“We’re going where?” Mark said, as we crossed the parking lot on a chilly winter evening, heading towards the entrance of the ShopRite supermarket in Fairless Hills. “Um, someplace called ‘Brown’s Beer Garden’,” I said, not feeling at all sure of myself. We had been invited to a six-course beer pairing dinner. It sounded good.
As we entered the supermarket, I was having doubts. What had I gotten us into? To our left, was a section packed with beer – craft beers from far and near, IPAs, and the old familiars – and straight ahead was the produce section. But right in the middle was a lovely table set for a dozen or more people. Okay, I’m game, I thought. This should be interesting.
We were quickly greeted by Sandy and Jeff Brown, owners of the Fairless Hills ShopRite and ten other ShopRites in the Philadelphia region, along with members of regional and store management. Everyone was smiling and excited, kind of like when you’re proud of something you’ve created and can’t wait to show it off.
We all remember a time when we could not buy beer in a Pennsylvania supermarket (um, a year or two ago?). Now, I keep stumbling upon new beer sections (the latest in the Weis in Doylestown. When did that happen?). So you might even say, why are you writing about beer in a ShopRite supermarket in Lower Bucks? It’s old news. Maybe it’s because it is in Lower Bucks, not Warrington or Doylestown or Yardley. And maybe because the Brown family and their staff have created a Wegmans-like experience at an affordable cost, so more people can enjoy a good dinner and a beer, at a reasonable price and right in their neighborhood.
But let’s talk food and beer. The evening’s meal began with hors d’oeuvres – Polenta Fries served with curry ketchup, Bacon-wrapped Scallops with a lager foam, and Sticky Ribs, accompanied by a Victory Pilsner lager – nibbled on while standing next to the Brown’s Chef’s Market. Chef Dan Berlin, the store’s chef and level 1 Cicerone (that’s the beer version of a sommelier) was our guide for the evening, explaining the nuances of the different beers and sharing his decisions about why he paired this beer to that food.
As I listened to Berlin, I began to be distracted by what was going on in the Chef’s Market to my right. Behind the Plexiglas, was an open pit fire, where the cooks were grilling generously sized chickens. Laid out next to them were the sticky ribs and all the traditional sides you could want – mac n’cheese, sweet potato mash, green beans, and fresh corn bread. The smell alone was distracting. Fortunately I was munching on some sticky ribs – tender, well sized, with a nice sweet, molasses flavor – or I probably would have jumped over the barrier. As we wandered back to the beer garden, I licked my fingers, one by one.
Back at the beer garden, we settled in at the long communal table for the main dining event, five courses, each paired with a different craft beer. Yes, it was a little odd to be sitting in a supermarket, next to the fruits and vegs, but we quickly forgot where we were when the food and beer began to appear.
First was the cheese course, beginning with a mild and smooth Asiago Fresco accompanied by a Captain Lawrence German-style Kolsch. A smoked blue cheese was paired with a Duchesse de Bourgogne Flemish Red Ale. The ale had both sour and sweet notes, almost like a good balsamic vinegar, and stood up to the blue cheese nicely. Finally, a Liederkranz (an American version of Limburger cheese) paired well with a Flying Dog Raging Bitch Belgian IPA.
Impressed yet? I was. The beer garden is stocked with over 700 varieties of beer, and Berlin pulls in new kinds all the time. You can buy beer by the bottle or six-pack. In fact, you can create your own six-pack, called a “Mix ‘Em Up!” for only $11.99. What a great way to try different beers.
The soup course, a Potato Leek Soup with chive oil, buttermilk, and milk stout bubbles, was paired with a smoked lager, a Schlenkerla Urbock Rauchbier. Next was the Porter Mac and Cheese, an appetizer big enough to be an entrée. Yards’ George Washington’s Tavern Porter was used in the recipe and accompanied the dish, which included croissant crumbs sprinkled on top.
I could have folded my napkin and surrendered right then and there (I really didn’t have to finish every last bite of the mac and cheese), but we still had two more courses to go. The entrée, a Fire Grilled Chicken with a malted mustard gastrique, came with Rye IPA glazed Brussel sprouts and cauliflower puree. A limited edition Pizza Boy Simcoe Samurye Red Rye IPA, an unfermented beer, stood up well to the chicken and winter vegetables.
By this time you are probably wondering how Berlin is going to bring beer into a dessert. How about a Troegs Java Head Coffee Stout served with a Stout-Malted Cannoli, with fried basil, grapefruit, and Lindemans Framboise sauce? The cannoli cream, made with mascarpone and sugar, had notes of both coffee and chocolate.
Will you get this meal sitting in the 24-seat Brown’s Beer Garden? Probably not. But you can buy a lot of the dishes – like the grilled chicken, ribs, mac and cheese, soups and more – from the Chef’s Market. Then pick out an interesting bottle and settle in with a friend, or come listen to live music on Wednesdays and Thursdays, or come to the daily Happy Hour 5 pm to 7 pm with tastings and food samples. (To keep in touch with all the happenings in the beer garden, sign up for their weekly newsletter at www.BrownsChefsMarket.com).
The Browns have big plans. They are opening a beer garden in their Bensalem store this spring and plan another at their West Philly store after that. And once the CVS next to the Fairless Hills store moves to their new location, a 150-seat Beer Garden restaurant will open.
“We want to give our customers quality, fresh food but at affordable prices,” says Jeff Brown, adding, “Why not have a fun place at a reasonable cost?” Why not indeed.
ShopRite Fairless Hills
Queen Anne Plaza Shopping Center
547 S Oxford Valley Rd
Fairless Hills, PA
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