Tir na Nog

With a historic drinking scene, Philly's the perfect place to pick up a pint, finds Will Hawkes

'Have you ever been to DC? I don't like it," the bartender said, proffering my bill. The lunch-hour rush was over at Tir na Nog, an Irish pub in downtown, and Melissa was giving me the lowdown on the American capital. "There are a few blocks that are interesting and nothing else. And hey – we were the capital first!"

Philadelphia was indeed America's capital before Washington, although it hasn't held that honour since 1800. Not that Philadelphians seem bitter about that, and why would they? This is a city with its own remarkable history, a robust working-class culture and a quietly impressive food scene.

The city still leads the nation in one way, at least if you believe the locals: the tagline for Philly Beer Week, which takes place in late spring, proudly states that this is America's Best Beer-Drinking City. "I've been all over America, and it's true that Philadelphia is America's best," said Kristine Kennedy, executive director of the Beer Week.

Even those less invested in Philadelphia tip their hat to what the city has to offer. In a nation which has fallen for craft beer in a big way over the past 15 years, Philadelphia more than holds its own. "Pint for pint, I do believe I've made – and lost – more beer-drinking memories in Philadelphia than any other city on the East Coast," said Joshua M Bernstein, author of The Complete Beer Course and a committed New Yorker. "A Philadelphia bar crawl should be on every drinker's bucket list."

I embarked on exactly that this summer (the weekend that Philly Beer Week opened, not entirely coincidentally). As far as I could tell, there was only one place to start: Monk's, a gastropub with a Belgian flavour, a short walk south of City Hall, is one of the best beer-focused bars in the US.

Victoria Freehouse

The front bar was already busy on a Saturday morning, perhaps half-an-hour before lunch. I took a seat and inspected my surroundings: Monk's is paradise for those who love dark wood, elaborate glassware and idiosyncratic details (a model dalek, looking down on the bar, strikes a comic note). I ordered a Blind Pig, an IPA from California's Russian River, a revered craft brewery. It was delicious: a bright, soft grapefruit-bitterness allied to a touch of malt sweetness. Even at 6.1 per cent ABV, I could have drunk it all day.

However, I didn't have time – there was plenty more tasting in store. Next up was Tir na Nog and then Johnny Brenda's, in the northern suburb of Fishtown. JB's concentrates on local breweries but also serves beer from the cask, in the British tradition. I ordered a Dogfish Head 75 Minute IPA and sat down with Will Reed, the bar's owner. He believes Philadelphia stands out as a beer-drinking town because of the quality of local breweries and the city's exposure to multiple beer cultures.

"Philly just happened to fall into a really great moment when you had craft beer coming up and a great import scene," he explained. "We had an exposure to amazing beer – and Philly's a beer-drinking town, anyway. It's a blue-collar place."

My experience backed him up: there are German, Belgian and British bars all over town. After Johnny Brenda's I popped into the Victoria Freehouse, a British pub within spitting distance of the Delaware River. It offers cask ale and Scotch eggs. Then I headed to Brauhaus Schmitz, a German beerhall-cum-restaurant on South Street, where every building seems to be a bar or restaurant.

The bar, which opened in 2009, is part of a strong Germanic tradition in Philadelphia: German immigrants poured into the city during the 18th and 19th centuries. I walked in to a wall of noise and secured a beer – Jever Pilsner, a northern German classic that's full of herbal, lemony hop character. Then I retreated back into the main room and found a table. I was ready to eat, and looking forward to my dinner: Brauhaus Schmitz has a talented young chef, Jeremy Nolen, whose menu mixes classics with more modern, German-influenced grub. I decided on a hearty plate of bratwurst: it was as good as anything I've had in Germany.

Beer has been part of the culture here for many years, as I found out on a Sunday morning walk around Society Hill, Philadelphia's historic district. I inspected the menu at City Tavern, a recreation of the place where The First Continental Congress gathered – and where beer made to 18th-century recipes by the Yards Brewing Company can be sampled. Then I peered into A Man Full of Trouble, the last surviving pre-revolutionary tavern in the city, built in 1760.

There are plenty of other places to drink well, including restaurants. For Sunday lunch, I set off for East Passyunk Avenue, in the heart of Philadelphia's Italian neighbourhood. There was a festival on, and I negotiated a crowd around the Virgin Mary before finding a spot at Le Virtu, a restaurant specialising in food from Abruzzo in central Italy. A Weyerbacher White Sun Wit, with its subdued orange peel and coriander character, was just the thing to complement a smoked-cheese pizza.

After an afternoon at the baseball (Citizens Bank Park, where the Phillies play, offers more than 30 different kinds of beer) I reached my final stop, Good Dog bar in central Philadelphia. This is a classic American dive bar, with loud music, local craft beers and not a huge amount of room. It seemed the perfect place to end my drinking tour.

And so to the final question. Is Philadelphia really America's greatest beer-drinking city? As Joshua Bernstein told me, it's a question that's too difficult to answer: "Naming America's best beer-drinking city is like naming your favourite kid: all but impossible. From Portland – Oregon and Maine, that is – to Asheville, North Carolina, Chicago and all points in between, you'll find great beer everywhere you look." But I reckon Philadelphia is a pretty good place to start.

On the bottle: Johnny Brenda's tavern

Getting there

US Airways (0845 600 3300; usairways.com) flies non-stop from Heathrow and Manchester. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies non-stop from Heathrow, as will Delta (0871 221 1222; delta.com) from April.

Drinking there

Monk's (001 215 545 7005; monkscafe.com).

Johnny Brenda's (001 215 739 9684; johnnybrendas.com).

The Victoria Freehouse (001 215 543 6089; victoriafreehouse.com).

Brauhaus Schmitz (001 267 909 8814; brauhausschmitz.com).

Le Virtu (001 215 271 5626; levirtu.com).

Good Dog Bar (001 215 985 9600; gooddogbar.com).

Urban Adventures offers a two-hour "Philly on Tap" tour for $39 (£24), with three beers and a snack (urbanadventures.com).

More information

Will Hawkes travelled as a guest of Philly Beer Week (29 May to 7 June 2015; phillybeerweek.org).