kickass! Philadelphia was the first city in the country to have an official, city wide Beer Week, and Frommer's listed Philadelphia as one of the best beer drinking cities in the world. Philadelphia is home to a ton of respected local brewers, lots of rare beer can be found here, and let's not forget -- Monk's Cafe. If you don't know what Monk's is, you are probably not a cult beer follower. But trust me, people know.
All of this makes the fact that the Age of Winelightenment has dawned in Philadelphia even more satisfying. Winelightenment is evidenced by growing and increasingly sophisticated wine lists - not just in restaurants, but in bars and coffee shops too - plenty of wine bars, and the coming option to buy wine in grocery stores versus just through the archaic Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) stores, thanks to a move toward privatization in August 2016. As well, Philadelphia Wine Week stands up proudly next to Beer Week. Anecdotally, Winelightenment is real, as I personally have never seen more interest in wine in either academic or social circles. Basically, it's a great time to be alive!" Noelle Allen enthusiastically wrote the intro for her new post idea. Not that Winelightenment was a new thought for her - she'd written about it in 2014 when Philadelphia finally announced the city wide implementation of Wine Week - "But just how Winelightened are we?" she wondered, "Does Winelightenment have practical applications or are we still in the concept phase?"
Philadelphia, Labor Day Weekend 2016. That Friday morning was the Eighties Movie of Friday mornings. It was sunny and clear and 'Take on Me' blasted while the Winelala team posed on muscle cars, acted out plans to punk the other wine blogs, and got into water fights. The team, made up of myself, super-taster Christa, regular taster/beer drinker Chris, and husband/beer drinker Seth, decided to head out on a Philadelphia Beer Garden Bar Crawl, ingeniously to check out the wine lists of Spruce Harbor Park, Independence Beer Garden, SkyGarten, and Uptown Beer Garden, in that order, write about them, and hopefully have that count as a day's work. I wore my new tank top that I bought in LA that I couldn't wait to show off: Wine Addict. (In a healthy, in-moderation way.)
The pop-up Beer Gardens are a summertime affair. They began showing up in 2014 as beautiful outside bars with legit food and beer selections, music, creative and decorative lighting (I AM A LIGHTING FREAK), dramatic and beautiful views, trees, games, seating, and even wait service. The beer gardens are a really cool and fun way to spend some time outside and everyone loves them. Some controversy in the way of liquor licenses surrounded them in the beginning, but as the Big Lebowski taught us, the bums lost. The bums always lose. The gardens are not only here to stay, there are a ton of them.
Spruce Harbor Park at Penn's Landing was hopping when we arrived. Although there were multiple delicious food options, lots to do, and a pretty good beer selection, the wine offerings came down to the basics: "Chardonnay or Cabernet". (This would become a theme over the day.) You can only drink alcohol in this kind-of cramped, roped off section of the park, but - it's right on the river. The bright sunshine and festive mid afternoon atmosphere did not call for Cabernet, so Christa and I chose the Chardonnay. It came in a plastic cup, but we were outside on the water, so fine, and although technically Chardonnay was the right choice ('technically' because there aren't really wrong choices, drink what you want), it was not a good experience. The wine was pure butter and oddly bitter. Your head should not begin to busily spin halfway through a glass like ours did. If the wine you're drinking causes this, it is not a good sign. The Cabernet was likely of the same nature. If you go to Spruce Street Harbor Park, drink beer. That's what the boys did while they basically laughed at us trying to finish our less than refreshing wine.
Independence Beer Garden at Independence Park is a huge, great place right across from the Liberty Bell with a menu by Chef Michael Schulman of Sampan, a Philadelphia favorite. The wine list is not extensive, but there are more offerings than at Spruce Harbor. I always get the Pinot Grigio; it's perfect for summertime. You don't get that head-spinny feeling right away, just a light relaxation, and the wine itself is very pleasant and enjoyable. Other choices include Sparkling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or Merlot. The wine list is well done and appropriate given the gastropub style food and the relaxed outdoor setting. Christa drank the sparkling - Prosecco - and was happy. You'll get plastic cups here too, but sometimes a wineglass just formalizes things too much, so I decided to agree with the plastic. (Winelightenment works on a lot of levels.) The beer selection here is great!! Independence Beer Garden gets it right in terms of just about everything, including good, casual, drinkable wine. Winelightenment!
SkyGarten is 50 floors up, an outdoor balcony wrapped around a skyscraper, surrounded by amazing views. Naturally, this garden has a totally different vibe than Spruce Harbor or Independence Hall. It takes itself a little more seriously, with velvet ropes, bouncers, bag checks, and a 'one in, one out' rule. SkyGarten clientele takes itself more seriously too... Which, if that's what you're looking for, this is where to go. There really is something to be said about the wine list, as Jesse Cornell (formerly of Neuf) is beverage manager. The food is basic but good, done by the team at Brauhaus Schmitz. Husband and employee-for-the-day Seth got a bratwurst and Christa and I chomped on some delicious pretzel sticks with a beer-cheese dip and mustard. I matched the pretzels with a German rose, while Christa ordered Prosecco because that girl loves her bubbles. Given the German theme, I would have liked to see more Rieslings available, but I'll take a dry rose or three any day. The boys stuck to beer. Point made, I guess. Sky Garten had the best wine list so far, but it's also a little more fancy schmancy.
Uptown Beer Garden on JFK between 17 and 18 was last on the list and back on the ground. (I'd like to mention that Winelala seemed to have gained multiple temporary staffers at this point, happy to offer their beer and wine tasting services!!) Uptown Beer Garden is more similar in terms of look and feel to Independence Beer Garden. Two pretty famous city chefs, Teddy Sourias of BRU Craft & Wurst, U-Bahn, and Cinder, and Jonathan Petruce of Petruce et al and Fish, concocted a menu fit for Uptown's outdoor grill, which offered among other things, high-end BBQ and lobster rolls. The wine selection here was back to basics, and Christa and I again chose Chardonnay. This was another situation where we should have chosen beer. Let's leave it at that.
With our Philadelphia Beer Garden tour complete, the dedicated Winelala staff decide to call it a day. We had worked hard to stick to our itinerary, and our self-imposed post deadlines loomed. We were tired and had a lot to think about, and ultimately, to type. So Winelala headed home for a restful night's sleep.
(Or maybe it was to a few more bars to celebrate the three day weekend. Your call!)
The next day, in the clear light of morning, away from eighties movie montages, outside parks, and skyscrapers, Noelle got to reflect a little more on Winelightenment and its reach, and she had her answer. Suffice to say, while Philadelphia is so much more Winelightened than it used to be, it's still a beer drinking city, and the beer gardens happily emphasized that... Wine could be found, but, well. Beer gardens are for drinking beer.