1995 is a multi-part Liquid Diet special report. I have asked an array of local beer luminaries to recount for us what they were doing in December 1995 and the story is told in their own words. The entire series is being cross-posted on a new 1995 page in chronological order as we go along for the convenience of late-comers who want to read the story in the order it was intended.
JIM ANDERSON. Publisher of the city’s first beer magazine, Beer Philadelphia, creator of the Real Ale Rendezvous, Split Thy Skull and a myriad other early beer events and inventor of the Bridgid’s Downdraft system, he was a seminal figure in the resurgence of the Philadelphia beer scene until he and his wife, Anne Cebula Anderson, moved to Scotland in 2003 to open The Anderson, a pub, restaurant and small hotel in the Black Isle metropolis of Fort Rose, about 15 miles north of Inverness.
“December 1995, huh? The East Coast brewing scene was still getting its inspiration from the West Coast’s more-mature beer culture, while our proximity to the Atlantic Ocean opened up great import opportunities from Europe. Personally, I was toting the fifth issue of Beer Philadelphia to beer bars, delis and beer distributors all over the Tri-State area in my beloved red Subaru station wagon.
“We were in our fourth month of accepting communication from the outside world via this strange thing called “email,” while Gene Muller was gathering support for his scheme to start Flying Fish Brewing Company from among the 12 or 13 people in the area at the time who had access to the World Wide Web. Cask-conditioned beer was making big waves in Philly. The first of eight annual installments of Beer Philadelphia’s Real Ale Rendezvous had just taken place at The Irish Pub on 20th Street. Samuel Adams Brew House and Dawson Street Pub had just added second handpumps, and bars such as Copa Too!, London Grill and Sugar Mom’s had just put in their first.
“I was looking ahead to the first of 10 Beer Philadelphia Split thy Skull barleywine festivals and to working with Tom Peters to assemble America’s largest collection of draft Belgian beers at any one time, at Copa Too! The Mad Belgian, Michel Notredame, was ready to resurface at Cuvee Notredame at 17th & Green, while Anne Cebula (Anderson) was about to turn Bridgid’s into a serious Belgian beer bar in his wake.
“Yards introduced Old Bartholomew Ale. Weyerbacher beers had just arrived in Philly. Dick Yuengling shifted some of his production to Stroh’s in Wilkes-Barre in order to manage the Pottsville Brewery’s expansion. And for the time being, Independence were still paying their bills.
“Being a Better Beer fan in Philadelphia December 1995 was as exciting as things get. We were on the verge of this great positive shift, microcosmic of what must be going on in Russia and China now, fifteen years later. It was all happening very quickly. To those of us on the ground, it meant that the things we wanted were finally coming to us. Carefully-planned road trips to Old Bay and Stoudt’s were turning into impromptu gatherings at Dock Street Brewery & Restaurant or Samuel Adams Brew House.
“With multi-tap systems and handpumps going into quality bars like Copa Too! and London Grill, we could turn our backs on the frozen mugs and month-old kegs at Philly Rock and Jake & Oliver’s. And thanks to a collective love of beer, the influence of a handful of individuals made this gastronomic and commercial impossibility into a culture so tightly woven into to Philadelphia’s modern fabric that it’s strange to think that there was a time not so long ago that you’d be relieved to see a bottle of Michelob in a restaurant.
“In April 1995, we’d had our first major beer festival, the Philadelphia Craft Brew Festival at the Civic Center. It was a rag-tag affair thrown together by the unlikely duet of David Cohen and Yours Truly. We called upon Philly’s major beer distributors to gather their brands and man the booths. Breweries from neighboring cities were called in –Frederick, Sisson’s, Wild Goose, Oxford, Brooklyn — but the real buzz surrounded the fledgling breweries who were joining Stoudt’s and Dock Street in waving the local flag. There were the ill-fated — Ugly Dog, Independence, Red Bell, Gravity –and the survivors, Yards, Manayunk and Penn. There was even a booth dedicated to a brand-new magazine written by a fellow who had been cooking and bartending in Philadelphia half his life. He called it Beer Philadelphia.
