It's Always Sunny at Philadelphia Beer Week

Words & Photos - Claire M. Bullen

“Now, I normally tell you to tip your bartenders,” a voice boomed around the tent. “But today, I’m going to tell you to tip your water sweepers!”

The speaker, crowded in front of a drum set, observed by beer drinkers who continued to sway slightly despite the fact that the music had ceased, gestured towards the tent’s flapping edges. It was true – rainwater poured against its walls and was creeping in to form significant puddles in the pavement’s uneven ground. Lightning fizzed through the clouds outside. From one of the seams in the plastic roof a burst of water issued forth, drenching a few unlucky minglers like a divine smiting.

June in Philadelphia means a few things. Fierce sun that trades place with fiercer storms. Humidity thick and tropical smelling. And down in the city streets – the annual return of Philly Beer Week – the largest beer festival of its kind in the United States.

Despite the downpour edging in on the Extreme Homebrew Challenge, a highlight PBW event hosted by José Pistola’s in Center City, the atmosphere remained undampened. Sam Calagione, the event’s promised host, swanned through the crowd, smiling and pressing Dogfish Head t-shirts into outstretched hands, before disappearing, not to be seen again. Several dozen homebrewers, most of them of the bearded and male persuasion, stood paternally behind their jerry-rigged kegs. Clusters of drinkers moved down the lines with outstretched plastic cups, scoring sips of homebrews ranging from a ‘New England Clam Bake Cream Ale’ (delicious) to a Rye Fig IPA (not quite figgy enough) to an incredibly accurate rendition of Tröegs’s Nugget Nectar, rewarding their favourites with tickets dropped into hand-labelled boxes.

"This year Philly Beer Week spanned a full 10 days, consisted of over 1000 events and drew an estimated 150000 attendees."

A young brewer named Michael Soo was about to be named the event’s winner for the second year in a row, crowned with Bacchanalian hop vines and promised a trip to Dogfish Head’s Delaware HQ for a prize brewday. His four offerings at the event (an oak, coconut, vanilla and chocolate stout, a blueberry Lambic-inspired sour, a grapefruit, hibiscus and rosehip saison and a mojito Berliner weisse brewed with lime, spearmint, and rum-soaked oak) were indeed some of the best I tasted all evening, all of them elegant and balanced – an impressive feat for a not-as-yet-professional working out of his kitchen.

Later, I caught up with Michael to ask: What were the inspirations behind the beers, all of which struck me as distinctly culinary? He confirmed the food-centric approach. “Many of my beers feature fruits or flavours that I have a personal attachment to. The mojito Berliner was inspired by a patch of spearmint I found growing in my neighbourhood. I walked past it, picked a couple leaves, marvelled at the aroma and thought to myself, ‘what could I make that would feature this mint?’ The blueberry sour that I served included fruit that my wife and I picked last summer. So whenever I brew a beer, I have a clear goal and point of view in mind of what I would like this beer to taste like, what kind of feelings I would like it to invoke in me and the drinker, and what I would like to express with [it].”

Even after I left the event, seeking temporary shelter in a cab while en route to a barrel-aged beer tasting night at Old City’s new 2nd Story Brewing, the bright citrus of that Berliner Weisse stayed with me, as did my sodden socks.

In three short days I attended seven official Philly Beer Week events, enjoyed a singularly beery family dinner, and picked up more than a few bottles and cans for suitcase stowing. Even then, my addled adventures amounted to only a fraction of what was on offer – PBW is nothing if not colossal.

A few quick facts: Philly Beer Week has been around since 2008, when it was founded by famed local beer writer Don Russell, A.K.A. Joe Sixpack (he’s since moved on from the festival). Despite the name this year it spanned a full 10 days, consisted of over 1000 events and drew an estimated 150000 attendees. Each year it kicks off with the traditional Opening Tap, during which a keg of Brotherly Suds ale is tapped with ‘the Hammer of Glory.’ A Benjamin Franklin impersonator often gets involved (this is Philadelphia, after all). Beyond that, there are the expected meet-the-brewers, tastings and talks, walking tours, pairing dinners, tap takeovers, street parties and more.

But what makes Philly Beer Week special, aside from its scope? I like the way Michael puts it. “Before PBW, Philadelphia was already the best beer drinking city in America, but how successful the event has become is a tribute to Philadelphians' passion for beer.” He continued, “What PBW does is bring in people that might not normally drink beer. Moreover, many breweries try to time arrivals into the Philly market around PBW in order to make a splash.”

It also means that brewers from around the world, even those who rarely make their way to the US, come to congregate in America’s first capital. Like Jef Janssens of Brouwerij Hof ten Dormaal, a relatively new brewery that hails from Tildonk, Belgium.

Janssens was drawn to PBW for a few reasons, the general bacchanalia notwithstanding. One was to brew with a rising star on the Pennsylvania scene, Free Will Brewing (though Janssens had previously collaborated with a small Philly team on what was supposed to be the flagship PBW brew in Belgium, the beer sadly didn’t survive its transatlantic passage). Another was to co-host a four course lunch with PBW co-founder Tom Peters at Monk’s Cafe, a legendary Belgian bar in a city that’s long had an abiding infatuation with all things Flemish.

