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A DC Beer Editor Goes to Philly Beer Week (Part 2)

DC and Philadelphia are very different cities.  Lord knows that comparing municipalities can be a bit, ahem, controversial, but with our very own beer week fast approaching, looking at how we stack up against a neighbor and mostly friendly rival to the north can be a helpful exercise.  Having given myself ample time to reflect upon my weekend sojourn up to Philly Beer Week, it’s finally time for me to lay out some lessons learned.

Governmental support: Perhaps the thing that stuck out most about Philly Beer Week was the strong support that it received from local government.  For years, the festivities have been kicked off at an event called Opening Tap, wherein the Hammer of Glory, having completed its journey from bar to bar, is wielded by the city’s Mayor to tap the ceremonial first cask.  Can you imagine the same being done here?  With a few notable exceptions, our local officials range from indifferent to hostile on issues near and dear to the craft community.

That said, DC does benefit from extremely permissive laws governing the importation of beer.  Just fill out a form and pay $5 and ABRA will let you bring in whatever case or keg you’d like.  Compare that to Pennsylvania’s onerous regulations: cases and six packs must be sold at different stores, while provisions governing out-of-market beers frustrate (and sometimes seriously hamstring) bar owners.  Things are loosening up a bit there, but it may still be years before Philadelphia’s beer drinkers enjoy the free flow of commerce we do here.

Lesson: Craft beer supporters should make a renewed effort to grow and strengthen political support for craft beer.  There’s no reason that DCBW can’t be a major event in the city’s social life, complete with the backing of the local government.  We should also continue to make full use of DC’s lax regulations so that our collective craft beer palate can be as wide-ranging and discerning as possible.

Organization: At its core, DC is a hyper-ambitious town, whereas Philly has a more laidback attitude.  Yes, these are gross generalizations, but we’re talking in the aggregate here.  Neither outlook is more valid or conducive to beer drinking – good beer can flourish anywhere people sport taste buds – but a city’s character will inevitably influence how the general public interacts with the beverage. 

When it comes to an event as large and complicated as a beer week, there’s something to be said for skewing type A.  I can’t speak highly enough about the top-level organization and promotion of PBW; the hotel blocks, mobile app, and promotional materials were all extremely impressive.  At the ground level, though, the rigorous schedule slipped a bit.  This normally wouldn’t be a problem, but with so many things to do (and drink), a half hour here and there can mean missing out on that rare cask three events down the line.

Before you say that this was just me being nitpicky/overextending myself/fundamentally misunderstanding the purpose of beer, I wasn’t the only one who noticed. On three separate occasions, other people waiting for a venue to open their doors or tap that keg that was already supposed to be flowing turned to me in commiseration.

Lesson: We should harness our inherent inclination toward planning and administration to ensure that each and every event host follows through.  DC’s drinkers will have no patience for missteps, so DCBW organizers, and DC’s beer media, will have to maintain high standards across the board.  After all, there are only so many hours in a day – time spent waiting is time not spent drinking beer.

Making the most of the landscape: So much of city life is dictated by how we navigate it.  In a place like Philadelphia, with its tight urban grid, relatively low speed limits, and small downtown footprint, it’s easy to walk or bike pretty much anywhere in no time.  Parking, on the other hand, is a nightmare, and public transit isn’t much better.  In comparison, Pierre L’Enfant’s grand avenues are sprawling and verdant.  For once, Metro feels like a godsend. 

The integration of beer into our respective physical landscapes reflects these differences. While both cities have strong neighborhood affiliations, the way shops cluster varies. Here, bars and restaurants are primarily located either on long stretches on main thoroughfares (think AdMo, 14th St NW, 11th St NW, U St NW, H St NE) or near Metro stations. In Philly, the venues radiate outward from central points – see the blocks surrounding Rittenhouse Square.  From almost any point in downtown Philly, you can find a respectable bar within five blocks in any given direction.  Here, you’d do much better to point yourself toward one of the main drags and go to town.

Lesson: DCBW should play to our city’s strengths.  Neighborhoods are the most meaningful frame by which to approach the week, both for organizers and weeklings (the term I just made up to refer to DCBW attendees).  As they have in years past (to an extent), nearby venues should pool their resources to attract an audience, while imbibers should choose a different ‘hood each night.  Given the relative size of DC, we should rely on partnerships with WABA, Bike Share, Uber, etc to get home safely and efficiently.

The influence of history: Philadelphia has been at the vanguard of East Coast craft beer for decades now, and it shows.  From the number of world class bars and breweries to the scope of its beer week, Philadelphia wears its beer heritage proudly.  There’s a definite swagger to PBW.  The baseline for bars is extremely high and, whether it‘s Monk’s Café’s early championing of Belgian beers or Standard Tap’s longstanding commitment to local, the premier bars in Philadelphia can go toe-to-toe with any city’s.

Of course, the same can be said now of DC’s top-flight beer bars.  During my trip, I was struck by the sheer pervasiveness of beer bars in Philadelphia.  Not all boasted Talmudic bottle lists, but nearly every watering hole featured at least a couple rock solid taps.  Too many of our bars feature one solitary ‘craft’ tap, with no care given to bartender education, draft maintenance, proper glassware, etc.  Even worse, some of DC’s bars eschew craft altogether. 

It’s not quite fair to compare the number of breweries – DC is a far smaller place – but given the consistently improving quality of local beers and the imminent debut of no less than four breweries in DC proper (not to mention many more in its immediate environs), I’d say the real issue is getting local beer into people’s hands and hearts.

Lesson: At the risk of sounding grandiose, I’d argue that we’re in the unique position of writing the modern history of DC beer.  While tradition has undeniable benefits, there’s something to be said for being present at the birth of a culture: we get to decide what will be handed down, what beer means here.  We should think of DCBW as an opportunity to establish that definition and educate more bars about the virtues of craft beer. Long-standing beer cultures, like Philly’s, should serve as guides from which to pull principles for success. Ultimately, however, it is up to everyone, from beer drinkers and directors to brewers and distributors to continue forging DCBW together in order to remember how far we’ve come as a city, celebrate where we find ourselves now, and anticipate how much further we can and should go.

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