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Beer Class reflected in the copper tanks at John Harvard’s in Wayne

Do real beer appreciators really go to “chain brewpubs”? Are they really “breweries”? Well, like most things in life, it depends on which one you go to and what you like. In the Philly suburbs we have a growing number of these – from the venerable “Rock Bottom” in the King of Prussia Mall, to the “Iron Hills” (new one opening in Ardmore soon they say), McKenzie’s in Delaware County and Triumph downtown and in New Jersey.

“Chains just don’t have that local identity” Matt Guyer of the Beer Yard in Wayne recently told me. “That’s what a lot of beer people like about craft breweries”. I pointed out that most of these have “brewer’s specials” – even the national chains like Rock Bottom. Brian McConnell has been the brewer at Rock Bottom in K of P for many years, and has won a number of national awards for his own brews (GABF this year included). He once told me that he appreciated the resources made available to him at RB that may not be at a small independent brewery.

Back in the day we had John Harvard’s in the area – and their beer and food was at the start pretty special. I first met brewer John Rehm at JH in Radnor – before his journey to Yards, Philadelphia brewing and then on to other brewing posts. What happened to John Harvard’s? Well, the story is that the corporate “suits” started cutting back on ingredients, sacrificing quality to cut costs, and then, the end products inevitably suffered.

So I am not sure if being a chain brew pub means that for certain that quality, inventiveness and passion is any worse than other smaller breweries. I have been to small breweries all over the country and chain or not – the “blonde, amber, stout, IPA” standards can be uninspiring at any place – chain or not.

You could say that Iron Hill, McKenzie’s and Triumph are “local” chains, and so retain more local identity, and have more flexibility around what they can do, I am not sure that is completely true – though I have had many fine beers at those places.

The real question to ask is – is a beer by definition better made locally, fresh from the tanks or your growler? Well, clearly from an environmental standpoint – the carbon footprint at the local brewpub is better – no shipping, bottling, packaging, advertising. Generally, no adjuncts or pasteurizing – these are important things to many beer appreciators. That said, boring commodity craft beer – “live at the brewpub” or in a bottle or can – is not a good thing for the beer appreciator or the craft beer industry.

“When craft beer becomes boring, and a commodity, that’s when the whole industry is in trouble” is what Brian Hunt of Moonlight Brewing in the Northern California area told me with concern. It doesn’t matter if it’s brewed at your local brewery, chain brewpub or you buy it at Wegman’s.

On the other hand, I am very happy to sit at the bar at Rock Bottom at King of Prussia and drink one of Brian’s great original recipe’s beers. Accessible location, interesting recipe brewed with quality and passion.

So, don’t dismiss the brewpub chains, but it’s the quality in and behind the beer that always matters.

Iron Hill Brewing great beer

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