Philly: A destination for beer
Ask any beer drinker, especially those who enjoy craft brews, what the best beer cities in America are and you tend to get the same short list. You get Denver, San Diego, Portland; the usual suspects. But there’s another city that tends to make those top 10 lists as well. Philadelphia.
The adoptive home of Benjamin Franklin (who was an avid ale drinker) has history when it comes to beer. Philadephia used to be home to at least 90 breweries in the city through the 19th and 20th centuries.
In fact, Brewerytown, the neighborhood between the eastern banks of the Schuylkill River and 25th Street in North Philadelphia, got its name from the abundant breweries established in that area.
“We exported beer all over the world,” said William Reed, owner of Johnny Brenda’s and Standard Tap. “It’s funny because once you start to recognize old brewery buildings, you start to notice that there are still quite a few of them around.”
The history of the “Cradle of American Libation,” as it used to be called, is well documented.
Today, Philly is still home to many breweries that were born in the few decades. Yards Brewery Company, for example, was born in 1994 and has been part of the resurgence of small breweries in the U.S. in the last few decades.
The city also home of many unique bars and pubs as well as one of the largest beer festivals in the country, Philly Beer Week (PBW).
“Philly Beer Week was born out of the fact that this is just a great town to go drinking in,” said Kristine Kennedy, executive director of PBW. “There is just a lot of appreciation for good beer here and the importers recognize that.”
PBW is a nonprofit which runs the annual celebration which shares its name. The organization also hosts other beer-related events in the city year-round.
The festival opens this Friday. Opening tap will be June 3 and for a week afterwards, beer drinkers will have access to some of the best beer in the region and country.
Few other beer festivals around the country can boast 10 days of events, hundreds of participating institutions and a yearly attendance expectation of around 150,000 drinkers.
Adding to the mix, Philadelphia was recently the host of the Craft Brewers Conference. In May, around 11,000 of the world’s top breweries and beer makers met at the Pennsylvania Convention Center for industry networking and education.
The city, and the region, is taking part in the nation’s brewing renaissance. Something that began as a small industry now has a lot of recognition all over the country and world. Regional breweries like Yards, Victory Brewing Company, Sly Fox Brewing Company, Flying Fish Brewing Co. Dogfish Head Brewery and others have become well-established businesses contributing to their local economies.
So as we prepare to enjoy some tasty brews, let’s take some time to appreciate the beer culture we have here in our city.
“A great town to go drinking in”
So how did this come about? What makes Philly bars stand out? There are many reasons say some bar owners; all of which evolved naturally.
Sitting at Jose Pistola’s in Rittenhouse Square, a combination pub and sports bar with a mexican flair, is owner Casey Parker. Parker also owns Sancho Pistola’s in Fishtown. Joining Parker is Reed who, as mentioned before, owns two popular bars in the city. Both Parker and Reed are PBW board members.
“It was never my plan to serve sh*tty food with beer you know,” said Reed as he laughed. “People kept asking me, ‘Where did you get this idea to serve amazing food?’ They asked me like it was the craziest idea they have ever heard.”
Reed is talking about “gastropubs,” a bar concept which some say took hold first in Philadelphia. The gastropubs offer a generous craft beer selection and a paired food selection which fits a foodie palate rather than the bar food found at chain eateries.
“I think about this a lot you know, because I own Standard Tap and it’s cited a lot as one of the earliest examples of that,” said Reed. “And I get it. I hate the word ‘gastropub,’ but I get what people are saying.”
Standard Tap, located in Northern Liberties, is known for only featuring local beer and food on their menu.
In a separate conversation, Kennedy said the concept of the gastropub is something which Philly almost takes for granted.
“I was just recently at a conference and there was a whole panel on pairing beer with food and it was just funny to me because that’s something our bars and pubs already do so well here,” she said. “It’s almost like the rest of the world is catching up to Philly in that sense.”
Reed and Parker acknowledge the great beer being produced in Philadelphia. The breweries are growing in number every year. Just earlier this year, Yards announced they were looking to expand. The industry is growing. However, more often than not, they said Philly’s bar scene is what puts it on the beer tourism map.
GQ, Forbes and Thrillist all have Philly on their lists for “best beer cities.” Philly was even featured Frommer’s list of the world’s best beer cities. That list also includes places like Munich, Vienna and Tokyo.
