A COUPLE of weeks ago at the Brandywine Valley Craft Brewers Fest in Media, Bob Barrar - Iron Hill's bearlike, award-winning brewer - waded into the crowd with a giant Methuselah bottle filled with his barrel-aged ale. As Barrar hoisted the bottle overhead, hundreds of eager festivalgoers surrounded him, their small plastic cups raised, hoping for sample of the rare beer.
"Me, me, me . . . ," they chirped, like baby robins waiting for their mother.
Barrar laughed and emptied the bottle into their cups in just a few minutes.
Twenty-five years into the American beer renaissance, the frothy excitement over beer and its brewers is still bubbling. Other food trends have come and gone since the first West Coast microbreweries opened in the mid-1980s (remember blackened fish? Vertical food? Wine coolers?), but full-flavored beer has only grown.
Statistics bear me out. Although mainstream beer sales were down about 1 percent in 2010, the craft-beer sector was up by about 7 percent.
And here's another: When Philly Beer Week launched in 2008, it featured about 50 area restaurants, breweries and beer stores. This year, there are more than 200.
But beer stats bore me.
As Barrar saw when he started pouring that huge bottle, there's no better way to appreciate the strength of the beer scene than jumping right into the middle of the frenzy. You can do it yourself starting next Friday, with 10 straight days of festivals, dinners, pub crawls and other events during Philly Beer Week 2011.
Opening Tap at Independence Visitor Center (6th and Market streets) is ostensibly the start of the week.
With more than 30 local brewers pouring suds inside the center (tix $41), the fest is a fine means of judging the current state of Philly's brewing scene. Which is to say, it's all about diversity; the expected tap list includes more than two dozen distinct styles, from light-bodied Lancaster Kolsch to the belly-warming Arctic Alchemy, a historic re-creation of a 19th-century British ale from Fegley's Brew Works.
Things actually get started about 12 hours earlier, though, with what has become a signature event of its own: the relay of Philly Beer Week's Hammer of Glory. The oversize keg mallet will start its tour on a live broadcast of "Good Morning Philadelphia" on Fox 29, then tour the city's taverns in a raucous, daylong, street-closing parade.
It's up to each bar or restaurant to figure out how to transport the hammer (known affectionately as the HOG) in any manner, as long as it doesn't involve a car. In previous years, it's been carried by roller girls, dogs, wheelbarrow, kinetic sculptures and a flaming zip line.
Somehow it makes it to Opening Tap in time for Mayor Nutter to tap the honorary first keg - this year, a lager made with the original Schmidt's of Philadelphia yeast by brewers from Stoudt's, Victory, Troegs, Yards and Nodding Head. The tapping will be staged in a public ceremony on Independence Mall at 7 p.m.
That's just the beginning of Philly Beer Week, of course. Here's a sprinkling of the frenzy.
Three major festivals. The International Great Beer Expo (June 4), the Hampton BrewFest (also June 4) and Zythos America Belgian Beer Fest (June 11). Also, don't miss Night Market featuring the Blockley Beer Garden in West Philly, a street-food festival with truck vendors and local brews (June 9).
Out-of-towners. Brewers from Deschutes, Russian River and Sierra Nevada will join Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head and Carol Stoudt of Stoudt's Brewing at the Forum of the Gods at Philadelphia Bar & Restaurant (June 7, $20). Beer makers from Anderson Valley, Wells & Young, Voodoo, Stillwater Artisanal Ales, Ballast Point, Central Waters, Williamsburg Alewerks, Hill Farmstead, Lost Abbey and others will be around town throughout the week.
Beer dinners, $50 and up. 8 Iron Hills, 8 Courses at Good Dog (June 5, $100); Port/Lost Abbey at Osteria (June 8, $150); Yards at Amis (June 6, $85).
Beer dinners under $50. Trinidadian Treats at Doobie's (June 9, $17); British Invasion at Nectar (June 12, $35); Anderson Valley at Cooperage (June 6, $40); Flying Dog at National Mechanics (June 9, $40).
More beer dinners. The Chef, The Brewer, The Farmer is a series of six dinners throughout the week that were created as a collaboration of the people who grow, cook and brew our favorites. Also all week: City Tavern serves A Taste of Revolution with Yards' historic ale re-creations ($49.95); and Bridget Foy's Philly Foods/Philly Brews serves a twist on classic Philly favorites (hoagie salad, deconstructed cheesesteak) with local brews ($35).
Just plain fun. Ride the Rails, a beer tasting with Boxcar Brewing aboard the historic West Chester Railroad (June 10); The Bull Strikes Back, with mechanical bull riding at Percy Street Barbecue (June 7); Dunk the Beer Rep at London Grill (June 7); Throwdown in Franklintown wrestling match at Kite and Key (June 4); and No Repeat Week at Memphis Taproom, in which every keg that kicks is replaced by a new, completely unique brand (all week).
Bizzaro beer. Some strange stuff is sure to fill a few pints. The one I can't wait to try is Prism Insana, a stout flavored with (don't tell your cardiologist) bacon and chocolate.
It's impossible to hit 'em all. My advice is to just jump in - the beer's cold!
Monday to Friday of Beer Week (June 6-10), stop by the With Love Beer Garden at the Four Seasons for up-to-date info on events. The garden will feature a different local brewery each night, entertainment, souvenirs and small plates.
For a full schedule, with info and links to tickets all events, visit www.phillybeerweek.org. And don't forget to download the free apps for Android and iPhone.