In many ways, Pennsylvania is a very strange place. Sometimes a slightly stupid place. (I'm allowed to say that because I grew up in Pennsylvania, on a farm, with twelve cats and a manure pit). This is particularly true regarding alcohol—the laws and complications regarding the sale of a simple bottle of beer in my home state are pretty mind-boggling. So when my cousin, who lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia, introduced me to the booming beer culture there a few years back, I never expected to find it so rich and varied. Sure, the whole state has had pretty healthy brewing scene for a number of years—somewhat paradoxically, considering the regulations breweries there have to deal with on their home turf. But the landscape of the greater Philly area is absolutely lousy with tiny microbreweries and brewpubs, and most of them seem... good? Variety is one thing, but the experimentation and passion I'm seeing there is something else. In a comparable area outside of NYC, we have maybe... two or three breweries? I know real estate is way cheaper down there, but Pennsylvania is kicking our asses, guys.
I still have many more brewpubs to check out in the greater Philly area, but the last couple times I visited, I find myself compelled to return to one: Tired Hands, in Ardmore, PA. Tired Hands is technically a brewpub, in that they serve food and brew their beer on premise, but do not distribute. However, it's misleading to think of Tired Hands as such, considering that a lot of brewpubs... kind of suck at beer. No, Tired Hands seems like an establishment run by restless, creative, quirky homebrewers, and I love that about them. They wear their personality and passion on their sleeve. (Tired Hands brewmaster Jean Broillet learned his craft partly at Weyerbacher—coincidentally, same as Dan Hitchcock, brewmaster at Rushing Duck and the subject of my last brewery visit). With the exception of Tired Hands' two main beers—HopHands and FarmHands, a hoppy pale ale and saison, respectively—the draft menu changes fast. In the handful of times I've been there, I have yet to see the same beer on tap twice, with the exception of their two standards. The majority of their brews are, as far as I can tell, one-offs. I'm not sure I've ever encountered another brewery with that model.
With so many new beers popping up week to week, sure, Tired Hands might risk alienating locals who like to know what to expect. But varied as their selection is, it's not at all random—every beer on tap gives a real sense of the brewery's personality. Tired Hands largely gravitates towards hoppy beers and farmhouse ales. There's a lot of overlap between those two realms, seeing as saisons can be pretty hoppy, and the brewers show a commitment to doing everything they can within that range. You can expect to find lots of single-hopped saisons, experimental saisons featuring oddball ingredients, IPAs featuring all manner of new, fruity hop varieties, oak-aged experiments, and Brett-based creations. Highlights of my recent visit included a 100% Brett-fermented pale ale brewed with yeast from Chad Yakobson at Crooked Stave—which, even more interestingly, is part of a solera project—and a pale ale called HeavenDream brewed with Meyer lemon zest and hopped with Motueka, Cascade, Galaxy and Zythos. Notably, every beer at our table of eight was basically identical in appearance until my girlfriend ordered a stout, the only "dark" option on the menu... but which was also fermented with saison yeast.
|Beer Menu. Click to enlarge.|
On the more technical side, I also noticed that Tired Hands hoppy beers consistently maintain a very "soft" profile, making them all brightly, subtly flavored—and probably more accessible to those who wouldn't usually go for an IPA, demonstrating that you can appeal to all sorts of drinkers while still captivating newness-seeking beer nerds like myself. I should mention that one of my friends offered a flipside to this cross-style consistency. At the time we went, there was nothing you might call aggressive on the menu; all of Tired Hands beers have a similar gentle palate — even the heavily-spiced ones and the heavily-hopped ones. It's nice having a range of easy-drinking but flavorful options, but especially in winter, you do sometimes want a beer that just punches you right in the mouth.
Continuing to buck the "brewpub" label, Tired Hand's food selections more closely resemble those of a small artisan cafe than an "appeal-to-everyone" American bar and grill. The food pairs perfectly with the beer; in fact, depending on your tastes, you might even consider it just as much of a reason to go. While a menu of cheese plates, panini, pickles, and bread may not sound like much, you'll just have to take my word for it that they're all really, really good. Cheese is sourced from local farms, and is appropriately awesome. (Note: I love cheese). The panini don't disappoint — I had the veggie option, made with green beans, which works much better than it seems it should, particularly with some of their mustard. The pickles are unique, house-made creations, but the real star of the menu is the simplest: the bread and butter. Made in-house, with their own yeast, the bread is way better than it has any right to be, and enhanced by some seriously fantastic butter — presumably locally-made as well. Topped off with sea-salt, I could tear through a platter of this bread / butter combo as a meal. Fortunately, and for a reasonable price, that's an option.
While beer and food are the most important things (
Service was good every time I visited, if you're worried about that kind of thing, and the place was busy but not packed. There are two floors, and two bars, set up in a kind of rustic rural tavern style, though the place is not huge by any stretch. New beers always seem to be waiting in the wings when one taps, so there's never a reduced selection. On one visit, my friends and I sat downstairs near the bar, and eventually pestered the bartender with a number of questions — he was extremely friendly and generous. Tired Hands seems to have a great crew.
My only real complaint comes with a note of understanding: beer prices are pretty high, though I think I understand why. Tired Hands' experimental nature and Hot New Hop-focused brews require some pricey, hard-to-acquire ingredients, and they're a very small, very new operation, meaning they probably don't have much buying power (or money-saving hop contracts). They keep pretty much all their beer on the same pricing structure, which is nice. A full pint runs you $7, and that's acceptable. But an 8 ounce sample glass is $4.50, a 4 ounce sample glass is $3 dollars, and there's no option for flights. So to sample most of the beers on the menu—which of course I want to do, and you should do as well—you're going to end up paying something like $9 dollars a pint. That's a bit steeper than almost any other brewery or brewpub I can think of. But, to be fair—I can't think of any other breweries exactly like Tired Hands. In this case, it happens to be worth it.
I'm not the first person to suggest this, but Tired Hands is going to make a big splash in the next year. However, I am the first person to give Tired Hands the Bear Flavored Stamp of Approval.