Blast From the Past: June 2007

Prowling through the archives just now looking for a post I vaguely remember which, if it exists, has some information that would brighten up a column I am trying to write, I ran across this instead.

Enjoy. Or ignore. Whatever works works for you.

Locals. Mine, to be specific.
Most of you, I am sure, are familiar with the term “local,” a term of endearment for one’s nearest or most favorite (ideally, both) drinking establishment, which we stole from the Brits. As I was going on about a grand night at the Dawson Street Pub in yesterday’s posting, I neglected to point out that the place was just that, my local, in the mid-’90s.

Before that, I don’t believe I ever actually had a “local.” Most of my drinking and entertaining was done at home, my in-laws’ homes or at friends. Oh, I’d drive to nearby Narberth for lunch at place known as The Greek’s a couple of times a month, just because they had a dedicated Stoudt’s tap, and I’d seek out cases of Red Feather when I could find them at retailers. There was a place, now called Crazy Carl’s but which was then the Weldon House, up above the end of the world, otherwise known as Schwenksville, where we’d sometimes go of a weekend night for the music and for the draught beers, the likes of John Courage and other imports you’d rarely see.

But none of those fit the definition of a “local.”

I ended up at Dawson Street in the late spring of 1995 when I was researching and writing Homeboy Brews for Philadelphia Weekly, my first beer story as a freelancer, one which I’d proposed to them and now have no recollection why. That cover-featured story was about the Philadelphia craft brew revolution which was then in its infancy; it began in the original Yards brewery and ended up at Dawson Street, much as my actual researching the story did. And when it appeared in print, it created something close to an assault on the pub, with people coming through the doors waving that copy of PW above their heads for weeks to come. And it wasn’t only happening here: I had one friend who was flying out of the Houston airport and mentioned to someone he met that he was going to Philadelphia report that the guy immediately pulled a copy of that issue of the paper out of his briefcase and told him he had to “go to this bar and try this beer” (Dawson Street and Yards ESA respectively). Another friend flying out of San Francisco had much the same experience, with the stranger not having a copy of the paper but pulling a note out of his wallet on which he’d written the information.

As you might expect, it was a long time before I could buy a beer at Dawson Street. Indeed, after a while, I had to tell owner Dave Wilby that I had no problem with him standing me to a pint or two when he was on the premises, but I drew the line at having the entire staff seeing to it that I never paid for anything. I fell in love with the place, which was about a 15-minute drive from my home in Gladwyne, the richest area code along the fabled Philadelphia Main Line. It was the antithesis of that, a real dive which had a customer base of phonies and prophets, suits and roofers, the lovable and the looney. There was a bartender whose name I forget who was writing a novel (complex, filled with literary references, doomed to failure in my eyes) and another, the lovely Kristen (I think) who would maybe, but not always, deign to pull herself away from the daily soaps on the TV to pour you a beer.

I went there several afternoons a week around 5pm and became a regular. I was there the afternoon that a stranger walked in and asked for a Bud and, upon being told that was not available, then requested a litany of every mass market, bad beer you’ve ever heard of until, upon being told none of those were carried, unleashed a frustrated scream of anger which suggested, in the most colorful terms ever, that every one of us go and try to perform a biological and physical impossibility. And I was there the afternoon a big black limo pulled up out front and Tom Kehoe (Yards co-founder) and Michael Jackson emerged as we watched through the window. Now Michael is an eminently recognizable figure, but we all turned to look at Tommy, the bartender, who hadn’t a clue, and waited to see the disaster unfold. Instead, Tommy hung up the phone on which he’d been talking and greeted The Bard effusively. His call had come from Kehoe’s then partner, Jon Bovit, who’d given him the info he needed.

I was there, what, well over 100 times over the next couple of years, until my life fell apart (read divorce) and I ended up far, far removed from Main Line luxury, up atop the big hill which makes up the great geographical mass of West Conshohocken, a town maybe eight miles and a whole societal millennium away from Gladwyne. I was at the very top of the hill, in one half of a duplex I rented from a lovely young woman who was off to Paris with her boyfriend. Down at the bottom, basically a straight line except you had to follow the streets, was Billy Cunningham’s Court, which General Manager J. P. Boles, having discovered the wonders of great beer during a recent trip to Europe, was in the process of upgrading to a damned good beer bar, treading a fine line so as not to discourage the flood of Yuppies in suits and lady suits who filled the place to excess every weekday night (Boles has gone on to fame and fortune at The Ugly Moose in Manayunk and an adjacent martini bar whose name I cannot recall). He made me his beer advisor and called every time a sales rep arrived with a new beer so that I could walk down and, you know, advise. The walk downhill was fine, going back up home could be a bitch. But Billy C’s was definitely my local for two years.

When my putative landlady came home in the summer of 1998 and showed no inclination to share her house with me, I moved to Oaks, the only town of any substance in the United States without a gas station to call its own, for what would be nearly eight years. I didn’t have a real local for the first couple of years there, but I was but 20 minutes from Drafting Room Exton and another ten minutes down the road beyond that from Victory Brewing, so I was hardly destitute, beer-wise. Still, I didn’t frequent each often enough to qualify (though I came damned close with The Drafting Room).

Then in the fall of 1999, enter Brian O’Reilly, brewer extraordinaire, who came in from Cleveland (John Harvard’s) to be the founding brewer at the star-crossed (read horribly mis-managed) New Road Brewhouse in nearby Collegeville. I walked in on him when he was setting up the brewery and introduced myself as a beer writer (at the time, I guess it was for the late, lamented Barleycorn). He promised to call me when his first beers were ready and, rare for brewers in those days, damned if he didn’t do it. I remember sitting there at the yet unopened bar, tasting samples of five beers and thinking to myself, what in hell is this guy doing out here in the sticks?. Those were different times. New Road lasted about two years and while it was never comfortable or welcoming enough to be a local (for me or for anyone), it is where I met many of the characters who frequent these ramblings (what, you thought I made them up?), so it counts for something.

O’Reilly was fired in May or June of 2001 and I happened to be at a party at his house on the Sunday night it happened. As soon as he hung up the phone and informed us, I said two things: “Let’s go get all the kegs out of the brewhouse and fill up as many more as we can” and “Sly Fox.” We never did the first (William Reed of Standard Tap did, sorta, showing up at the pub two days later and buying whatever kegs they’d give him; the rest of the beer went bad in the tanks and kegs before the whole operation died its sad but deserved death). The Sly Fox suggestion was purely selfish; it was the nearest brewpub to where I lived and it needed a brewer to get its act together. He did approach them but was sent away, and then got involved with brewpub investors (read “brewpub” as guys without money) to try and put together something in West Chester, taking a line job, cleaning kegs and the like, at Victory to get him through until Sly Fox came back to him and the rest is, as they say, history.

Sly Fox Phoenixville became, and remains, my local, even though I moved another ten miles or so north a couple of years back. I can get there in almost exactly the same amount of time, 15 minutes, as it took me to get to Dawson Street those ten years ago, except now I do it on winding country roads, over streams and through old covered bridges rather than down the Schuylkill Expressway and along narrow dirty streets beneath elevated tracks. It’s all definitely good and I think it’s fair to say that, all in all, I done right well when it comes to locals.

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