A lot of people don't know this, but beer aficionados have always revered the great Benjamin Franklin.
"Ben Franklin?" you say. "Short guy with bifocals? Crazy long hair? Statesman, inventor, scientist, signer of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution?"
Yep, that Ben Franklin.
For it was Franklin who was credited with writing the greatest beer-marketing slogan of all time, when he wasn't busy being one of the Founding Fathers and one of the most brilliant, accomplished men of his time.
"Beer," he purportedly stated, "is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."
Taking that to heart, my wife and I took a recent trip to Philadelphia, Franklin's adopted hometown -- he was born in Boston -- on what could be called a Beer-Lovers $500 Getaway. (OK, my wife, Nancy, isn't really a beer lover. But that's what we named it, and we're sticking to it.)
The fact is, Philadelphia has a rich and varied brewing heritage.
According to beeradvocate.com, a Web site "dedicated to advocating, supporting and bringing awareness to the worldwide craft beer scene," the city can be considered the first beer capital of America, since, by the end of the 18th century, it produced more beer than all the other seaport cities in America combined.
By the early 20th century, "Philadelphia was known as the greatest brewing city in the Western Hemisphere," according to the Web site about.com.
Although there's only one brewery still operating in the city -- the highly regarded Yards Brewing Co. in Kensington (more on this later) -- the Philly area has a number of neat microbreweries and a thriving pub scene where local prize-winning beers are served.
Downtown, there's even something called a Tippler's Tour, where beer lovers can visit historic watering holes accompanied by a guide in Colonial garb.
While folks on the two-hour tour sample beverages from when Ben Franklin and his boys were knocking them back, the guide discourses on 18th-century drinking traditions, songs and toasts -- at least until people start getting well-lubricated and stop paying attention.
It sounded great, but the Tippler's Tour was only offered Thursday evenings and we arrived Friday afternoon, so that was out.
As it was too early in the day to be sampling the City of Brotherly Love's fine beers -- although ... is it ever really "too early" for that? -- we began our visit at the famous Mutter Museum, at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia on South 22nd Street.
The museum, according to its brochure, "was founded to educate future doctors about anatomy and human medical anomalies."
And, brother, are they big on medical anomalies.
For the $12 admission fee, you can see -- and I hope you are not reading this over breakfast -- a collection of 2,000 objects extracted from people's throats; the preserved fetuses of conjoined twins; the cancerous growth removed from John Wilkes Booth's thorax; a cast of a woman's head with a horn growing from it; and an example of every kind of tumor, war wound, disease, skin infection, congenital abnormality and body and head trauma known to man.
It's all fascinating, but when you leave there, believe me, you'll really need a beer.
Evening of suds
So after leaving the museum, we walked to McGillin's Olde Ale House at 1310 Drury St., billed as the oldest continuously operating tavern in Philadelphia.
(In case you're wondering, there was no drinking and driving on the Beer Lover's $500 Getaway. Uh-uh, we're solid citizens. We parked the car at our hotel, the Best Western Center City, and walked to and from all the pubs.)
The garish, neon-pink sign outside McGillin's says "Est. 1860." It seemed to us that no business established 146 years ago should have a big, garish, neon-pink sign, but that was no more jarring than the plasma TVs inside and Aerosmith wailing over the sound system.
Still, McGillin's is a wonderful Irish pub that serves great beers, such as the tasty Oktoberfest from Stoudt's Brewing Co. in Adamstown, Pa., that I tried first, and the hoppy, full-flavored OktoberFish from Flying Fish Brewing Co. in New Jersey that my wife sampled.
The nice man behind the bar also poured a free sample of a pumpkin ale from Dogfish Head -- who makes up these names? -- microbrewery in Rehoboth Beach, Del.
Dogfish Head boasts that it makes "off-centered stuff for off-centered people." But a pumpkin-centric beer -- aren't you supposed to make pies from pumpkins? -- was a bit much for us.
