Philadelphia is an old city. Right up there with Boston or New York. And if you look close enough, you can still find relics from the past in every corner of our city. Take for example the modest warehouse at 1710 N 5th St. You’d be forgiven for rushing by and not giving the building a second glance, but if you do, you’ll discover its history – an 19th century stable and carriage house for the Theo Finkenauer Brewery previously located on Germantown Avenue. Although the brewery itself went under with the passage of the 18th amendment in 1919, the carriage house remained. A lingering ghost of a time long past. That is until 2014 when it became the official home of Saint Benjamin Brewing Company.
If you run your hand across the wall of Saint Benjamin’s taproom, you can feel the history of the space reverberate through you. The chipped rust red paint. The holes and pits from years of abuse. The ancient metal attachments where cart horses would be tied up and brushed down after a hard day’s work. Of course, those reverberations could also just be the Misfits blaring over the in-house sound system on a typical busy Friday night. See, Saint Benjamin’s (St. Ben’s for short) exists in the nexus of seemingly two contrasting eras, while upholding the same ideals – a passion for great beer and community.
I first became aware of St. Ben’s in 2015, when they were just getting up and running. Like any self-respecting beer geek, I always had my finger on the pulse, looking for any up-and-coming breweries in the Philadelphia area. In 2016, however, I answered an online ad for a part time position with City Brew Tours that changed everything. Saint Benjamin’s was one of the first breweries I ever held a tour in. In the 3+ years since, I’ve ran hundreds and hundreds of tours – but I’ll never forget that first one. It was, on the face of it, absurdly inept. But the crew at St. Ben’s didn’t laugh me out of the building. In fact, they seemed excited to have us and couldn’t wait for us to be back.
And I’m not the only one to have had an experience like that at Saint Ben’s – far from it in fact. The space has for the entirely of their 5 years of operation, been a bastion of acceptance and kindness for anyone who wonders in off the streets of their Kensington neighborhood. The place absolutely radiates with compassion and warmth; a guiding principal that is easily seen in the diverse faces filing the taproom on any single night you care to visit. From local Benjamin Franklin impersonators holding court and regaling crowds with stories of the elder statesmen’s bawdy past, to regular burlesque shows and amateur comedy shows, there was always an occasion to visit. Oh, and did I mention the beer?
The beer is, for lack of a better term, simply outstanding. The brewery winning two consecutive years at the Philadelphia Brewvitational as well as 1st place in last year’s Can Can awards simply bears that out. Former brewer Andrew Foss’ passion for traditional European ales and lagers was evident. Their traditional Belgian Witbier, “Wit or Witout” and Euro lager, “Pilsner Prosim” are simply world-class. Having had the opportunity to brew a collaboration beer with them last year was a once in a lifetime opportunity we’ll never forget. It’s not everyday you get to brew a pre-prohibition style, barrel aged, dark lager, matured on pine resin in an attempt to recreate a beer based only on a description in a pamphlet from 200 years ago. But that’s exactly what we did, and “Philly Pitch Porter” was a resounding success. It’s a gamble on weird and strange beers like this that made St. Ben’s such a refreshing voice in the craft beer scene. Not satisfied resting on their laurels, they always forged a path forward – simultaneously embracing the newer trends in craft beer while resurrecting styles from the past. A fittingly noble pursuit for a brewery that always straddled the line between the past and the present.
Sadly, St. Ben’s will close their doors for good on Saturday, May 4th . The future for the brand is uncertain, with no concrete plans in place. The building has been purchased by a real estate developer with plans to convert the 2nd and 3rd floors to private residences. Regardless of your stance on the ever-advancing redevelopment of the area, I implore you to come out one last time and celebrate not only the location’s past, but also it’s present. To the wonderful front of house, bar and kitchen staff, I wish you all the best. I know you will all land on your feet and am hopeful for what the future holds for each and everyone of you. Some places instantly feel like home. Some places become a home. For me, it was a little of both. Cheers.