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It was all about beer, beer, beer

Jason Suda, from Philadelphia, tips his glass at the International Great Beer Expo at the Navy Yard in Philadelphia on Saturday. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)
Jason Suda, from Philadelphia, tips his glass at the International Great Beer Expo at the Navy Yard in Philadelphia on Saturday. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)Read more

Among the thousand or so frothy connoisseurs of the brewsky packed into the Philadelphia Navy Yard Cruise Terminal Saturday for the third annual International Great Beer Festival, Tony Hunt stood out by blending in.

Not long after the first session of the day started at 12:30 p.m., the smell of hops and malt drifted through the open windows. Inside, the high-spirited crowds spent the afternoon knocking back two-ounce samples. Sporting beer guts and six-pack carton hats, quippy T-shirts and pretzel necklaces, they strolled the concrete midway in a happy froth of intoxication.

Watching the scene from his relatively quiet station at the far end of the terminal, stood Hunt, a pale-skinned, bald, rake-thin Englishman, who had flown in the night before from his home in Surrey.

He marveled at these Americans who seemed so knowledgeable, so sophisticated and so enthusiastic about beer.

"I wish we had these festivals in the United Kingdom," he said, as lines of discerning drinkers extending their miniature glasses to be filled, refilled and refilled yet again with splashes of his special brew. "The U.S. is way ahead of us in that respect."

The 66-year-old chairman of the Scottish beer company Innis & Gunn, Hunt sat a visitor down for a long chat about how his oak-aged beer came to be.

"Do you not know the story?" he said, genuine surprise in his cool blue eyes. "Oh, the story is wonderful! And by the way, it's true."

He folded his arms across his narrow chest and began the tale. In 2002, he dreamed of a whiskey with a beer finish. For a year, he experimented with dozens of beers, filling American oak barrels and leaving them for a month, then emptying them before pouring in the whiskey - hoping that the flavors would blend.

They did not. Until Dougal Sharp, a brewer and colleague, developed a new beer for him to try. Miraculously, the flavor infused the whiskey.

"But then we discovered that the guys who were supposed to be tipping the beer away were drinking it instead," Hunt said. "It was superb. And that gave birth to Innis Gunn."

Although six-packs were stacked high along the wall, none of it was for sale yesterday. "The only beer you can take out of the festival is the beer in your bloodstream," Hunt said. "Some people, quite a lot.

Several couples used the festival to celebrate birthdays.

Diane Pesavento, a sales proposal analyst from Ambler, turns 29 on Monday. For the occasion, her boyfriend, Greg Hicks, a classy guy, had bought her a silver tiara and a "Birthday Girl" button with flashing LED lights.

The jewelry of choice, however, was the edible necklace - miniature pretzels tied to a loop of twine. (Experienced festival hounds, knowing the food at these events is minimal, have learned to bring their own supply.)

In a tender moment, Shelley Merritt, a 31-year-old accountant from Horsham, leaned over her boyfriend, James Olson, an information technologist from Roxborough, and bit a pretzel off his twine.

Then he kissed her.

Philadelphia's beer week, which started in 2008, started a trend that has taken off around the country. And Dale Webber, 45, a special-education teacher from Lindenwold, N.J., is deeply appreciative.

What is the appeal?

"Beer," she said.

"That's it. Beer. What? Should I be more eloquent? It's educational."

"Educational for the beer geek," offered her friend, Michael Muse, 43, who works for a beer distributor in Moorestown, N.J.

"Mike," his 38-year-old cousin, Aaron Phillips, said admiringly. "You never said anything more profound in your life."