As many as 30,000 beer lovers are expected to sip their way through the brewing bacchanalia that is Philly Beer Week beginning tomorrow, with more than 670 events across the region. There will be tastings of high-end craft beers, pairing dinners at gastropubs, even a 60-mile bike-and-drinking tour of local breweries during the 10-day celebration.
More than 400 revelers made it to the Grey Lodge Pub's "Friday the Firkinteenth" in February. So how many will make the pilgrimage to Northeast Philly to quaff beer from firkins, the small kegs of artisan beer that drain by gravity, when Friday the 13th falls during the second annual Beer Week?
"We're getting started at 9 a.m. and going all day," said Grey Lodge owner Mike "Scoats" Scotese, who is also hosting "Lew Bryson's Wheat Beer Breakfast of Champions" at 9 a.m. Saturday. A pint of Imperial Espresso Porter with creamed chipped beef, anyone? How about a Dunkel Weisse with those chocolate-chip pancakes?
"It's going to be insane," said Philly Beer Week cofounder Don Russell, who writes the "Joe Sixpack" column for the Philadelphia Daily News and who unabashedly boasts: "We have regained our stature as America's best beer-drinking city."
That the region can support such a mega-festival - with the largest event already sold out - is a testament to the deep well of passion in Philly's beer culture, which has also been one of the most dynamic facets of the restaurant scene in the last few years. Witness the continued surge in new gastropubs, serious beer lists at high-end restaurants, the opening of new local breweries, and the steady flow of rare new imports - in particular, a taste for Belgian ale that is one of the distinguishing traits of our local beer scene.
It's an ardor that will be in full froth during this second annual paean to the brew, beginning with the "Opening Tap" featuring two dozen local breweries at the Comcast Center tomorrow at 7 p.m., and rollicking on through an eye-opening range of events until last call on March 15. Even SEPTA is getting into the spirit, offering $9 "sip safely" passes for all-day rail-bus-trolley rides during the event.
A taste for high-end craft beer is a rising national phenomenon, outpacing all other sectors of the beverage industry with 5.3 percent growth in volume last year, despite the recession and a steep hike in prices due to an increased cost for ingredients, according to Nick Lake of the Nielsen Co.
"Craft beer remains an affordable luxury," said Lake, "and the consumers have voted: They bought more beer than the previous year, and they bought more at a higher price."
In Philadelphia, the thirst for great beer has become both an obsession and a point of local pride. With nearly triple the 250 events from last year's first Beer Week, organizers are touting it as one of the biggest beer events in the country, easily eclipsing its West Coast rival, San Francisco, which hosted a similar beer week in February with only 150 events. (The Great American Beer Festival in Denver, with 472 breweries taking part and 46,000 attendees, remains the country's largest.)
Aside from the Opening Tap, the Philly festivities are anchored by four other large festivals, including the sold-out Craft Beer Fest at the Navy Yard, the Brewer's Plate food-pairing extravaganza at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the Real Ale Invitational featuring casked ales at Yards Brewing Co., and Zythos America, a debut celebration of Belgian-style ales named after the famed Belgian festival of the same name.
The vast majority of the events, however, have emerged in a more organic grass-roots manner at more than 155 venues across the region, with a creative spirit more akin to Philly's Fringe Festival than to the staid Book & the Cook, which Philly Beer Week replaced on the spring event calendar.
Yes, there will be umpteen of the usual "Meet the Brewer" dinners featuring beer luminaries from around the world, drawing at least 40 visiting brewers and 30 locals. And some of them will get rock-star treatment: 80 tickets for a "Brett Pack" dinner at Monk's - featuring four renowned American pioneers who are experimenting with lambic-style "wild yeast" brewing (a.k.a. brettanomyces) as opposed to the conventional cultivated yeast - sold out in 10 minutes.
But there will also be a number of wackier events that pay homage to the uniquely witty and irreverent side of beer culture. There's a 60-mile bike-and-drinking tour of local breweries (helmets required!), as well as a 5K run with brewers and a "pace scooter" handing out beer. There's a trivia competition to crown the region's biggest Beer Geek, and a "Beer Balderdash" smackdown at Standard Tap to expose our most outrageous beer storytellers. There's a breast-cancer fund-raiser at Devil's Den with Bell's Brewery from Michigan called "Bell's for Boobs," and an ode to all things smoked - beer, barbecue and cigars - at Yards. West Chester's chocolatier extaordinaire, Christopher Curtin at Eclat, was even inspired to create a stunningly good six-pack of truffles infused with different local beers, including chocolates that ring with Victory's Hop Wallop, cassis sour ale from Iron Hill, and Fat Dog oatmeal stout from Stoudt's.
Yards founder Tom Kehoe is participating in what may be the weirdest event of all, a wrestling match with Kite & Key co-owner Jim Kirk. Billed as the "Throwdown in Franklintown," it will have the two zipped up into inflatable sumo suits. But taking on Kehoe, 300-plus pounds and a former Lehigh wrestler, will be like grappling with a double-barrel load of Yards' Oyster Love Stout. (Which will be flowing firkinlike through a hand-pumped "beer engine," too.)
"Speed and agility are going to play in my favor," says the 190-pound Kirk. "Plus the ref [Kite & Key co-owner Jake Hampson] is on my side."
It's all in good fun for a beer scene that's basking in its prime. Among the biggest developments in the last year was the opening of two new breweries in the city (Philadelphia Brewing Co. in Kensington; Earth Bread + Brewery in Mount Airy) and a new location on Delaware Avenue for the revitalized Yards, which began brewing there in the fall.
Their new brews have helped fuel the growing presence of beer on the restaurant scene, which has produced a steady flow of new gastropubs from Kensington (Memphis Taproom) to Graduate Hospital (Pub & Kitchen) to South Philadelphia, where Devil's Den, Lucky 13, the Pub on Passyunk East (POPE), and even the authentic Italian Le Virtù have joined the pioneering South Philadelphia Tap Room to form the city's edgy new nexus of good beer.
Some partially credit the energy surge on South Philly's beer scene to the move of the Bella Vista Beer Distributor into a greatly expanded new location on 11th Street, positioning itself as a significant new wholesale player.
But growth in craft beer's presence has hardly been limited to downtown. Beer has taken a nearly equal place alongside wine on high-end beverage lists in Manayunk, at Cooper's Brick Oven Wine Bar, and in the suburbs, as at Alison Two in Fort Washington. Good beer has also found a surprising place on the lower end at mainstream chains like Uno Chicago Grill, which now pours brew ranging from Ayinger to Dogfish Head and Allagash, and is hosting Beer Week events at six of its locations.
In fact, about half the new events of this year's Beer Week, said Russell, are taking place at suburban venues, from Teresa's Next Door in Wayne to TJ's in Paoli, Capone's in Norristown, and the Spinnerstown Hotel, where aspiring know-it-alls will participate in one of several preliminary rounds for the Philly Beer Geek competition in hopes of winning the $1,000 crown. The finals this year will be held at the Manayunk Brewery.
Last year's winning geek, Steve Robson, bested nine competitors with an impressive command of beer trivia, tasting acumen, and wit, including his description of his "date" with a bottle of Stoudt's Old Abominable Barley Wine.
Who knows? If you can tell a firkin from Fuggles hops, your own lucky beer day - and moment of brew-soaked glory - awaits.