FIVE YEARS AGO, the whole notion of a "beer week" was as unknown as a black IPA. There simply was no such thing.
Today, if you plug the term into Google, you'll get more than 2.3 million results. There's an entry on the subject in the new Oxford Companion to Beer. San Francisco beer writer Jay Brooks, who wrote the section, has compiled an online list of nearly 100 beer weeks worldwide, from Alabama to Yakima. They now celebrate beer week in Tokyo; Toronto; Newcastle, Australia; and Washington, D.C. Next week, I'm headed out to San Diego for the annual Craft Brewers Conference to participate in a panel discussion about the beer-week phenomenon.
It all began in Philadelphia.
The first organizational meetings held back in 2007 at Nodding Head Brewery and Monk's Café were loud, funny and full of great beer.
Almost every sentence began with, "Wouldn't it be great if …"
Nobody seemed daunted by the fact they were creating something out of whole cloth. It just happened, kinda like yeast fermenting wort and turning great ingredients into a superb brew.
I'm knee-deep in planning for the fifth annual Philly Beer Week, June 1-10, but it's worth taking a quick pause to see how far we've come in these few years. For one thing, as it says at the bottom of my column every week, I'm director of Philly Beer Week — an actual job. I'm the only staff member, but the operation is now overseen by a volunteer board of directors that works year-round. There's also a warren of ad salesmen, public-relations pros, event planners, volunteer helpers, an overworked accountant and a tireless Web guy who has a beer week logo tattooed on his leg.
That's just scraping the surface.
Beer week has grown so big, it's now a yearlong focal point for the local beer industry. Wholesalers assign staff for the celebration and cancel vacations; breweries produce special beers and jockey for treasured tap handles. Bars and restaurants amass keg inventories and schedule hundreds of events.
And beer drinkers mark their calendars, arranging vacations around the 10-day bash.
There's now a smartphone app, a dynamic website, radio spots, professional videos, VIP packages, online ticketing, TV appearances, corporate sponsorships and the off-the-wall citywide relay of Philly Beer Week's mascot, the Hammer of Glory.
For the fifth straight year, Mayor Nutter will be on hand with the HOG at the Opening Tap festival (June 1 at Independence Visitor Center) to open the first keg outside in a free public ceremony on Independence Mall.
Read that sentence again: The mayor of the nation's fifth-biggest city, at the very birthplace of America, with a keg hammer in one hand and a brimming glass of suds in the other.
Tell me this isn't a beer town.
I don't know if I get a bigger kick out of that, or that he'll be joined on the stage by representatives of the Inquirer — the formerly snooty wine-sipping rag that has so embraced beer, it now presents annual "Brew-vitational" awards.
Back in 2008, the first beer-week events were held at obvious locales: the Khyber, Standard Tap, the Grey Lodge, Eulogy, Monk's. This year, more than 150 bars and restaurants will run beer events in nearly every neighborhood and suburban county.
Philadelphia Bar & Restaurant will host the Forum of Gods (June 6), a roundtable with top brewers. Delilah's Gentlemen's Club — yes, the strip joint — will crack cans of the appropriately named Deviant Dale's IPA (June 8). The Manayunk Summer Classic (June 9) will pair beer with dishes from Main Street restaurants. The Uno Chicago Grill suburban pizza chain will pour specials, including its own house beer, Big Ern's IPA from Weyerbacher Brewing.
One of my favorite examples of beer week's evolution is the Four Seasons Hotel, whose high-end restaurant is best known for its wine cellar. Last year, Philly Beer Week collaborated with the hotel staff and the Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corp. to open the With Love Beer Garden at the Four Seasons idyllic patio and garden. Each night, beers from local breweries were featured. There was live music, food, fun and games. More than 300 people filled the space nightly.
The garden was such a success, the hotel opened it for two more weeks later in the year. And then it began collaborating with Dock Street Brewery on a series of bottled beers; the first was an English-style Old Ale, improbably (and deliciously) aged in a chardonnay wine barrel with truffles.
Today, other branches of the luxury-hotel group consult with Philadelphia's staff on expanding their own craft-beer programs. And the With Love Beer Garden will return this year.
Funny what happens when beer lovers get together and begin a conversation with, "Wouldn't it be great if…?"
For information and tickets to events, see PhillyBeerWeek.org.