Beer Stats for Eastern PA:
Cities: Philadelphia, Reading, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Allentown/Bethlehem, Lancaster
# of Microbreweries: 11 that have significant distribution.
# of Brewpubs: 25, some of which bottle and distribute locally.
Outdated and Annoying Alcohol Laws: Way too many to count.
My wife always says that she thinks it would be really difficult to be an alcoholic in Pennsylvania because of the difficulty and cost involved in getting alcohol. With few exceptions, you can only buy beer in beer stores, and you can only buy them by the case.
When I first moved here, I was staying in hotels during the week, so I wanted to pick up a six pack to enjoy while I watched TV at night. I went to the beer distributor and couldn't find a 6 pack anywhere. So I took one pre-packaged 12 pack out of a case and tried to buy it. The cashier looked confused. Our conversation played out almost like we were both speaking foreign languages; him telling me he couldn't sell the 12 pack by itself, me saying "I don't need a whole case. I want 12." We hashed through the situation using hand signals and a series of grunts and finally realized what was happening. I left beerless, because even a 22 year old kid can't drink a whole case by himself in 3 days (and not feel terrible about it.)
To make matters worse, I find that cases in PA tend to have at least a 15% mark-up over neighboring state's prices. There are two consolations. 1) There are literally hundreds of bars and beer prices at bars are very reasonable. 2) Since they lock you into buying a case, the breweries have been nice enough to offer variety packs so you can try all of their brews and not get stuck with 23 bottles of some beer you don't like. So that's good.
Plenty of great microbreweries have been started in PA over the last 20 years, all buoyed by the success of the country's oldest brewery, D.G. Yuengling and Sons. Founded in Pottsville in 1829, Yuengling is so ubiquitous in Philadelphia that to order it you just say that you want a "lager" and every bartender knows what to bring you. They aren't on the cutting edge of new beer flavors, but they do what they do very well and they distribute to 13 states, mainly on the East Coast. Although I could have swore they had a larger reach than that.
Victory Brewing is located in Downingtown and they have the widest distribution of any brewery in PA. Just about half of the states, including Alaska, as well as some international distribution. One thing I know is that they love hops. Hop Devil, Hop Wollop, Prima Pils, and Yakima Twighlight are all hop heavy. All good, but at some point I get overwhelmed by hops. I fell asleep on my couch one night while drinking a Yakima and only woke up due to the fact that I had poured half of the beer right on my chest. I know there are a lot of hops in that one because I think the smell was so strong that it what woke me. That's a weird situation; spilling something on yourself while sleeping. Because you wake up but it takes a second to process what you are doing and by then you're soaked. I just felt bad cuz I wasted a good beer. For me it's hard to choose between the Storm King Stout and the Moonglow Weizenbock as my favorite Victory beer.
Yards Brewery operates on Delaware Ave in Philadelphia near Northern Liberties but started in Manayunk in 1994. I've had four of their five signature ales and my go-to if I want to bring a good beer gift is the Brawler. The woman of the household approves the purchase of that one as well. The beer I think tastes the best is the Extra Special Ale, but I think the Brawler has more mass appeal because I think I like amber malty ales more than the general population. Yards gets around in the Philly area. They do most of the beer events around here and I think they are getting to the point where their distribution is about to take off across the country. I am just guessing, but I wouldn't be surprised.
Philadelphia Brewing Co. operates out of a historic brewery that stopped production in 1939 and was restored by Philly Brew Co starting in 2001. I really want to like Philly Brew Co, but for some reason I am always disappointed by their stuff. The Walt Wit essentially turned me off to wit beers for a year or so. The Kenzinger and the Newbold IPA are nothing special. I will say that their Joe Porter (not named for the former Steelers linebacker) grew on me. At first I thought it tasted like stale coffee (I never said this would be a ringing endorsement) but I began to enjoy it the second and third time I tried it. Philly Brew Co. does tours, so go do one and have them prove me wrong.
