American Brewer Archives: Culture? We Got Your Culture Right Here

[This story appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of American Brewer]

CULTURE? WE GOT YOUR CULTURE RIGHT HERE

Philadelphia’s Colonial beer heritage is embodied in the neighborhood taverns which help define the nation’s most in-your-face city and its citizens

By Jack Curtin

I am fortunate to live in the best beer region in America and so, as the idea of a “beer culture” took root in this country, I knew it was inevitable that, due to tradition, geography and the vital accomplishments of a few special people who were in the right place at the proverbial right time, Philadelphia would sooner or later be recognized as an exemplar of the concept.

Craft beers from around the nation, when they arrive on the East Coast, generally first appear in The City of Brotherly Love. The range of imports available here on any given day is probably unmatched anywhere else in the U.S. It is likely that more beers in more styles are brewed within the Delaware Valley region of which the city is the hub than are brewed anywhere else in the U.S., and perhaps the entire world.

In this city of neighborhoods, hundreds of corner taverns, each with its own identity and style, form a gestalt which defines the place as accurately as its grand historical buildings where the nation was born or its “you got a problem with that?” attytood. As the craft beer revolution swept the land, Philadelphia didn’t so much create a beer culture as rediscover it.

While its hoary “Brotherly Love” claim might not always be perfectly exemplified by the citizenry, Philly was inarguably a beer town from the start. In Colonial times it was said that there was a tavern for every 25 men in its population and records suggest that the city was home to more drinking establishments that anywhere else in the English speaking world (that long journey across the ocean apparently built up quite a thirst in our forefathers). The seeds of revolution were sown and the laws of a new nation written in Philadelphia’s taverns, never mind what the history books tell you. John Adams famously wrote to his wife during the Constitutional Convention that “I drink no cider, but feast on Philadelphia beer.” Our patron saint is Benjamin Franklin, whose apparently apocryphal “beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy” has become craft brewing’s most overused motto.

By dint of its geographical location on the East Coast, Philadelphia has always enjoyed access to the best beers from Europe and, among other impressive local beer-y records, can claim that more Belgian beer is sold here than anywhere else in the world. Indeed, I will argue that the entire American craze with Belgian brews derives from an unrelenting Philadelphia bartender managing to finally convince Belgian brewmasters that their products could and would sell in his city.

Philadelphia maintained its reputation as a great brewing center through most of the nation’s history, all the way up until 1987 when the closing of the Schmidt’s Brewing Company left the city without a working brewery for the first time since 1683. Beer drinking continued, of course, even if beer brewing had ceased, and the demise of Schmidt’s didn’t leave the city entirely without beers it could call its own. Dock Street Amber Lager, contract brewed in New York, was already on the streets (see sidebar story) as of 1986, and beers from Stoudt Brewing in Adamstown and Pittsburgh’s Penn Brewing arrived as Schmidt’s was shutting down. Meanwhile, Pottsville’s Yuengling Brewing was in the early stages of its amazing accomplishment of making a style—lager—a brand name to a significant portion of the drinking public (it is, it should be noted, the region’s lager heritage that probably wins it the “more styles” argument cited above).

The modern Philly beer scene began to develop in the last decade of the 20th Century. Boston Beer Co. opened a small extract brewpub here in late 1989 and Dock Street followed with a big, new and fancier “real” brewpub in 1990. By then, Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams taps and cases were appearing, although each was still something of a rarity. The short-lived Red Bell (1993, contract brewed at The Lion) and Independence (1995) breweries were the first major stirring of the new era, but each was aiming for the perfect IPO rather than the perfect IPA, a concept entirely out of step with this blue collar and eminently parochial city.

The debut of cask-conditioned Extra Special Ale from Yards Brewing Company in the spring of 1995 is the moment which marked Philadelphia’s baptism into a new era. The soon-to-be cult beer created by owner Tom Kehoe and then partner Jon Bovit wasn’t just a tasty and appealing alternative in a Big Bland world, it was something both different and exciting, a beer designed for serving exclusively on a handpump. All the bars which were clamoring to carry it—and clamoring they were from the day after ESA was first poured at the first Philadelphia Craft Brew Festival in late April—had to either restore a long forgotten handpump to service or go out and buy one. That serving restriction, plus limited production because of the brewery’s size (3.5bbl brewhouse), meant that the beer had to be searched out, inducing an early manifestation of the latent gene which to this day sends beer geeks rushing hither and yon in pursuit of the “next one.”

