Philly Beer Week: Where Beer Weeks Began

“America’s best beer drinking city” is the tag line on the logo for Philly Beer Week. That partially accounts for the reason I didn’t buy the souvenir t-shirt being sold at the opening event. After all, where would I wear this? We live in a pretty fine beer drinking city ourselves. Kinda reminds me of the bumper stickers, “I’d rather be…(fill in the blank).” My reaction is always, “Then go there or do that.” OK, so I get cranky.  But this got us thinking.

Beer by BART Gail and I made a quick visit from San Francisco to the City of Brotherly Love (and steaming heat), to participate in the celebration of craft beer that gave birth to all the other “Beer Week” celebrations around the country. As with SF Beer Week, the PBW schedule of events was overwhelming. There were close to 1,000 events listed in more than 150 venues, with new events being added every day up to opening day. We located ourselves in Center City, within easy walking distance of several notable craft beer spots and event venues.

On the first day of PBW, we decided to meet the Hammer of Glory (HOG) on its trip around the city. The Hammer is a large wood-handled, engraved metal mallet that would be used to tap the ceremonial first keg of beer at Opening Tap, that evening. We watched the HOG arrive at Nodding Head Brewery on its 10th of 18 stops, across the chest of a “bloodied” Chicago Blackhawk hockey player effigy, acknowledging another big event in town that weekend. The hammer and fake corpse were transported via police escorted hearse. We followed on foot for the next three stops. The HOG went on via a hand truck mounted “keg throne” and then on another leg in the arms of a jogging Rocky look-alike.

hammer of glory

(More images of the HOG relay are at our photo set at Flickr)

The Opening Tap event, held in the Independence Hall visitors center, featured local beers from about forty mostly Philadelphia area breweries. There the Hammer of Glory was accepted by Philadelphia’s Mayor who tapped the first special collaboration keg while local beer writer, Don “Joe Sixpack” Russell, emceed a brief ceremony for the crowd and the TV cameras. Gail and I then turned our attention to tasting local beers. Two of the outstanding beers of the evening were the one-time-only “Pimp My Rye” IPA from Dock St. Brewery (Philadelphia) with specialty rye malts sourced from all around Europe, and a delicious sour apple lambic from Fegley’s Brew Works (Allentown and Bethlehem).

pouring "Pimp my Rye"

Over the course of the next four days we visited the legendary Monk’s Cafe, Nodding Head Brewery, Tria, Varga Bar, Hawthorne’s, South Philly Tap Room, 12 Steps Down, Jose Pistola’s , The Belgian Café, Lucky 7 Tavern, Devil’s Den, The Wishing Well, Brew and out in the suburbs, PJ’s (in Paoli) and Teresa’s Next Door Bar (in Wayne). We met some amazing brewers, and tried some very special brews. With the exception of the release of a luscious Sierra Nevada beer camp collaboration brewed by notable Philly publicans, we concentrated on events featuring beers that we seldom, if ever, see on the west coast. And while we sought out special events for breweries like Cigar City, Bell’s, Terrapin, Left Hand, Drie Fonteinen, Southampton and Voodoo, the ubiquitous presence of solid beers we don’t often see in California, from breweries like Pretty Things, Duck Rabbit, New Holland, Founders, Flying Fish and many smaller Belgian breweries got our attention. These are available in Philly throughout the year alongside the many fine Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and other Mid-Atlantic beers. You will also find some familiar west coast beers.  Any fan of great beer can clearly spend a few joyful days (or more) in Philly outside of festival time, too.

Terrapin Night @ Wishing Well

There does seem to be high concentration of top-notch beer bars, tap houses and cafes, perhaps more than in any other American city we have visited.  All of venues we attended except for Belgian Café and Lucky 7 were within easy walking distance from our location near 11th and Spruce Sts. There is a reasonably effective transit system (SEPTA) that would reach the large number of great beer venues we didn’t get to.  For instance, we never got to the Northern Liberties and Fishtown neighborhoods which are home to a number of other noteworthy beer destinations.  And, of note for train travelers, there is even a fine beer bar, Bridgewater’s in the 30th St. Amtrak and Regional Rail Terminal.

We were told that most every new restaurant that opens in Philly includes at least a decent beer list and several we visited had superb beer offerings. We clearly could have stayed in another neighborhood and had dozens of choices of events at venues within walking distance there, too. Some of the suburbs are stepping up as well. Beer blogger Brian Kolesar pointed out that a commuter train pub crawl can now be a worthwhile adventure.

My favorite example of the respect with which the people of Philadelphia treat beer is the relatively new Tria Cafe, serving good food, wine and fine beer in two locations and offering classes at their Fermentation School. The servers and cooks continue to study the production, serving and food pairings of wine, cheese and beer, the three fermented comestibles that they champion. The staff receives two hours of “schooling” weekly. Their knowledge is easily apparent when you talk with them about the items on their menu. Perhaps most exciting, Tria also routinely uses their school to teach the public about all three fermentation traditions. We were too late to sign up for the Cantillon fermentation class during PBW, which was a huge hit. Thankfully there were dozens of other tempting events going on at the same time, proving that PBW is a festival that is worth your travel time and dollar.

So, about Philly’s claim of being “America’s Best Beer Drinking City?” OK, I have to admit it. I bought the hat.

– Steve

BEER WEEK - Philly's Best City shirt
(A local believer wearing her Philly Beer Week shirt to the opening, laughing at our skepticism.)

Explore Beer By BART; see our list of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best beer places with detailed transit info, so you can get out there to enjoy without driving.

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