Philadelphia's Bagels Are Boiled In Beer, And They're Delicious

Born out of local beer culture, Philly style bagels make all the sense in the world.

Every year it feels like a new regional delicacy bubbles up into America's broader social consciousness, and we learn just how regional it really is. Colorado-style pizza, for example,  is still relatively unknown in the larger American pizza diaspora. The Tijuana-style baked potato just recently caught on in Southern California via TikTok. And although it's apparently been around for more than 50 years, I had no clue what a Wisconsin cashew burger was until George Motz made one on YouTube. But an outlier among these delicacies is the Philadelphia-style bagel, which has only been a thing for the past eight years.

This relatively new regional offering is solely a product of Philly Style Bagels, a shop that started as a pop-up in 2015 and has since established two brick-and-mortar locations in Fishtown and Old City. You won't find them anywhere else in Philadelphia—at least not yet. Owners Collin Shapiro and Jonathan Zilber have gotten the attention of locals and outsiders alike with their freshly invented regional bagel. But what is a Philly-style bagel, exactly? And more importantly, can the average person detect the Philly-ness of it all?

In theory, yes. This is a bagel that's been boiled in beer, so it should taste somewhat malty. Here's how the Phillly Style Bagels website explains the style:

Inspired by tradition, Philly Style Bagels are slow fermented in small batches, hand rolled, and boiled before baking, but with an innovative process that bends the rules of bagel making. Inspired by the great beer culture of Philadelphia, we boil them in a mixture of beer and water for a special malted flavor. The results are so unique we coined a new style, named for the city where they were conceived. Philly Style Bagels are crunchy on the outside, yet soft on the inside with an unparalleled malty sweetness.

The bagels are boiled in Yards IPA, then baked on wooden planks in a pizza oven. Philadelphia is classically a beer town and home to many, many breweries. Yards and Philadelphia Brewing Company are both within city limits, and Dogfish Head, Victory, Tröegs, and Flying Fish aren't that far outside of town, either. Beer has always been essential to Philadelphia, and now it's essential to the local bagel scene, too.

The Philly style bagel, explained

"The Philly Style Bagel is different from Montreal and NYC, in a couple of different ways," co-owner Jonathon Zilber told Thrillist in 2017. "It kind of takes what we like about both styles and absorbs that."

Advertisement

It is indeed a mishmash of the two styles. Montreal bagels are typically baked in wood ovens on wooden planks, a method shared by Philly Style Bagels. Yet unlike Montreal's skinny rings, these bagels, while a bit on the smaller side, are somewhat fat like a New York bagel, with its soft, chewy crumb. And these bagels are not served open-faced, as Montreal's are (see below).

After trying a Philly style bagel for myself, I think the most distinguishable quality is the flavor imparted by the Yards IPA.

How beer defines Philadelphia’s bagels

In the photo at the top, you might notice that there's a yellowish hue to the inside of the bagel, and the crust is rather dark. The bagel is small, but still quite thick, and has that dark outer crust reminiscent of a Montreal bagel, no doubt helped along by the barley, malt, and sugar within the beer. Everything is just a tad bit darker, with a glossy finish on the exterior.

Advertisement

The Philly bagels are delightfully crusty on the outside and both dense and chewy on the inside, the the flavor of malty and sweet New York bagel. PSB's classic lox on everything comes traditionally prepared with translucent slices of salmon, a hefty amount of cream cheese, thinly sliced red onion, cucumber, dill, and tomato. It's delicious—but if you try it, you might find yourself wondering, "Is the beer flavor that detectable?"

The malt flavor is present, but it's kind of hard to distinguish in the face of decadent ingredients like cream cheese and salmon. Meanwhile, if you order your bagel simply adorned with cream cheese (or even plain), you'll surely notice the sweet, yeasty flavor adding a lovely nuance to the traditional bagel experience. Personally, I think the way to enjoy your first Philly bagel is by ordering it plain, with just a bit of cream cheese, for the full boiled-in-beer effect.

Advertisement

Each regional bagel style its own defining attributes, and they stick around for good reason. The Montreal style is thin, crispy, and crunchy. New York Style bagels are fat, with a shiny surface and chewy texture. St. Louis style bagels are controversially defined by how they're sliced. And Philly style bagels, more than their hodgepodge of influences, are defined by their malty flavor, with a little more tang and sweetness to offer.

Though there doesn't seem to be anybody but Philly Style Bagels boiling bagels in beer, I expect that to change. In 2016, Philly Style Bagels' classic lox made Bon Appétit's list of the year's best new sandwiches, and seven years later, with restaurant success becoming harder and harder to maintain, the shop is still going strong. Seeing the phrase "Philly style bagels" stopped me in my tracks, and I imagine I'm not the first person to curiously pause at the sign, willing to shell out the money to find out just what the hell that means.

Recommended

Advertisement