From McGillin's, it was a short walk to Ludwig's Garten at 1315 Sansom St., the local Valhalla of German beer and food.
We had a nice meal of potato pancake appetizers and a platter of knackwurst, weisswurst, German potato salad, Alsatian bread, pickles and spicy sauerkraut served by a lederhosen-clad waitress in a dining room that looked like a Bavarian inn, with huge pictures of stern-looking monarchs on the walls.
Our "flight" (sampler) of beers on tap was uneven, though. Two were outstanding: the Warsteiner Dunkel lager and Dortmunder Actein Brauerei (known as DAB). But the Stoudt's Oktoberfest did not taste as fresh as at McGillin's, and we didn't much care for the Warsteiner Pilsner or Franziskaner Hefeweizen, a dry wheat beer.
Our last stop of the evening -- look, we're not kids anymore, we party more like it's 1776 than 2006 -- was at Nodding Head Brewery and Restaurant a few blocks away at 1516 Sansom St., said to be the most-honored brewery in Philly.
The second-floor bar is accessible via a dimly lit staircase that would be the perfect setting for an ax murder. It features a huge collection of bobbleheads (Nodding Heads?).
But the homemade beers tasted fresh. I had their 60 Shilling, a lighter Scottish-style ale with an amber color and great malty taste, and Nancy tried their 700 Level, a light-colored blond ale, which she enjoyed.
Then it was time to call it a night, because the bobbleheads were starting to look like fine art and the place was getting loud, a sure sign -- just like that first colonoscopy -- that you're getting old.
After a continental breakfast at the hotel the next morning, we again lapsed into full tourist mode and drove to Independence Hall, which we hadn't visited in years.
Miraculously, we found on-street parking on Fifth Street, adjacent to the Visitor's Center, saving at least 14 bucks, since the local garages were charging their usual usurious rates ($16 for more than two hours).
After getting our tickets, which are free but must be picked up in advance, we enjoyed a tour, given by Ranger Gus, of the venerable old building where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were drafted and signed.
For lunch, we drove into South Philly and walked along the Italian Market on Ninth Street, where the sight of all the fresh meat, fruit, vegetables and pastries will kick your hunger into overdrive.
And if you're hungry in South Philly, the law practically requires that you eat a classic cheese-steak sandwich at either Geno's Steaks or Pat's King of Steaks, which face each other on opposite corners of Ninth and are the twin temples of the "true Philly cheese-steak experience."
One thing, though: both these places always do a brisk business. The lines are often long. So when you reach the counter and it's time to order, you don't want to be too chatty.
Philadelphians have this down to an art.
Basically, a cheese steak comes with either American cheese, provolone or Cheez Whiz, and either with or without onions.
So when a Philadelphian gets to the counter and says "One American with" -- or "wit," as they tend to pronounce it -- it means he or she wants one cheese steak with American cheese with onions.
We ate at Geno's because the line looked a little shorter. And for less than $20, we had two delicious cheese steaks, two sodas and fries, because if you're going to overdose on cholesterol, you might as well go all the way.
By 2 o'clock, it was time to head to Kensington to the Yards brewery, which offers free tours between noon and 3 p.m. on Saturdays.
Yards produces five different beers year around -- Philadelphia Pale Ale, Extra Special Ale, India Pale Ale, Thomas Jefferson Tavern Ale and General Washington Tavern Porter -- and has become a favorite of the East Coast beer-drinking cognoscenti. (The New York Times recently rated Philadelphia Pale Ale as one of the best in the country.)
So we were really looking forward to the tour.
One minor problem: we couldn't find the place.
We drove up and down the neighborhood, a bleak-looking stretch of old warehouses and former factories, for 20 minutes and found ... nothing.
Tell me: how do you not find a 40,000-square-foot brewery?
What was this, some kind of Philly Area 51?
Was Kensington some kind of UFO landing site and they didn't want strangers nosing around?
