Ye Olde Ale House: Philly Beer World Unearthed

Great beer, fun people and the special places of Philly Beer World.

Ye Olde Ale House

405 Germantown Pike, Lafayette Hill (Montco).

Once you leave the city, Germantown Avenue turns into Pike, and the beer scene takes an odd turn. Traveling west, the popular craft beer destinations in Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill are replaced by white-tablecloth inns, faux Irish bars and a mediocre Italian restaurant with a bizarrely spectacular beer list.

This place has been here forever, it seems, understated and sure of itself, its discrete sign promising nothing more – or less – than ale.

I first encountered it in the late ‘70s, while covering township news for a suburban daily newspaper. After board meetings, reporters, elected officials, zoning officers and contractors would adjourn to the bar for social drinks and furtive kanoodling.

Little has changed since then, other than an occasional sprucing-up. The wood-paneled walls, the curved oak armrest on the bar, the quiet booths and tables meant to be shoved together – they’re as I remember them from 40 years ago.

Same goes for the beef-carving station, front and center, behind the bar.

The Beer

This is not one of those special craft beer destinations. It doesn’t host tap takeovers and its draft list is not updated online. Many of the patrons drink straight from long-necks (or, in the case of Coors, those stubby, brown bottles), no glassware needed. It’s Old School, which explains why Bass Ale and Guinness still get top billing on the chalkboard.

But there are 18 taps to work with, which leaves room for craft brews from Sly Fox, Troegs, Deschutes, Dogfish Head, Ithaca, Sierra Nevada and plenty more. The drafts are poured into pint glasses that are kept chilled (but not frosted) in refrigerators. Even a 9% abv double IPA like Victory DirtWolf goes into a big glass – as any pale ale oughta.

The People

Old heads and their sons, watching the game together. Families celebrating a Little League win. Golf buddies after a round. Couples on a cheap date. Salesmen at lunch. It’s suburban, not particularly diverse, but welcoming.

The waitstaff and the bartenders take their cue from Murph, the late owner whose photo hangs behind the bar. The man was a Roxborough bar legend, running Murphy’s Tavern on Henry Avenue for years before buying this place in the ‘80s. He was friendly, gentlemanly and professional – which is exactly what you want from a bartender. On even a slow night, there are no fewer than 8 people behind the bar; there’s never a long wait for a refill.

Today, it’s run by Chris Bass, Murph’s son-in-law who was, coincidentally, married by my late father-in-law (a Philly judge). Chris is the one who convinced Murph to expand the draft system and add all these craft beers.

What makes it special

The aforementioned beef-carving station. Even with the Phillies on 10 TVs, you can’t take your eyes off the guys preparing those mouth-watering roast beef sandwiches. On a busy night, it takes three:

  • One, with thick tattooed arms, swirling the huge chunk in a pan of brown gravy, slicing endless pieces of no more than a sixteenth-inch thick.
  • Two, to assemble the sandwich, stacking slice after slice onto a fresh Kaiser roll.
  • Three, to add a slab of provolone and more of that gravy, before slicing it in half atop a plastic plate. Don’t worry about the horseradish – you’ll get your own jar on the bar.

The process is endless and mesmerizing. On a busy Saturday afternoon, when the college football games are on, the ale house will go through 8 to 10 huge, boneless steamship rounds.

“Even if you just came from eating your mom’s lasagna, when you sit down and see that beef, you can’t help but order a sandwich,” says Chris.

This is not gourmet food. It is honest and genuine, without irony or pretense. And it deserves to be washed down with a full, cold glass of fresh ale.

-30-

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