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A DC Beer Editor Goes to Philly Beer Week (Part 1)

DC is far from the only city with a beer week.  Last Friday, I ventured up to my old stomping grounds to check out Philly Beer Week, considered the largest of its kind in the US.  What follows is a not-too-brief account of my daily activities over a weekend that was truly staggering in all senses of the word.  The hope is that it will provide a few ideas for day trips or beer runs in your future.  Expect an article on lessons learned next week.

Friday

I left the day job with just enough time to meet my wife and catch a train to our neighbors to the northeast.  The moment we arrived, we booked it over to the ‘official PBW hotel”, where we were greeted with a goodie bag bursting with promotional materials, a bottle of Yard’s Philadelphia Pale Ale, and a comically oversized t-shirt.  Then we scrambled over to the Independence Visitor’s Center for Opening Tap, a GABF-style beer festival featuring about 30 breweries.

We missed Mayor Nutter tapping the inaugural keg using the Hammer of Glory, but made sure to go in the proper door, where media and VIPs (mutually exclusive groups, I assure you) gained access to a private section with some special reserve pours.  In the early scrum, I lost track of what I’d tasted, but Evolution Spring Migration 2013, Weyerbacher Riserva 2012, and Fegley’s Arctic Alchemy all stood out.

We entered the fray.  Pretzel-necklace sporting drinkers swarmed around this or that hot item.  PBW special collaborations Manneken Penn (Weyerbacher & De la Senne) and Brotherly Suds IV (tons of Philly breweries) flowed freely.  I won’t bore you with details that I can hardly recall anyway, but I will recommend that you keep your eyes peeled for a few breweries I’d not previously encountered: Philadelphia’s soon-to-open St. Benjamin’s, rural Shawneecraft and the apparently pervasive-within-Philly Neshaminy Creek.

Two hours came and went and it was time to call it a night. 

Saturday

Our early curtain call paid off, as we woke early and intact.  While the mercury began its mad ascent, we set off for Fishtown – an old part of the city that once boasted numerous lager breweries, albeit nearly a century ago – where Philadelphia Brewing Company makes its home.

PBC resides in a lovely old building, with its tasting room occupying a large un-air conditioned space up among the rafters.  We settled down with a couple morning Walt Wits for a talk on post-Prohibition brewing in Philly.  The speaker, Richard Wagner, is a veteran of the city’s beer scene and clearly knew his stuff, covering everything from locations of old-timey breweries and crazy marketing materials to midcentury sales trends and the death of the last of the old-school breweries in the early eighties. 

The next stop was an old haunt of mine, Johnny Brenda’s, where they’d rigged up an above-the-bar cask rack.  Truly ingenious.  Both the Sly Fox Standard Pale and Free Will Saison were on point.

From there, it was a long, hot walk to the Institute Bar.  A rowdy table shook the small space with repeated cheers and hoarse laughter.  The Institute was pouring fruit beers and the bartender was gracious with samples.  After a couple of misses, we struck on a pineapple beer from Rivertowne, a perfect choice for the sweltering day.  The rowdy crowd soon departed, making that pint all the more enjoyable.

Refreshed, we headed west to the Free Library’s exhibit on beer in Philadelphia.  Despite being a bit on the small side, the colonial era water colors of local pubs demonstrated the city’s longstanding beer cred.  In a happy little coincidence, two of the displays were made by Wagner – one of many hints that despite Philly’s size, it’s easy to see the same characters pop up over and over.  Small world and all that.

Onward.  After getting fed and caffeinated, we set off for Varga’s street festival to meet a grad school buddy and his wife.  Rounding the corner, we knew that this was no place to catch up with old friends: the tents overflowed and rows of patrons were arrayed behind bar.  We instantly decide to repair to quieter territory.  Just around the corner is Strangelove’s (nee Boilermaker), much quieter at that point. Over the next hour, we chatted, relished the A/C, and nursed cask pours of Wells & Young’s John Courage Imperial Stout, the first time it was so served in the US (or so we were told). 

I rolled myself out the door, planning to head back to the hotel for a nap.  Instead, we persevered.  With a sobering stroll under our belts and a quick and much-needed slice of pizza from Blackbyrd in us, it was impossible to resist one last taste at Bainbridge Street Barrel House, where that night’s tap takeover featured 4 Hands.  That put me over.  Goodnight.

Sunday

Again, we surprised ourselves with an early start.  We set off southward, beginning with a Shot Tower iced coffee and Southwark brunch.  There weren’t a ton of event details posted for the latter, but “brunch and Nodding Head beers, starting at 11” had me sold.  The breakfast sandwiches hit the spot, but the real takeaway was $3 beers.  I can fully attest: both the wonderfully named Ich Bin Ein Berlinerweisse and lemongrass-forward Monkey Knife Fight are stellar brunch beers.

From there, we walked out Passyunk Ave for that street's showcase.  The first stop  was Birra for an IPA tap takeover.  I went Three Floyds Too Kind, while my less bitterphilic wife went for Ichtegems Grand Cru.  It was at this late point in my weekend that I finally met Jennie Hatton, the PBW PR pro who set the entire trip up for me.  She is as ebullient as you’d heard – and even better, had brought along the Hammer of Glory, which I got to briefly wield.  Only for good, of course.

We walked out of Birra and into the oddly concurrent Italian National Day Festival, which featured mom-dancing and $5 Bud Lights.  An unsuccessful hunt for the Italian draft event steered us toward a free sampling at Le Virtu, which put me onto Prism’s tasty Summer of ’69 and the balanced smokiness of Sixpoint Signal.

Then it was onto the northbound subway to meet another school chum at Prohibition Taproom, a serious joint up in what I’d previously thought of as no-man’s-land.  We waited fifteen minutes for the sour event to kick off at 3, at which point the alternately (and sometimes concurrently) bearded and beer-bellied crowd had filled in.  My friend went for Russian River Supplication, while I opted for Jolly Pumpkin Madrugada Obscura. 

The last stop of the weekend was Kite & Key for 4th annual Throwdown in Franklintown, which pit brewery reps against each other in frivolous feats of strength and speed.  While a slight fellow jabbed ineffectually at his burly, immobile foe in an American Gladiators-style joust, I ordered up an Allagash James Bean (Curieux with coffee), a Brotherly Suds IV (another collaboration made for the week), an Allagash Golden Brett (my wife’s favorite of the weekend), and a Victory Headwaters on cask.  Together, they constituted a fitting end to a beer-soaked weekend.  A short, nap-filled train ride and I was back in my beloved District, a pound or two heavier and no worse for the wear.

Big thanks to PBW for helping to coordinate the trip up!

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