Stoudts is in Adamstown, PA, and from the looks of it, I think it is the entire town of Adamstown. They have a restaurant, brewery, fresh food market, shop, and antiques mall. They even do weddings. If you lived there, you'd never have to leave except to go make money to spend at Stoudt's. They make really really good beer. That's my first double really endorsement. So take heed. I've probably had half of their normally bottled beers including the seasonals. My favorite is the American Pale Ale. Patriotism 1, India Pale Ales 0. If you are on the east coast, Ohio, Cali, or Michigan you can probably find their stuff somewhere.
Intercourse Brewery is located in Lancaster County and they distribute mostly in Eastern PA. They make 4 beers, of which I've had one (the Blue Ball Porter). That one is a slightly heavy blueberry porter. The only time I had it was on a seriously hot day at a tailgate for a concert and I thought it was well done, so I'd like to try it when I'm not sweating my face off.
Lancaster Brewing Co is right near downtown Lancaster, and they begun operations in 2001. I enjoy all their beers, but my wife loves the Strawberry Wheat, and I think my favorite is the highly potent Winter Warmer. Lancaster County has a high concentration of Amish and so the brewery makes their Amish Four Grain Pale Ale and the Shoo-Fly Porter to pay homage. I used to work out that way. The buggy's were everywhere including the Wal-Mart parking lot. The horses just chill outside while the people go shopping. Awesome.
Weyerbacher was founded in Easton in 1995 as a brewery and brewpub. Having since dropped the pub, they have expanded and are now distributed in 18 states, including most of the East Coast, Ohio, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. The last Weyerbacher I had was the AutumnFest and it was a solid Oktoberfest style.
Lion is another brewery from the Northeastern part of the state, being based in downtown Wilkes-Barre. It was founded in 1905 and became Lion Brewery in 1909. The main beers I've seen from them are Lionshead Lager and Lionshead Light, which are pretty straightforward beers. They also produce 6 beers under the Stegmaier brand name. Pretty broad distribution, and they claim to be the 15th largest brewery in the U.S. I have no means to (or desire to) fact check, so I'll believe them. They do a lot of contract brewing, which might explain why they haven't really expanded the Lionshead brand into other styles than lager.
Sly Fox has been brewing since 1995 and they run a brew pub to go along with distribution of their beers in NY, PA, and NJ. I've never seen their beers on the shelves, but I've had at least one in a bar in Philadelphia. I can't say anything about it however, so this paragraph is pretty worthless. 95% of people didn't make it down here anyway... Way too many words. Not enough pictures or exploding graphics.
The only brewery on my list that I have not tried is Spring House, which is located in Conestoga, right south of Lancaster. They have distribution in the eastern counties of PA, but I haven't seen any on the shelves just yet. I'll be keeping my eye out now though. It should be hard to miss as all of their 10 beers have cartoony and colorful logos. Only one is a full production beer year round and available in bottles, and that's the Seven Gates Pale Ale. The rest are seasonal and available in growlers and kegs, presumably at their brewery.
Best Beer Concept: Weyerbacher Merry Monks' Belgian style Tripel. Anytime you can combine banana and cookie dough, I'm on board.
Best Beer Name: Weyerbacher Blithering Idiot. I've never had it, but at 11.1%ABV, I have to assume this beer makes you live up to it's name.
Best Label Art: Victory Brewing. Full of color and great designs. My favorite is the drooling 1840's style miner Horace 'Hop' Wallop, on Victory's Hop Wallop bottles.
If you are into hiking, the Delaware Water Gap is a great part of the Appalachain Trail. Weyebacher and Lion are close by.
Philadelphia has a lot to offer, but if you had to do one thing I would recommend picking a neighborhood (Old City, Rittenhouse, Fairmount), walking around in the evening and then getting a great dinner somewhere. Tons of good restaurants in Philly. You can't go wrong. Yards, Philadelphia, Victory all do tours and are in or near Philly.
I'm not sure about the bands coming out of Lancaster or Scranton, but Free Energy and Dr. Dog are two rock bands from Philadelphia that I have been loving lately. Free Energy's recent album is called Stuck on Nothing, and Dr. Dog just released Shame Shame. Both are excellent.
PA East Half Beer Trail Map