The Cartesian Approach

Image | Dane LaMontia

In 2015, Evan Roth decided he wanted to open a brewery.

By 2018, he had a name – Cartesian Brewing – and a concept fleshed out well enough to launch a Kickstarter. Cartesian would be a “local origin brewery,” meaning that Roth intended to “create beers that celebrate the flavors of the region” – malt from Pennsylvania, hops from New York, yeast from Philadelphia brewers, fruit and honey from local farmers.

Funders liked the idea: His Kickstarter campaign raised over $20,000, and Roth turned his vision into a reality. In 2019, he leased an old building on the 1300 block of East Passyunk that had been an auto shop and a fitness/dance studio.

Construction began, and then came COVID.

Roth and his team took the unwelcome challenge in stride and were set to open in May 2021. Except Cartesian hit another unexpected roadblock. Turns out that their space is ever-so-slightly too large to get away with having only one exit under the City’s fire code, so they had to push back their opening to October.

Roth then turned the roadblock into an improvement project. He made it so that the new exit opened out into a small concrete space on the building’s backside that now serves as a courtyard for outdoor seating, complete with a fire pit, space heaters, and string lights.

“It’s been the most fun I never want to have again,” said Alex Leh, Cartesian’s lead brewer. They’ve had help from fellow Philadelphia brewers too, whom Roth and Leh say have been extraordinarily welcoming. When Leh has had questions about Philadelphia’s water chemistry (mineral content is an important element of the brewing process), he’s been able to reach out to other brewers in the area for help. As further evidence of how generous the local brewing community has been, Roth and Leh noted that they have a walk-in cooler “full of other people’s beer.”

Cartesian has also collaborated with local brewers on beers.

On January 14, they released a pub ale called “Pride of Passyunk” that they brewed with Separatist Beer Project, which has a South Philly taproom of its own. Pride of Passyunk is an example of Roth’s local-origin brewing philosophy in action, featuring malt produced in Pennsylvania by Double Eagle Malt, which gets its grain from local family farms. When Leh is finished brewing, he loads the spent malt into bins where it’s taken away by Bennett Compost, a Philadelphia-based urban composting company.

For Roth, a lifelong resident of the Philadelphia region, the localist ethic goes deeper than the brewing process.

The tables at Cartesian Brewing have doorknobs and deadbolts jutting out because they are, in fact, doors – repurposed by Beaty American, an architectural salvage company in North Philly. If the walls are bare when you stop in for a beer, it’s because they’re waiting to be filled with pieces of local art as part of Cartesian’s new artist-in-residence program. They’ve already hosted one exhibition featuring artwork by Christine Sullivan whom, Leh said, “must have sold at least 70% of the pieces she brought.” The exhibition was part of Cartesian’s “first First Friday,” which also hosted food from Angie’s Vietnamese Cuisine – a tradition that Roth hopes to carry on indefinitely.

Local musicians have been reaching out to Roth, asking if they can play at the brewery. Roth and Leh would love for Cartesian to be a live music venue, but they’ve run into red tape here as well – the neighborhood’s zoning ordinances don’t allow it.

Not to be defeated, Roth lets his love for the Philadelphia music scene shine through in the names of his beers – “Wide Eyes to Acknowledge” is a nod to a Philly band called I Dreamed of Pompeii, an old favorite of Roth’s that’s no longer active and leaves behind little trace online.

Beyond music, Roth is determined to keep finding new ways to support the local arts scene, such as commissioning artists to design labels for Cartesian’s beer cans.

Image | Courtesy of Cartesian Brewing

“We just love beer,” Leh said. He previously worked for Victory Brewing, which is a much bigger company, which made it harder for him to experiment and try his hand at new brews. Cartesian, on the other hand, had a full-staff meeting of Roth, Leh, and their three bartenders. Everyone brought a few beers to sample together, and it was clear from the conversation that what Leh said was true: Cartesian Brewing is, at its core, a small group of people who just love beer – and Philadelphia.

Leh has taken advantage of Cartesian’s free environment. Over the past few months, he’s been playing around with a peculiar strain of Norwegian yeast, called Kveik, which can withstand far higher temperatures and alcohol concentrations than normal yeast, allowing brewers to push the envelope and create previously inconceivable beers. Kveik yeast can ferment at temperatures approaching 100° Fahrenheit and 16% alcohol by volume (ABV) – whereas a typical lager yeast, which Leh calls “prima donna” yeast, flourishes in the range of 50-60°F and can’t tolerate more than 10% ABV.

Some of the beers currently on tap that Leh is most proud of include

  • Wide Eyes to Acknowledge (a delicious Belgian single-and-a-half with hints of graham cracker and fruit)
  • Kempt (a farmhouse IPA and their first beer produced with Kveik yeast)
  • I Hope I Live Long Enough to Call You My Old Friend (a tart, dry-hopped Saison), and
  • Stanchion (a dank, citrusy hazy IPA brewed with malted oats and New York hops).

Other than being local origin, the common theme binding all of Cartesian’s beers is defiance of conventional style guidelines. Instead of sticking to the script, they follow whims and customer suggestions, think outside the box, and always brew beer that they want to drink themselves.

 Image | Courtesy of Cartesian Brewing

In addition to experimenting on their own, Leh and Roth are looking forward to a bunch of upcoming collaborations with other Philadelphia breweries, such as Brewery ARS and Stickman Brews, both of South Philly. Other local favorites Leh and Roth admire are Crime and Punishment (Brewerytown), Human Robot (West Kensington), and Fermentary Form (West Kensington).

If you stop by Cartesian Brewing, there’s a good chance a food truck, such as PDM BBQ, will be posted outside (the chef, of course, with a complimentary beer in hand). Cartesian is “BYOF,” so you can bring in food from the truck, or a cheesesteak from Pat’s or Geno’s down the street, and wash it down with a flight.

If you come with your friends, you can earn 10% off your bill by playing a board game off Cartesian’s shelf. And if you bring along a brewery sticker that isn’t yet featured on one of the bathroom doors, you can barter it for a 5-ounce beer.

If you’re not comfortable hanging out indoors just yet, Cartesian just launched their online store, where you can order beer for pickup or purchase some Cartesian merchandise. By drinking local and supporting Cartesian, you’re supporting a whole community of brewers, artists, farmers, composters – all in or around Philadelphia.

“I like my job for the first time in six years,” said Kerry, Roth’s head bartender, after the staff meeting ended and Roth left for the night. Maybe Roth has just assembled a good group of people at Cartesian. Or maybe a happy workplace is a residual benefit of his localist approach to brewing.

    • Nick Russo is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and on a leave of absence from law school at Villanova University. Follow him on Twitter @NickAndrewRusso.

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