“Recently, Michael Jackson had been in town for his fifth appearance at the University Museum as part of the Book & the Cook festival. I decided to strengthen Philly’s beer reputation by having Charlie Papazian appear at my Homebrew Rendezvous that same week. With the help of George Hummel and Nancy Rigberg, we also asked author Jennifer Trainer Thompson to appear. On her way to a posher event elsewhere on Rittenhouse Square, Book & the Cook organizer Judy Faye detoured to see what was going on–the line to get in stretched around the block.
“After a summer of finding my way with the magazine and a couple of small-scale events, I put together the first of what would become an annual event until 2003. The idea behind Real Ale Rendezvous was to collect cask-conditioned beer from various breweries in an attempt to promote the idea that beer can be a living thing, and in that living state is a totally different drink than most American have had the chance to experience. Problem was, hardly anyone was making beer that way. So, I got my feet wet in the art of commissioning special beer from breweries. Dock St. Brewery & Restaurant, Samuel Adams Brew House, Yards and Rogue had already mastered the cask; getting Independence, Stoudt’s, Wild Goose and Oliver’s to do it was quite another matter. And on the day of the event, we were schlepping casks up from the belly of the Irish Pub into the bar, giving the yeast an impossible task of settling in two hours and watching as beer sprayed all over the place as brewers tried to broach casks for the first time. There was Bill Moore, then with Stoudt’s, standing in a puddle of beer, mallet in hand shrugging his big shoulders. Time for a beer, his expression said.
“In years to come, I would commission casks from breweries as widespread as Three Floyds, Young’s, Hair of the Dog, Big Hole and Orkney. I remember coming home one day to find an exasperated mailman lugging an obviously-heavy and copiously-leaking package toward my door. Wrapped in brown paper, it was a cask of Hop Ottin’ IPA that Anderson Valley had popped into the mail for the Rendezvous. You could hear the hiss of beer slowly escaping from the chipped bung. But in December 1995, that was a long way off.
“My love affair with strong beer by 1995 was well established–experiences abroad with Worthington White Shield and Rochefort 10 has created a magic within me that I felt must be shared. And so in December, the idea came to hold a barleywine festival. Not barleywine in the British sense, but one of international participation–anything goes, as long as it was 9%ABV or more. Khyber Pass beer diva Bob Logue had been lured away from his perch to get in on a new beer bar down the street. It was a subterranean affair owned by an Old City night-scene fixture who most people simply called Mom. The bar, Sugar Mom’s Church Street Lounge, seemed the perfect setting for such an underground undertaking, and I set to work assembling kegs of high-octane beer for the first Split thy Skull. I would go on to do nine more of these festivals, held in Philly and Brooklyn. They may still be going on, for all I know.
“The beer business–at least, at the microbrewery level–proved to be a friendly one. Rarely did I have a problem phoning up a brewery and speaking to the boss, and never did I suggest a special brew without an enthusiastic response. As a veteran beer hunter I was beginning to delight in using my experience to bring Better Beer to the public so they didn’t have to leave their city to track it down any more. In that passion I found a kindred spirit in Tom Peters, who asked me that December, over some special Belgian beer he’d brought back from a recent trip, `I’m putting in 14 new taps at Copa Too! Wouldn’t it be great to put a whole bunch of Belgian beers on tap at the same time?’ And before you could say Forbidden Fruit, we were on the phone with Belgian breweries, opening conversations with, `Do you speak English?’ and gathering kegs that Americans could never before enjoy without buying a plane ticket first. We were aiming for 14 Belgian beers and ended up with 16, one of which was a keg of Corsendonk that had mistakenly ended up in Boston and been driven down to Philly overnight by a sales rep. Tom and I got to Copa Too! the morning of the event to find the rep in the parking lot across the street, asleep in his car next to the errant keg of beer.
“So, December 1995 was a real turning point in Philadelphia beer history. We were beginning to see how we could rely less on other regions and make ourselves into a destination. It was our chance to rise above New York and Baltimore, our overachieving neighbors, and become the hub of Better Beer, both homegrown and imported. We had the publicans, we had the magazine, we had the distributors and we had the alcohol laws that favored the small brewer. Looking back on it all, we did in months what should have taken generations to achieve, on nothing more than a love for craft beer that simply had to be shared. Just around the corner were Victory, Bridgid’s DownDraft, Monk’s Cafe, Dogfish Head . . . not to mention the Internet Revolution. But for those of us lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, those were the days, my friend, those were the days.”