Streets were filled with Mummers regaled in stage getup who’d finished their Broad Street parade route when I got to the FARMERS’ CABINET, a new Walnut Street saloon (opened St. Patrick’s Day, 2011) named in honor of an ancient agriculture handbook. A uniquely gothic gastropub, it serves “the most diverse collection of European craft beer in Philly” alongside a few indigenously “primitive field” beers emulating from an urban farmhouse nanobrewery down in Arlington, Virginia.
The brainchild of Lehigh University graduate Matt Scheller and married couple Matt and Colleen Swartz, Farmers’ Cabinet also boasts a tremendously original cocktail selection and creative farm fresh menu that includes cured meats and bread made in-house. Originally, the three Pennsylvania-based entrepreneurs had varied success with similarly schemed endeavors initiated by Emmaus’ gothic candlelit Euro pub, Tap & Table, and its twin offspring, Bethlehem’s beer-intense Bookstore Speakeasy cocktail lounge and East Falls’ two-storied Old World-styled Fork & Barrel.
“All those places were steppingstones and building blocks to get into Philadelphia with an equally intense cocktail program with great beer and food fused to the former concepts,” Kutztown native Scheller explains. “We were going for a 19th century Victorian saloon feel with the sparks of elegance – yet ruggedly rustic.”
Heavy curtains drape the burlap-sapped wood planks of Farmers’ Cabinet, where the left side European Beer Hall-influenced communal table welcomes interaction and its opposing cocktail room recalls Prohibition Era speakeasies. A vast array of European beers handpicked by Scheller on international travels age in a temperature controlled cellar storage area. Snooty beer geeks and curious ale hounds will be knocked out by the large amount of hard-to-find one-off brews originating from Italy, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, England and all points between.
“The goal is to provide topnotch obscure beers from small European breweries,” Scheller says. “The biggest concern is spoilage. The health of the beer is important. There’s concern for delicate moderate-bodied beers. Bigger, more robust beers, such as stouts, could sit for awhile and it’s not a major concern. If I think a beer’s been sitting too long, I’ll try it myself. However, most beer’s made to be consumed fresh. There’s a whole different pay scale for several rare bottles, like with fine wines, but they seem to go pretty fast.”
During August ’11, Farmers’ Cabinet hooked up with meritorious brewer, Terry Hawbaker, whose phenomenal craft beers at Williamsport’s Bullfrog cannot be understated. Now working out of a 5-barrel urban farmhouse nanobrewery in Alexandria, Virginia, the talented brewmeister’s trend-setting adjunct saisons have become all the rage in Philly.
“Terry’s currently working on developing a beautiful house yeast to cultivate a really cool sour ale base for blending with other beers. We’ve also gotten invited to Copenhagen’s Beer Celebration in May. Top American brewers will include Port, Hoppin’ Frog, Jolly Pumpkin, and Hill Farmstead alongside many heavy-hitting Europeans,” Scheller revels.
Upon my mid-afternoon sojourn, four worthy saison house beers were available to peruse while sipping a delicious bowl of creamy squash soup. Suitable Ragtime, Delta Blues and Cabaret music played in the distance of this Classical pub as I dug into soft-tongued Autumnal Saison. Utilizing seasonal pumpkin to lacquer lemon-soured citric hops in an unobtrusive manner, the contrarily spice-less libation went well with the delectable gourd broth.
Lively perfumed citrus hops enlivened the earthen barnyard rusticity of smoothly soothing session beer, Field Hop Grisette, where herbaceous white peppering surrounds lemony fig-dried melon wisps. Essentially a lighter saison with impulsive Extra Special Bitter properties, its not far removed from Farmers’ Cabinet’s regular grisette, a lightly tart Berliner Wiess hybrid.
Moving on to the two dark ales, soft-flowing Imperial Holiday Porter dumps 50 pounds of pumpkin and sweet potatoes upon hop-oiled coffee acridity and musty chocolate chalking, gaining cherry-dried pumpkin puree illusions over time.
Labeled a hybrid Belgian dark ale, D-Rye Field Stout brought marble-breaded chocolate rye, coarse cola nuttiness, funky earthen musk and pine-burnt wood char to tart dried fruiting. Scheller acknowledges the first batch was not nearly as wood seared and the second batch “got a lot dryer.”
To further experiment with house beers, Hawbaker’s Virginia brewing facility recently installed eight separate 10-gallon vessels in order to test different hops, flowers and woods in certain saisons.
Those who are looking for an abundance of rare European beers or well-crafted specialty house beers will embrace this dimly lit antediluvian public house.