Serious beer with silly names
Saturday 02 July 2022
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Pulling up to Evil Genius, I’m greeted with the signs of a neighbourhood soon to be gentrified; other parts of Fishtown already bear the mark of the middle class, but here the screeching railway bridge above North Front Street, and the chain link fence separating brewery from building site, serve as a reminder of the not so distant past, and impending future.
Flanking the Evil Genius brewery are works of elaborate street art that leave a trail of breadcrumbs from the street to the brewery’s bright beer garden. The brewery is the only one in the city with an apiary, and the occasional bee drops down from its hive on the roof, to check in on potted flowers, colourful garden furniture, and customers who find them either friend or foe.
Inside the taproom is wacky and wonderful, with various components of the open plan bar speaking to multiple manifestations of a tastefully retro aesthetic. To my left, as I enter, is a set of sofas positioned around an elaborate stand hosting an old TV, video games and VHS tapes. The bathrooms opposite, labelled “Whatever, just wash your hands”, are Saved By The Bell inspired. Tables towards the back have old board games on them, and the titles on taps behind the bar range from Stacy’s Mom (Citra IPA), to I’ll Have What She’s Having (Chocolate Hazelnut Imperial Stout), I Said What I Said (Key Lime Margarita Sour) to I Love Lamp (Pineapple Heffenweizen); all of which refer to music, movie and pop culture references from the late nineties and early 2000s.
The brewery is the only one in the city with an apiary
“Nostalgia is kind of our big thing”, co-owner Trevor Hayward would later tell me. “Stacy's mom is a great example; it's hard to not hear that song in your head when you hear that name or see that label. What we want you to do when you see Stacy's Mom is not only think of the song but think of the last time you had that beer, and were having a good time with your friends. So you're not only remembering a positive experience, but you're creating a new one when you're drinking. But also it goes back to not taking ourselves too seriously; we’re incredibly passionate about beer, we take the making of it seriously, but at the end of the day, we’re not saving anyone’s life by making it - it's about having a good time”.
And the hallmarks of a good time are everywhere, not only around the bar, but behind the scenes where serious beer with silly names are made. Matt Lally, Evil Genius’s Head Brewer, is indeed a genius, both in beer and humour. I make an impossibly embarrassing error moments after meeting him, referring to Evil Genius as Evil Twin (a New York based brewery) in a mortifying slip of the tongue. I quickly correct myself, but not as quickly as Matt replies with a cheeky grin “Don’t worry, it’s all good, is that what you guys call us in England?”. I’m Irish, and so hold a perfectly executed b*tch slap in the highest possible regard.
It’s hard to emphasise strongly enough, the good humour baked into this place; from the enormous poster of Christopher Walken pasted onto the front of the cold room (or walk-in fridge), to the grain mill room being a shrine to Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill, there are signs of good times everywhere, and that’s before we get to the beer. The week after my visit, the team will be canning a limited run beer called “Doog Fiery”, Doog being short for Dougal, the brewery dog, and Fiery obviously referring to the iconic Guy Fiery, whose Texas French Toast Bananas Foster recipe inspired the Texas French Toast Bananas Foster White IPA they’re brewing to celebrate Dougal’s Birthday, and which they will also be throwing a block party for.
“That’s the whackiest one I’ve done in a while” says Matt, “but, you know, we call this place the lab because it's about experimentation. We can do whatever we want, but at the same time this is still producing about 500 gallons of beer in a shot. So if I have one of our bartenders asking if we can make a habanero beer, I can be like sure, we’re not making 500 gallons of it but we can do a keg. From there I’ve just got to figure out how to reverse engineer what a beer like that would taste like.”
Nothing is off the table with these guys, a notion that might strike fear into the heart of many beer drinkers but which, with Matt’s expert oversight, only highlights the genius of this brewery. For example, on the bar is a 13% Cherry Belgian Quad titled Regular Human Bartender Jackie Daytona; the base beer was aged in locally sourced red wine barrels already used once for a lavender and cucumber Saison. They also just bottled a sour which is a blend of a variety of blonde ales aged in chardonnay barrels. Matt also mentions that maple syrup, hot sauce, mezcal, rum and apricot brandy barrels are on their way to the brewery from France, at which point I start doing the mental maths required to calculate when my next visit should be.
For all that fun and games are the bread and butter of this brewery, a colossal amount of hard work has been put into making it what it is. Trevor and the brewery’s other co-owner Luke Bowen, met while studying at Villanova University, at which point both had already been drinking craft beers and homebrewing for some time (Luke actually started home brewing because he wasn’t old enough to buy beer for himself). The completion of their degrees deposited them directly into the trenches of 2008’s financial crisis; “We were like, ok, we both need a job and we love beer.” says Trevor, “As it happens, the craft scene here was exploding at the time, so it made for a great opportunity”.
When Luke and Trevor found and began restoring the brewery’s site, back in 2015, the roof was so damaged it needed to be completely rebuilt, and the entirety of the floor dug up and reset. It was an extensive project to manage alongside Evil Genius which, like many breweries, started off contract brewing. In total, Evil Genius has been on the go for ten years, but has only had its own brewery for five, a step that gave the team essential control and oversight over production.
The site isn’t the smallest I’ve seen, but it’s certainly compact considering the 289,200 cans of beer Matt almost single-handedly produced for Beer52. Plus its beers are everywhere in Philadelphia, as well as being distributed to Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio and Michigan. Like many of the breweries we visit on this trip, this is the first time Evil Genius has ever exported out of the US, so count your lucky stars if you’re getting your hands on this wildly exclusive taste of Philadelphia.
The brewery and taproom itself lives in an old brick building dating from some time in the 1800s, that the team suspects was once a trolley repair facility, given its proximity to traditional trade routes, and the old but still functional hoist that hangs from the ceiling and helped to install the concrete bar-top inside. This now doubles as a chandelier, of course. When the tour has concluded, and photos have been taken, I sit down with Luke for a more casual yarn over a beer; we talk about everything from the brewery ghost, which a local psychic insists is friendly, to what food might be best paired with Purple Monkey Dishwasher and I Love Lamp (a Beer52 exclusive that hasn’t even reached the taproom yet). If you’re curious, the correct answers are Cuban and mozzarella caprese sandwiches, respectively.
“Purple Monkey is sweet but not too sweet, and the pork has a lot of spiciness in the mustard, so you’re hitting that sweet/spicy note. With I Love Lamp, the freshness and acidity of the cheese and tomato would actually go really well with banana, pineapple notes.
“I'm a big fan of contrast between food and beer. I like that I can taste fruit, and then something that runs in the opposite direction, that I can get one note from what I’m drinking and then a transitional note on the food side so that I’m tasting something completely different to what I’m eating. But hey, maybe I’m weird”.
He is weird, everyone and everything here is weird, but everything Evil Genius is also overwhelmingly and emphatically wonderful.
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