The glory (and the growth) of Beer Week in Philly

Posted: June 05, 2010

The night before, waving from a chariot fashioned from the hostess stand at his Brauhaus Schmitz, Doug Hager had been the final-leg relay man, delivering the Hammer of Glory - the giant, keg-tapping mallet used to officially launch Philly Beer Week III.

And here he was on Saturday (in fact, he was up by 7 a.m.), unloading kegs of imported hefeweizen, pilsner and kolsch - 40 in all - for a bierfest in the sprawling beer garden behind the German Society, Sixth and Spring Garden.

If he was a trouper, he had plenty of company this weekend as what is now America's largest, brawniest toast (at close to 1,000 events in more than 150 venues) to craft beer got off, well, with a splash: Driving the big mallet into the tap of the inaugural firkin at a packed Independence Visitors Center, Mayor Nutter unleashed a gusher of foamy suds. . .smack in the face.

The eager stuff was "Brotherly Suds," a special batch of hoppy, 6-percent ESB, brewed by Sly Fox in Phoenixville in a jovial collaboration of five top local brewers.

There were greater and lesser heroes, not the least of which were the beers, one of them a lemony, supremely refreshing, small-batch kolsch brewed by Stoudt's in Adamstown, Pa. whose proceeds are earmarked for Alex's Lemonade Stand, the charity for children's cancer.

The nine-day festival has grown exponentially since three years ago - from an bigger-than-expected series of 300 dinners, tastings and contests, to nearly triple that (in raw numbers, and the volume of folk whimsy) today.

The Hammer of Glory itself was relayed bar-to-bar like the Olympic torch - by roller skaters, wheel barrow, skateboard and, finally, the makeshift chariot bearing Hager and his wife, Brauhaus co-owner Kelly Schmitz - from the Northeast's Grey Lodge Pub to Independence Mall.

By Saturday, Varga Bar was holding a pin-up girl contest on a blocked-off stretch of 10th Street at Spruce; a city bike tour was rolling from local Yards, to Triumph, to Nodding Head, and Dock Street; a mechanical bull riding event was teed-up for Thursday at Percy Street BBQ.

At the 19th Street branch of Metropolitan Bakery, you could buy a sour, special-edition Man Full of Trouble Dock Street Porter Bread (and porter-glazed popcorn). Kraftwork, the new gastropub in Fishtown was adding tart Petrus Oud Bruin, a Belgian-style pale ale to the sorbet. And at Varga Bar, an almost Scotch-like Oskar Blues Gordon imperial IPA was selling briskly at $12 the six-ounce pour.

As remarkable as Beer Week's burgeoning growth, though, has been its ability to not only change the image of Philadelphia (from a beer backwater to what Beer Week's promoters credibly call "the best beer-drinking city in America"), but to alter the image of beer-drinking itself.

In fact, Beer Week was moved from its March slot last year to June this week, in part to eliminate any overlap - or association with - sloppier St. Patrick's Day guzzlers.

Officials at the Visitor's Center, a block north of the Liberty Bell, were skittish about permitting the opening-night beer event in the gateway to the city's historical shrines. (That anxiety held even though organizers capped ticket sales at 1,000 (965 actually showed up), and deployed a sizeable security crew.

By 9:15 p.m., though, after a rousing entry by the kilted Second Street Irish Society Pipes and Drum corps; and mellow attendees (who'd paid $40 apiece) lined up for sample glasses of local and imported beers; and an upbeat Flyers game on well-positioned flatscreens leavened the mood, a center spokesman, pronounced the gathering "festive and happy."

And with palpable relief, he added, "not rowdy."

.

Tom Peters, who started Monk's Cafe, the city's seminal Belgian beer bar, in the 1980s, was a founder of Beer Week three years ago (the others were caterer Bruce Nichols and Don "Joe Sixpack" Russell, the beer columnist who is now its executive director.)

And while Peters expounded on theories for its success out on the open-air balcony at the Visitors Center - the bumper crop of beer-savvy gastropubs, the uptick in serious local breweries, and such - he singled out two reasons.

For one thing, he said, the festival was a non-profit endeavor, less-vulnerable to creating mob scenes to make a buck. Secondly, it didn't impose a strait-jacket on the brewpubs and cafes, urging them to fashion their own events.

So it came to pass that on Friday evening, you could attend a low-key tasting seminar at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Old City. Or Satruday at noon, listen to beer sommelier Marnie Old explain - at an animated tutorial in the chandeliered banquet hall of the German Society - how a prime hops-growing climate, and an early understanding of how hops made beer less perishable led to Germany's out-sized influence on the crafting, and soon, export of model beer.

You could savor, on opening night, a regulation four-ounce pour of sweetly malty, chocolate-y Pig Iron Porter from Iron Hill, or far hoppier local brews. You could listen to easy-going bluegrass combos, or have spit-roasted pig and vinegary potato salad to the spirited marches of the Eine Kleine Oompah Band, with James Zoller of Birdsboro, Pa., playing a silver, double-B-flat tuba once used in Sousa bands a century ago.

Back before that tuba was even born, Philadelphia was one of the beer-making capitals of the country, with breweries lining Brewerytown to the west (where barrels were cooled in caves cut in the banks of the Schulykill), and to the east the massive brewhouses of Kensington.

German beer gardens flourished under arbors. Leather-aproned teamsters drove horse-drawn wagons of lager. That was, of course, until brewing migrated to the Midwest, and finally, Prohibition put the Hammer of Ignominy down on a lively beer culture.

The last industrial brewer here, Schmidt's, shut down in the late 1980s, just as Yards, the first of the small, craft brewhouses got its start.

But at the Visitor's Center celebration, it was all about the present - and the future.

Outside in the Market Street evening, a couple from Berlin - unaware of the event - puzzled over a map.

Was there any chance, they asked a passerby, if they could still visit the Liberty Bell?

Sorry, not at 9 p.m., they were told. But if they wanted to have a nice meal and wonderful Philadelphia beer, well, the night was still young.

Inquirer Staff Writer Rick Nichols can be reached 215 854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|