Whatever. By now it was after 3 p.m. anyway, so we headed back to the hotel. But we were determined to try Yards beer -- By God, we're not leaving this town until we do! -- and were directed to Kelliann's, an Irish bar on the corner of 16th and Spring Garden streets.
There, while a loudmouthed drunk complained about the jukebox volume being too low -- hey, do we hit the classy joints, or what? -- we finally got to sample the Yards Extra Special Ale and Philly Pale, which were both excellent.
Saving perhaps the best for last, our final beer-related stop was Monk's Cafe at 264 S. 16th St., which offers what might be the finest selection of beers in Philadelphia and is considered Beer Heaven by many.
Monk's offers some 225 beers on its menu, and if you count seasonal brews, some 325 throughout the year.
It specializes in Belgian beers. At 7 p.m. on a Saturday night, the place was packed with a dinner crowd and with beer geeks studying the "Monk's Beer Bible," a brochure that explained how beer is made, discussed the various beer styles and offered a brief description of its beers.
Apparently, Monk's ownership isn't too crazy about a lot of American beers, since under the American Lager section, the Bible states: "Can you say crap?! Bud, Coors, Miller, etc. brew terrible versions of a true pale lager."
I know, I know ... if people would only say what they think.
Since there were 97 Belgian brews on the menu, we felt compelled to try one. The woman behind the front bar recommended a Leffe Blonde, which she described as a "straightforward beer" and which was golden and refreshing.
We also ordered a Duvel, a stronger pale ale with a big, fluffy head that looks almost like whipped cream. Then we spent the better part of 40 minutes eavesdropping on a young yuppie delivering a long, esoteric lecture on Trappist ales to the young woman next to him, who did not seem enthralled.
We ended the night with dinner at Long's Gourmet Chinese Restaurant at 2018 Hamilton St., which turned out to be a terrific find, with the best sauteed shrimp in garlic sauce we'd ever had.
Then we toasted our Beer Lovers $500 Getaway, appropriately enough, with a couple of Tsingtaos, the crisp, malty beer brewed in China since 1903.
It had been a splendid trip.
Ben Franklin would have been proud.
IF YOU GO
Philadelphia is a two-hour drive from Baltimore. Take Interstate 95 north to I-495 north, then back onto 95 north as it crosses into Pennsylvania.
Best Western Center City, 501 N. 22nd St.; 215-568-8300; bestwestern.com. Room rates start at $145, although we scored a room for $105 a night through hotels.com. One great amenity is free parking right next to the hotel.
McGillin's Olde Ale House, 1310 Drury St.; 215-735-5562; mcgillins.com. Irish pub that's the oldest continuously operating tavern in Philadelphia. Exotic offerings include Irish mixed grill and Cape May seafood stew. Twenty-two beers on tap.
Ludwig's Garten, 1315 Sansom St.; 215-985-1525; ludwigsgarten.com. German beer and cuisine in a Bavarian-inn setting, with lederhosen-clad servers. Every German beer you can name and more than 100 bottled beers from around the world. The knackwurst is excellent.
Long's Gourmet Chinese Restaurant, 2018 Hamilton St.; 215-496-9928. Advertises that all its food is prepared without MSG. The shrimp sauteed with eggplant in garlic sauce is fantastic.
Mutter Museum, College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 19 S. 22nd St.; www.collphyphil.org. The museum's "one of a kind treasures" include: "the plaster cast of the torso of world-famous Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, and their conjoined liver, Joseph Hyrtl's collection of skulls and the preserved body of the Soap Lady." Admission is $12 for adults; $8 for children and seniors. Best seen on an empty stomach.
Tippler's Tour, S. Third and Chestnut streets; Two-hour guided tours start at 5:30 p.m. and run May through October. Call 215-629-4026. Tickets are $30 for adults, $25 for seniors, students, military.
Yards Brewing Co., 2439 Amber St.; Tours offered Saturdays from noon to 3 p.m. Call 215-634-2600 or go to yardsbrewing.com.
HOW THE MONEY WAS SPENT
Meals and beers: