A Yards with that lap dance? The craft beer revival at Philly strip clubs

The joints along Columbus Boulevard are offering more than the ‘champagne of beers’ these days: Think Flying Fish, Victory and other small-batch stars.

Penn's Port Pub's Beer World opened in 2014

Penn's Port Pub's Beer World opened in 2014

Danya Henninger
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Penn’s Port Pub is one of Philadelphia’s longest-standing adult entertainment clubs, and one of the most down-to-earth. Originally opened to cater to longshoremen after a shift at the docks, there aren’t any glitzy catwalks, promises of bottle service or a “Champagne Room.” It’s a beer-and-shot joint, through and through.

It’s also home to one of the largest craft beer selections in the city.

“I’ve had Yards on tap ever since Tom Kehoe was still delivering the kegs himself,” said Penn’s Port owner Tim Brown, 70. “But in the past few years it’s really taken off.”

In 2014, Brown decided the demand was great enough to open a bottle shop adjacent to his club. There’s a separate entrance, so people who want to stop for a quick six-pack while driving down Columbus Boulevard don’t have to walk through the club to get there, but all of the 600 to 700 labels in the coolers are also available to sit-down customers. At least half the eight taps behind the bar also pour independent brew.

“PBR is our biggest draft seller, because it’s cheap,” Brown says, “But we sell a whole lot of Yards and Flying Fish, too.”

Choose from at least half a dozen varieties of Yards at Penn's Port Pub

Choose from at least a half dozen varieties of Yards at Penn's Port Pub

Danya Henninger

Penn’s Port Pub isn’t alone. A quarter mile up Columbus Boulevard, a recently installed LED signboard in front of Club Risque has messages like “Multiple Craft Beers!” and “Craft Beer To Go!” scrolling in huge rainbow letters. And at nearby Show & Tel, which transitions from full bar during the week to BYOB on the weekends, manager Michael Lasater has noticed more and more customers bringing in things like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Stone Arrogant Bastard.

“I’d say it started a couple years ago,” Lasater said. “Our biggest seller is still Miller Lite, but Victory HopDevil is right up there.”

According to Brown, who serves on the board of the Pennsylvania Cabaret Association, most of the clubs in Philadelphia — from sports-centric spots like Cheerleaders to steakhouses like Delilah’s Den — have (ahem) fleshed out  formerly macro-only beer lists with independent brewery options.

Though relatively new in Philadelphia, the combination of strip joint and craft beer has been common elsewhere for longer. In Portland, Ore., it’s been a common practice for more than 20 years, seen by some local drinkers as “another sign how far ahead of the beer curve Portland was — even the strip clubs [had] better beer.”

When Pinups & Pints opened as the country’s first brewpub-slash-gentlemen’s club near Dayton, Ohio, two years ago, it stoked some backlash. Headlines like “Has craft beer gone too far?” popped up across the internet. However, the practice of using barely-clad women to sell beer has been around for a while, and not just in corporate ad campaigns trying to make sports bros feel better about pick-up line misfires.

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Varga Bar

Take Philly’s own Varga Bar. A self-described spot for “comfort food and craft beers in a pin-up themed locale,” the Wash West pub is known as much for its Alberto Vargas-inspired murals of lingerie-dressed women as for its fantastic beer selection. It also produces a “Varga Girl Calendar” each year, featuring local beauties photographed wearing next to nothing — or even painted-on faux apparel.

“Just like there’s more open-mindedness about beer now, there’s more open-mindedness about bodies,” said Penn’s Port Pub’s Brown. On any given Friday night, he estimated that out of the 40 or 50 customers in his club, at least 10 of them will be women. “And it’s not just one big group, either,” he added. “Couples come in all the time. It wasn’t like that a decade ago.”

Asked if the beer selection was an attraction or an amenity, longtime Penn’s Port manager Larry Genetti suggested that it was both. “It helps bring in a different crowd, definitely, but even the union guy here on his lunch break ends up trying new beers,” he said.

Even the wholesalers are surprised and amazed by how much craft beer Brown’s bar goes through.

“When I first took on this route, I looked at this place and thought, ‘What the heck are we gonna sell in here?’” said Tim Jones, area sales manager for Muller, Inc., distributor for Yards, Round Guys, River Horse and many other independent breweries. “Now I know better.”

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