Most of the popular bars in the city tend to be under sole proprietorship or small ownership. This lends itself to a management that has a keen eye for detail said Reed and Parker. Thus the bars pay attention to the best beers and trends in the industry.
“From how the bar is decorated to the kind of staff they’re hiring, these owners are paying attention,” said Reed. “And then, obviously, they’re also paying attention to the kind of beers they're bringing in. People are really picking up on that. More and more today, people are seeking that out. They can get the chains at every major highway intersection in America. It's not just the same as going into a place that is run by real people.”
Parker adds that the Philadelphia beer drinker is also very knowledgeable. By providing the right beer list you instill passion and interest in other drinkers as well.
“I found myself using this example over the last couple weeks,” said Parker. “It’s kind of like our sports fans… you don't get what you get here in any other sports market. You don't' get what you get here in any other beer market. Our customers in Philadelphia are passionate and knowledgeable. You don't get that anywhere.”
Kennedy also credits Philly beer drinkers with being very loyal.
“Not to say that they aren’t trying new things, nobody would try to get into this market if they weren’t,” she said. “But I do think Philadelphia tends to be very loyal when they find something to drink. That’s something we try to get across to breweries when we go out and tell them why they should be a part of Philly Beer Week.”
Joey Pleich is the Field Marketing Manager for Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Ore. Deschutes operates what he called the “largest pop-up pub in the world”, during PBW. The Deschutes Brewery Street Pub is a free event held towards the end of the event. All proceeds are donated to a local charities.
Pleich said Deschutes has been involved with PBW for the last six years. Philadelphia was a target market as the brewery began expanding to the East Coast.
“It was very important for us to be a part of [PBW] because Philadelphia really paves the way for other communities and beer cultures around the country,” he said. “So we knew that if we wanted to expand east, we wanted to go to a place that really had a good feel for craft beer and that was Philadelphia.”
Pleich explained that the city is seen as a good foothold in the East by some breweries because of this. He also credits the city’s access to beer from around the world. The West Coast, he explained, tends to be hyper-localized. Whereas Philly has had access to beers from all over.
“You have all these great breweries,” he said. “You have greater access to imports from all over Europe. We're not the only West Coast brewery that likes to play in Philadelphia for that reason. So you see all these great beers from the Midwest and West Coast there. They, like Deschutes, they want to have a presence in Philly.”
Parker said he takes pride in the fact that Philly is the East Coast starting point for a lot of the big names in beer today.
“We kind of made Sierra Nevada [Brewing Company] famous on the East Coast,” he said. “You know Chimay [Brewery] became a thing here in America. There's a ton of isolated instances where a beer is only served in one part of California and Philadelphia. It's a badge of honor. We wear that pretty proudly.”
This led to a very diverse lineup of beers for the local breweries, said Reed. This crossroads of beer imports grew strong around the same time the local breweries started to grow and expand, creating an interest in brewing all kinds of beers.
“If you look at the West Coast you see that they got so strong on their pale ales, with their hop growing, it sort of overwhelmed the market,” he said. “They didn't have a spectrum of beers out there. Now it's changed a lot of course. But here, people just right away were curious not just about making pale ales. They also wanted to make pilsners, for example, because of the German heritage here. Also Belgian styles and stuff like sour beers were brewed. All that kind of thing was driven really early here. It was really baked into the DNA of the Philly beer scene.”
Looking ahead, Parker said the beer industry in Philadelphia needs to continue to grow. More breweries, more beer.
“I always hear people saying, ‘Another brewery opened up? It’s getting crowded!’ and no it isn’t,” he said. “There's room for at least three or four more ‘Yards-sized’ breweries in Philly. And if that happens, everyone involved has something to gain. It will be good for the city, good for business and commerce and good for the Philly beer drinker.”
Kennedy said she hopes to see more government support of the beer industry and beer tourism in Philadelphia.
“We bring in a lot of business for the city,” she said. “Thousands of drinkers and new businesses coming into the region. It would be nice to see them recognize how important the beer industry is for the city.”
As far as PBW goes, since next year will mark a decade since the event first got its start, Kennedy said to expect big things.
“We’re looking at ways to change our model and make it so Philly Beer Week isn’t just a week,” she said. “We want to celebrate beer all year long. So definitely keep an eye out for that.”