by Jack Curtin
Summer 2008

America's Best Beer-Drinking City?
Philly Beer Week, a ten-day celebration of beer in Philadelphia, cast down a significant gauntlet to other locales claiming the crown of the nation's best beer city last March. The evidence: 239 official beer events (and many additional unofficial ones) of every sort imaginable, huge crowds everywhere and a diversity of beers and brewers the likes of which, I suspect, has rarely, if ever, been seen this side (or that side) of the Great American Beer Festival.

The event grew out of the downfall of a long-running Philadelphia institution, The Book and The Cook, a ten-day food and wine festival each March which, however reluctantly, embraced a few beer events as part of its schedule. Almost from the beginning, although it was rarely acknowledged by the foodies and wine folks, Michael Jackson's three-session tutored tasting on either the opening or closing Saturday at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology drew the largest crowd of all the B&C events, 1,200-plus attendees. His Friday-night dinner at the same venue sold out every year and the Sunday night dinner he started hosting at Monk's Café on the closing Sunday night ten years ago did the same. A vegetarian beer dinner featuring the dishes of chef Eric Tucker of San Francisco's famed Millennium Restaurant matched with the beers brewed at Nodding Head Brewery and Restaurant was a staple in recent years and a Sunday afternoon Belgian fest at the now long closed Café Notredame on what may have been the most beautiful March day ever is enshrined in my mental beer scrapbook.

When B&C was cancelled last March because it had lost its sponsorship, the three Jackson events went on as scheduled and were just as successful as ever. In the aftermath, a small group of craft beer movers and shakers, headed up by Tom Peters of Monk's, Bruce Nichols of Museum Catering Company and Don "Joe Sixpack" Russell (who eventually saw the first Philly Beer Week become the biggest and longest book launch party ever for his Joe Sixpack's Philly Beer Guide), decided to take a leap of faith into an all-beer extravaganza in March 2008. The end result was beyond even the most ambitious expectations of the organizers. A daily mixture of pay-as-you-go and ticketed events ranging from brewer meet-and-greets (26 of these on Tuesday night alone) to beer tastings and classes to beer dinners at some of the city's best venues drew sellout crowds. Several new beers were introduced to the world, including the debut of the first four brews of the nascent Philadelphia Brewing Company. Prominent brewers from around the nation and across the pond were on hand and the after-parties were often spectacular. The action spread out into the suburbs as well and I proudly claimed the farthest frontier by hosting a British beer dinner at a pub 50 miles west of center city.

It really is difficult imagining any other city in the country pulling of anything similar or even close. "We could never do this in San Diego or Portland," one visiting beer luminary who shall remain nameless told me, his West Coast pride perhaps weakened by too many Philly brews, "we just don't have all the places you do" (Philadelphia is a city of taverns and bars, one on most corners and another down the middle of many blocks, and it seemed like every one of them was into the celebration). A Philly brewer, also nameless (these names can be pried out of me with a beer or two), put it this way: "Tell those guys on the West Coast that if they want to try and duplicate this to remember that we invented it and they better do it better or not at all."

Any takers? I do love me a good fight.

For want of a crown.
It looked like a perfect win/win situation to Ron Barchet and Bill Covaleski, the co-founders of Victory Brewing Company in Downingtown, PA. A few months after Tom Baker and Peggy Zwerver announced in the spring of 2006 that they were closing their popular one-man New Jersey brewery, Heavyweight, the Victory pair were sitting around bemoaning the fact that they would no longer be able to enjoy one of their favorite local beers, Perkuno's Hammer, a Baltic Porter concocted by Baker with the assistance of beer writer Lew Bryson. Inspiration struck. "We approached Tom and asked if we could brew the beer here," Covaleski recalls. "He was willing and we set up a royalty program which rewarded him and Peggy financially for the use of the recipe and the name. We had a great new brand to add to our portfolio."

Good intentions, right? Well, we've all been on that nicely paved road where such things often lead.

The first thing that happened when Victory starting brewing with a Spring 2007 release in mind was that the wholesaler who had handled the brand for Heavyweight wanted to be compensated, either by being the distributor of the Victory version or by being paid to go away. "Fortunately, we were so far down the road in the process already, and there was so much talk throughout the brewing community that Victory was brewing this beer, the brand name became not as important as it had been," says Covaleski. "Rather than paying the money, we decided to go with the fact that everybody knew the story, or at least a large enough portion of the beer geek audience did, to insure it would work just as well if we just created a new brand." Baltic Thunder, always described as a reinvented and changed version of the original in Victory releases to avoid any further legal challenges, was put on the schedule, now for a summer release.

