Located in downtown Philly on tucked-in Sansom Street, NODDING HEAD BREWERY lies atop an oyster restaurant on the second floor and was initially visited December ’04. Glass-encased bobble-head dolls decorate the quaint upstairs pub while its beautiful wood-carved bar and plate glass protected brew tanks are to the left upon entering. A separate dining space behind the bar offers privacy away from the three upholstered banquettes, five wooden pews and café tables to the right of the bar.
Showing off fine stylistic diversity on tap, lighter fare included tart lemon peel-sharpened, perfume-hopped, dry-spiced pale ale BPA, tart lemon-candied 700 Level Ale, and raw-honeyed tea-like sedation 60 Shilling Scottish Amber. Earthen coffee-roasted, cola-nutty, English-styled Grog leaned to the mild side as well.
Emphatic fig-sugared, orange-bruised, dark-spiced Sledwrecker and Belgian-styled brown ale Tart (with its tannic grape acidity and unripe prune souring) were foremost thickest.
On July ’07 revisit, hearty spare rib platter, cold cut-centered olive salad-mixed Muffaletta, and fine appetizers went well with light bodied fare such as musky, ultra-dry, wheat-husked, citric-laden, lemongrass-rosemary-ginger-peppered peculiarity Monkey Knife Fight Blonde Lager and leathery raspberry-peach-tart, green apple-soured, lemon-bitten, Woodruff syrupy Berliner Weisse.
Way better was superb Summit Double IPA, which plugged advertised tangerine essence into spruce-malted apple-pear-peach tang and tropical kiwi-papaya twist (offset by bitter bark-like hops).
During one-hour September ’07 saunter, quaffed elegant Belgian yeast-candied, banana-clove-sweetened, lemony grapefruit-recessed, peppery-hopped, buckwheat-backed O-Tay Golden Ale and intensely wood-lacquered, pine-needled, grapefruit-embittered, juniper-rosemary-thyme-tinged Prudence Pale Ale (boasting caramel apple upsurge).
Still one of my favorite Philadelphia hotspots, the wife and I stopped by once more on January 2nd, 2012. Surprisingly, I’d learn on this trip that Samuel Adams had an extract brewhouse at this same location for a decade beforehand.
As we go past the large glass-encased bobble-head doll collection greeting visitors walking up the cramped staircase, we settle at a cafe table next to the bar. This time, I’d get a few moments with Nodding Head’s master craftsman.
Brewer Gordon Grubb took the reins after assisting original meister, Brandon Greenwood (currently of Mike’s Hard Lemonade), settling in as head brewer after ’02. Growing up in the local Philly suburbs, the 44-year-old craftsman restored antiques before getting a home brew kit and joining the American Brewers Guild.
Grubb’s expanded into sour ales and ‘big beers,’ but his approachable year-round fare always retains a perfectly seamless hop-malt balance. One of his best and favorite beers, the wintry-spiced Sledwrecker, glides sugared fig into bruised orange tartness. In a few weeks, a sixtel of Eisbock will be readied, but it’ll finish within hours. Peculiarly, he concocted a so-called sour barleywine, but the Mummer’s Day Parade on New Years Day wiped it out twenty-four hours hence.
“We had this funky barrel and made a Flemish sour called Phruit Phunk,” Grubb says. “We got an emptied wine barrel, filled it up with the ‘phunk’ and it got red wine and oak flavors that made it ‘phunkier.’ Then we put more phunk in there with blackberries instead of the usual cherry or raspberry – to be a contrarian bastard.”
Growing up on Molson in the ‘80s, Grubb discovered Pennsylvania brewery, Stoudt’s, thereafter. It was a godsend. Stoudt’s Gold Lager and Stoudt’s Fest became instant favorites, inspiring him to seek out independent craft beer. Besides running Nodding Head’s brew room, he’s done fascinating collaborations with respected artisans such as Stoudt’s, California’s Port (Son Of Swami IPA), Jersey’s Flying Fish (Exit 6 Wallonian Rye) and Belgium’s Urthel (Angelicus Belgian IPA).
“Clash City Rockers” jumps out of the speakers as I re-try one of Nodding Head’s most spirited libation, BPA (Bill Payer Ale), a bark-dried, Cascade-hopped, lemon-juiced pale ale stylistically bitterer due to its juniper berry snip.
Then it was off to cask-conditioned 60 Shilling, an ESB-like retreat with subtle tea-like peat sneak, wispy citric flutter and oats-flaked backdrop. It’s clearly well suited for the cask, bringing out more flavors and bettering the regular draught version.
But the clear winner was absolutely fantastic George’s Fault, an easily appealing big blonde Belgian with candi-sugared honey spicing lavishing its lemony grapefruit-pineapple tang, juicy honeydew-melon sweetness, nifty banana taffy piquancy and mint-y herbal mist.
During terse half-hour stopover on the way to Philadelphia Airport in February 2012, enjoyed Belgian Chocolate Stout, a brown chocolate-spiced full body with peat-smoked burnt caramel sweetness lingering across sharp-hopped cappuccino, espresso and latte notes dotting ancillary black cherry, raisin and banana fruiting.
Stopped in for a half-hour splurge before heading home during New Years Eve, 2012, to get two wonderfully disparate holiday ales. On the sweeter side, Frosty Balls Winter Warmer placed lively gingerbread-snapped cinnamon-allspice-clove tingling next to orange-peeled dark cherry, fig and plum illusions (above white-peppered dewy earthiness).
On the politely embittered side, Tannenbaum layered piney Christmas tree-like Chinook hops and festive spruce-sapped dried fruiting atop orange-peeled grapefruit zest as well as tertiary black cherry, black currant, pine nut and fern undertones (making this Holiday Pale Ale richer and more complex than the equally admirable Frosty Balls).
Lucky for me, long-time head brewer Gordon Grubb dropped by the bar for a few minutes to promote a few new brews he’s got coming down the pike. Motueka, a tropical-fruited citric-limed refresher with New Zealand hops is due in January, as is a new Tripel, followed by a Saison and Biere De Garde.
Grubb then enthusiastically described a coffee-flavored hybrid that went over well months back.
“I was thinking of doing something that wasn’t dark colored but had coffee flavor,” he says. “One day I realized I had a recipe in my head. So I dry-hopped a blonde ale with coffee. People didn’t know what it was until the coffee hit them. It became Nodding Head Enigma.”
He then adds how much he enjoyed Flying Fish Exit 8 Chestnut Brown Ale during recent days.
“I don’t know how they pulled it off. I was skeptical of the chestnut influence but it worked.”
While sipping my Tannenbaum, Grubb recalls, “I did this beer called Hoptimus Prime. The name got stolen (by nearby Legacy Brewery). But our version was absolutely ludicrous considering how big it was. We barely made a profit selling it by the glass. I was thinking of doing a new version with no hops using spices, orange peel or pepper. The White IPA hybrid is along those lines.”
Grubb would love to keg his wares for local outside consumption, but the high demand at Nodding Head makes that a limited part-time venture.