Eddie Friedland of Edward I. Friedland Company, a local beer distributorship with a proud beer history (Friedland’s father, Marty, was the first US distributor on the East Coast to bring Bass Ale and Guinness into the country), saw an opportunity, contacted Hi.Gene Beer Pumps in England and signed on as their exclusive distributor for the East Coast. He also managed to wrangle the rights to distribute ESA and future Yards products from the co-founders. Friedland was already working with ambitious bar managers Chris Morris at Khyber Pass and Tom Peters at Copa Too! to bring more high end imports, especially Belgians, into Philadelphia. As the decade unfolded, Yards became Philadelphia’s best known beer and Friedland became the primary distributor for craft and imported beers in the region until the company was purchased by a larger wholesaler in 2006.

The name “Tom Peters” surely caught your eye in the above paragraph. The co-founder of Monk’s Café is the man whose name comes up most often when Philadelphia beer culture is mentioned and everyone seems to think he came out of the womb asking for a Duvel and with a vision of Monk’s Café already percolating in his brain. In fact, in the mid-90s, Peters was still feeling his way as bar manager at Copa Too!, a decade after a trip to Belgium in 1984 during which he’d discovered that nation’s beer and began to see the possibilities. The breakthrough moment came when he finally convinced Kwak to send 18 barrels to Philadelphia in the summer of 1995. The day the first of those were tapped (all were emptied in under two weeks) and a second event the next spring when 14 Belgians were on draught opened the door. The American fascination with Belgian beers would explode from that point onward and Mr. Peters began thinking about a restaurant concept which he thought just might fit neatly into what was happening.

That’s a pretty solid base for an emerging beer culture right there: the Brewer, the Wholesaler, the Publican. But there were many others who played crucial roles during those formative years. Among them:

George Hummel, who had purchased Home Sweet Homebrew, the shop he and wife Nancy Rigberg still operate, in 1990, and sold the first homebrew kits and a myriad of supplies to an all-star cast of locals who went on to brew professionally, including Kehoe, Ron Barchet and Bill Covaleski of Victory Brewing, Ted Briggs (Tun Tavern), Eric Savage (Dock Street) and many more.

Gene Muller, who created Flying Fish, his Cherry Hill, NJ brewery, as a virtual entity on the web a good year before the doors officially opened, pulled of the neat trick of developing a committed customer base before the first beer was ever brewed. His unique approach cast an early shadow of the web’s importance in the growth of craft beer.

William Reed, the brewer at that Sam Adams pub who, together with partner Paul Kimport, opened The Standard Tap in 2000, with a very special beer concept: all draught, all local, the quintessential hometown tavern. Last year, San Francisco Chronicle writer Michael Bauer singled out Philadelphia and the Tap as the originators of the ongoing gastropub phenomenon. Where else but a Philadelphia pub would you find a blueprint for the food-and-beer movement which burgeoned with the new century?

Jim Anderson, the writer whose Beer Philadelphia, a most personal and opinionated journal, chronicled the craft beer scene from its embryonic beginnings in 1995 until 2001, when things began to sort themselves out and both the survivors and the doomed had been identified. Anderson was also a promoter; he was involved with Peters on those early Belgian events and created of the annual Real Ale Rendezvous, Split thy Skull (a still running big beer fest every Easter Saturday) and other beer celebrations. Most significantly, in retrospect, he was a gadfly, pushing and prodding, arguing the case for brewers rights when most of them were unwilling to do so. Anderson and his family moved to Scotland in 2002, where they now run The Anderson, an inn noted for its beer lists which has been much honored, including being named one of the Top Ten Scottish Restaurants of 2007 (Sunday Herald) and Pub of the Year, Inverness District 2007  (CAMRA ). Jim Anderson left town with a lot of bridges burned behind him, but he left it a much better beer town that it would have been without his pushing and prodding.

Those are the men who, were it not just too cute for words, I might call The Seminal Seven of local beer culture. What they wrought was just recently celebrated anew when, in mid-March, Philadelphia observed the first annual Philly Beer Week. The event’s motto: “America’s best beer-drinking city.”

You got a problem with that?



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