Philly Beer Week, an idea whose time had clearly come, proved to be a mind-blowing celebration

by Jack Curtin
Celebrator Beer News
June-July 2008

The way I picture it in my mind's eye, it was like something out of one of those classic Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland "Andy Hardy" films from the 1940s. You remember the oft-repeated scene on which each flick turned: the gang is gathered in the barn trying to figure out how to save the school, rescue the town or fend off the end of life as we know it, when somebody leaps up and says "Hey kids! Let's put on a show!"

Cut to March 2007 and Tom Peters of Monk's Café, Philadelphia's best know beer venue, and Bruce Nichols of Museum Catering, the company which had brought Michael Jackson the town for 18 straight years for sold-out events at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. In the wake of the city's annual and long-running The Book and The Cook ten-day food and drink extravaganza having been cancelled and the Museum's Friday night Michael Jackson beer dinner and Saturday tutored tasting sessions and Monk's Sunday night Jackson dinner still having been as successful as ever, they began promulgating the idea that those three long-running and popular events could be the anchor for a celebration based solely around the city's thriving beer scene. In short, the beer folks could put on a show of their very own.

Similar thoughts were nibbling at the imaginations of other Philadelphia beer world movers and shakers, notably the region's two best-known beer scribes, Don "Joe Sixpack" Russell and Lew Bryson, so a not-so-secret cabal was soon formed to meet regularly in, hardly a barn, the cozy confines of Nodding Head Brewery & Restaurant to lay the groundwork for Philly Beer Week. It was a prodigious task they were undertaking and the group played it perhaps a bit too close to the chest early on, leaving the rest of the beer community intrigued but not quite clear about how they would fit into the festivities. Then Jackson's tragic and unexpected death in August cast a pall over the planning and meant that the new venture would have to succeed without its centerpiece, the superstar whose appeal had always been at the heart of its centerpiece events. Ultimately, things didn't really get organized and information flowing until the new year had begun, which was damned late, given the vision they had.

None of that really mattered, as it turned out. While it is painfully trite to say that the "ten days of beer" which unfolded from Friday March 7 to Sunday March 16 exceeded all expectations, that's the fact, plain and simple. I doubt that there has ever been a beer event anything like Philly Beer Week, anywhere, if only because of its scope. There were 239 official events by the last count, with 89 official participants ("official" being defined as paying a fee which entitled the venue to be included in Beer Week promotion and advertising). By comparison, the last year of Book & Cook, there were 65 events. Beyond that astounding figure, there were numerous unofficial beer-centric events all over the place. And, while plans to make PBW a regional celebration never really got off the ground, there were well over 40 events held in the suburbs near and far.

Given that scale, it is clearly impossible to detail all that went on (there is a calendar online for those who might think all this is an exaggeration), but here are some highlights.

The official opening of Philly Beer Week on Friday, March 7, was a book launch party for Russell's Joe Sixpack's Philly Beer Guide, with beers from 22 local breweries pouring. Mayor Michael Nutter arrived late to tap the first keg and when he did, announced that nothing was official before the mayor arrives so they'd have to start drinking all over again, setting the tone for the rest of the ten days. That night also saw the release of the first four beers from the city's newest brewery, Philadelphia Brewing Company, at the Standard Tap, the nationally acclaimed gastropub which pours only local beers. The first anchor event was held on Sunday, the annual Brewers Plate, a beer 'n' food party in its fourth year. It matched 21 local breweries with 21 local restaurants and went over the 1,000 attendance mark for the first time ever.

The week in the middle of the two big weekends was a cornucopia of beer goodness, with brewers and industry folks everywhere you turned around, hosting dinners, giving lectures or just meetin' and greetin'. Among the faces: Larry Bell, Adam Avery, Phil Markowski, Garrett Oliver, Ray Deter, Dan Shelton, David Buhler and many other out-of-towners from around the country, plus all the locals like Sam Calagione, Bill Covaleski, Casey Hughes, Brian O'Reilly, Tom Kehoe, John & Chris Trogner, Ed & Carol Stoudt, the Iron Hill guys, the new brewing from Philadelphia brewing and on and on. From across the pond came the likes of Hildegard & Bas van Ostaden (Urthel), Xavier Van Honsebrouck (Kastell), Geert Lindemans (Lindemanns), Armand Debelder (Drie Fonteinen) and Bruce Williams (Fraoch), among others. Luc "Bobo" Van Mechelen, Chimay's U.S. rep, became something of Main Line legend during his visit to the 'burbs that night, constantly staying for "one more" before finally (and barely) catching the last train back to the city.

Other highlights included an extraordinary total of 26 Meet the Brewer events on Tuesday night alone, featuring many of the above names. In some ways, those few hours captured the essence of it all and underlined why it will be difficult for any other city to pull off what happened here. This city of neighborhoods and taverns has countless venues which lend themselves to this sort of massive party, each of them distinctive and with a true "Philly feel." Moving from bar to bar, you get not just a sense of the beer culture but of the people and the city itself. Sometimes you're even on your way to, or from, a site where the nation was founded and its laws written. That same evening, Calagione and wine consultant Marnie Old got to launch their argumentative tome, He Said Beer, She Said Wine, over a five-course dinner at the high-end Nineteen Restaurant at the Park Hyatt Hotel.

The World's Most Expensive Beer Dinner, hosted at Monk's by Stephen Beaumont on Wednesday night was another one of that venue's series of likely-not-to-be repeated very special gatherings. Nor can we overlook the Philly Beer Geek Competition on Thursday night at Johnny Brenda's, Standard Tap's "little brother" which has become one of the city's hottest pubs and music venues. Not only was the competition itself a blast, but it was there that PBW received the imprimatur that every major beer celebration must have, an appearance by the Roiling Boil Blues Band, headed up, as always, by beloved publisher Tom Dalldorf and including in this incarnation Dave Alexander (Brickskeller) on the guitar, Larry Horwitz (Iron Hill) on bass and Corey Reid, bar manager at Sly Fox Brewhouse & Eatery, on drums. That same evening, Calagione and wine consultant Marnie Old got to launch their new book, He Said Beer, She Said Wine, at the very upscale Nineteen Restaurant.

The final weekend featured the three Jackson-focused events which had inspired the whole ten day celebration. The Friday night Museum gather was turned into a tribute event, featuring several special beers in tribute to or inspired by the Bard. Among the speakers, many of whom have already been named here, were Anchor's Fritz Maytag and Carolyn Smagalski, Michael's last great love. The Saturday three-session tastings, sold out as usual, were conducted by Russell, along with a rotating tag team which included Dalldorf, Peters and Calagione. Sunday began with a Real Ale Festival at Triumph Brewing Company, co-sponsored by Yards, which poured cask beers from 20-plus local breweries spread across the two levels of the beautiful pub in Olde City. It was wall-to-wall throughout the afternoon. The sold-out dinner at Monk's featured beers and course highlighting the ten years of dinners Michael had done there. Several of us had a chance to get up and talk about our memories of our departed friend one last time.

The historic week ended, for those with the stamina to do it one more once, with a "last huzzah," the appropriately named T.U.D. (Totally Unnecessary Drink) at Fergie's Pub late Sunday. And with that, it became the beer week that was. The kids had put on a helluva show.

Copyright (c) 2008 Jack Curtin

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