From the start, Victory wanted to distinguish Baltic Thunder from its other brands. "We didn't want to stick another 12oz year-round bottled offering on our wholesalers," Covaleski explains, "so we decided to do a 750ml package, but one which was differentiated from our corked and caged V-Series. We found a new glass supplier in Germany who did a 750ml bottle which could closed with a standard crown and that was perfect. Except… although the German bottle maker always used the term 'standard crowns' when Ron was negotiating the purchase, and a standard crown has an interior diameter of 26mm, both here and in Europe, the bottle openings turned out to be 29mm wide. They wouldn't work with our Krones bottling line."

Another delay, with the planned release of the beer now moved into late fall. Serious consideration was given to petting new parts for the bottling line to enable it to accommodate the larger crowns. "We had four batches of Baltic Thunder in the tanks by late September and we expected it to sell very well, so maybe that was a reasonable expense." Covaleski recalls. "Then, while we were kicking around our options, we found a 22oz bottle of somebody's homebrew in our cooler and it seemed to more or less approximate the fittings within our bottler, which is height adjustable to fit both our 12oz and 750ml bottles. We were able to adapt so that we could fill 22oz-ers. The solution became just a matter of ordering a new shipment of bottles."

Baltic Thunder was finally released this past January, a blend of all four batches which so far is living up to sales expectations, and there's even a double silver lining to the several months' worth of black clouds. "We can use the original bottles for corked, but not caged, 750ml products so we don't have to eat the cost of all that glass," says Covaleski, "and we now can package either new or current beers in 22oz bottles if we want to. We definitely see a future in that packaging."

Long day's journey into Knight.
The news came with no fanfare, in a letter Bill Catron, beer sommelier at Brasserie Beck in Washington, DC, received last August. He had been chosen for membership in the Knighthood of the Brewers' Mash staff (Chevaterie du Forquet des Brasseurs), the Belgian brewers guild which traces its origins back the Middle Ages. On Belgian Beer Weekend each September, new inductees are solemnly "enthroned" by the Grand Master of the Knighthood at the Brussels Grand Palace, selected for their contributions to Belgian beer, or more formally, because, "owing to their profession, birth or alliance, [they] are closely related to the brewing industry." The ceremonies, which include a Brewers' Parade through center of the city and the best beers from 50 or more Belgian breweries, apparently make for an extraordinary, beer-y weekend.

"I used to go over to Belgium all the time when I worked for Wetten Importers," says Catron, who also did a stint at Whole Foods, "and I've been to Beer Weekend several times. In fact I was there when Dave Alexander of The Brickskeller was inducted and I took a picture of him that appeared in the Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. I think it's fair to say I helped build up demand for Belgian beer in this country in my previous jobs as well as this one and they saw that as a reason to knight me. It was a great honor." Catron joined Brasserie Beck at the invitation of Robert Wiedmaier, the famed Washington DC chef, who opened the restaurant in April 2007. "It sort of came out of the blue. We were sitting around talking and he asked if I would like to be his beer sommelier. It's worked out very well for both of us, I think. Because of my contacts in Belgium, I've been able to regularly put on beers here that you can't get anywhere else in the country."

Catron was the 15th American to become a member of the Knighthood. Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield of Vanberg & Dewolf were the first Americans inducted, in 1997, and Wendy remains the only American woman to be so honored. Randy Thiel, then at Ommegang, inducted in 2004, is the only American brewer to date. Other publicans, aside from Catron, have been Alexander; David Farnworth, Lucky Baldwin's; Jeff Walewski, Sharp Edge; Tom Peters, Monk's Café, and Michael Naessens, Eulogy Belgian Café. Martin Wetten; Bob Leggett, Artisanal Imports; Rich Hamilton, Merchant du Vin; Joe Lipa and Kirby Shyer, both of InBev, and Ed Friedland, formerly of Edward I. Friedland, are the importers and wholesalers among the U.S. Knights.

Copyright (c) 2008 Jack Curtin

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