“Before Philly Beer Week, Philadelphia was already the best beer drinking city in America, but how successful the event has become is a tribute to Philadelphians' passion for beer.” - Michael Soo

Tall, smelling deeply of smoke, boisterous but shy before the crowd (he scolded us for clapping at the end his speech), Janssens nevertheless has a charismatic presence. As we nibbled on pre-meal crackers and swirled welcome glasses of Hof ten Dormaal Blonde, he discussed the brewery’s founding, just five years ago. We learned how he quickly graduated to become a professional brewer without any prior homebrewing experience, how the brewery harvests its own wild yeasts (simply jars of beer open to the air), how its vertical operations include malting their own barley, growing their own hops, and feeding spent grain to their farm animals.

He also couldn’t avoid discussing the catastrophic fire that nearly destroyed his brewery this past January. Hof ten Dormaal’s chimney caught alight early in the morning on 6th January, causing terrible damage to the facilities (the lunch at Monk’s also served as a fundraiser towards the brewery repairs, with half of all proceeds going directly to Hof ten Dormaal’s rebuilding efforts). Despite this setback his talk took on a tone of measured defiance. Though the roof, inner walls, bottling line, and most of the stock were destroyed, “Luckily, the fermentation tanks weren’t touched, and now we’re still brewing, more than ever, actually!” While they’re getting by, a roof is still urgently needed, and they’ve borrowed kit from the likes of Dutch brewery De Molen to keep things chugging along in the meantime.

As Janssens’s speech concluded, the beer-inspired feast commenced. For starters, whorls of goat cheese splattered with a Kriek-laced cherry conserva . Pork terrine, not normally my favourite, was superb – it helped that it was dressed in Flemish sour-pickled wild garlic and a whole-seed beer mustard that crackled between the teeth. Then we enjoyed a spring salad coated with beer-based dressing, which hid small clusters of snow-white, pickled beech mushrooms, bright with their heady acid. All crowned by the final course, confit chicken thigh, morels, and a mound of toasted barley, topped with a fried egg.

The four-course meal didn’t just include beer as a culinary ingredient but, naturally, paired each plate with a companion brew as well. All told, we tasted five of Hof ten Dormaal’s brews, ranging from a dark ale aged in grappa barrels to the Kriek which Janssens described as “the best beer I’ve ever made.” But my favourite was the Zure van Tildonk, a barrel aged sour made with wild yeast that poured golden and had a rich, grainy flavour. I detected nuttiness, even notes of corn, above which the lemony character sung.

Food and beer are better together – or, at least, sometimes. The 2015 edition of Philly Beer Week seemed to put an even greater emphasis on beer’s place at the dinner table than in previous years (for all that Philadelphia is a beer lover’s town, it’s also host to a stellar restaurant scene). There were meals like my lunch at Monk’s, which demonstrated, deliciously, what it looks like when food and beer are approached with similar levels of obsession, sure-handedness, and savvy.

However, not all of my PBW experiences showed equal pairing affinity. Two days after the Extreme Homebrew Challenge, a small group of us returned to José Pistola’s for a midday Lost Abbey tap takeover.

Our lunch comprised shareable Mexican-esque plates – the regular menu, in other words. Think guacamole draped with rubied spicy tuna, chicken tinga tacos dripping their neon orange juice, short ribs shredded after hours of braising. We stuffed ourselves. The beers, needless to say, were exceptional. The bretty Avant Gourde, a pumpkin beer I’ve long wanted to try, the heady, tequila barrel aged Agave Maria, the unapologetically big-boned Anniversary IPA. But together? Far from a perfect match. The sticky viscosity of the Anniversary clanged against the chilli heat, while the bold flavours of most dishes overwhelmed the subtle tartness of the Avant Gourde. Each camp may have excelled on its own, but who wants to impose a lunchtime quarantine?

Of course, it isn’t fair to expect every venue to craft a new pairing menu for each event – particularly when the venue in question is host to several events per day throughout the festival. When a bar or restaurant does have the resources to more fully explore food and beer pairings, however, the result isn’t just a more well-rounded meal – it goes a long way towards staking craft beer’s claim to the table as a qualified, characterful, and natural dining partner.

The very best food and beer experience that I enjoyed at Philly Beer Week wasn’t technically part of Philly Beer Week. Or, for that matter, in Philadelphia.

Ardmore, one of the Main Line suburbs that fan out to the west of Philadelphia, is your prototypical well-to-do town, leafy and crawling with college kids. It seems like an unlikely place – too developed, too expensive, too, let’s face it, uncool – for a boundary-pushing brewery like Tired Hands to sprout up. Despite this, Tired Hands has done more than just sprout – these days, it’s colonising.

Founded by local brewer Jean Broillet IV, Tired Hands opened its narrow, two-storey brewpub here in 2011. It didn’t take long to attract three-deep hordes at the bar, and two-hour waits for one of the few, coveted tables. If this brewery has an ethos, it’s one of tireless (despite the name) exploration. Few beers are brewed twice, hop and grain bills are playfully toyed with, and flavours can be original, verging on the pleasingly bizarre. Batches remain small, oak barrels get a workout and yet underlying the freewheeling exploration is a considered and careful dedication to quality. Its food programme has always been a part of that mission, even when limited by the brewpub’s capabilities to a simple menu of house-made pickles, locally sourced charcuterie, and a small selection of grilled cheese sandwiches.

This time, though, we skipped the original brewpub location in favour of the Tired Hands Fermentaria. The space, only open since April and just a few minutes’ walk from its sibling, positively gleams. Its expanded real estate has made way for a new brewing facility capable of turning out 10,000 barrels a year. Seated within view of the stout rows of tanks and barrels, diners (close to 200 of them, when at maximum capacity) can choose from 10 taps of whatever’s freshest.

"The very best food and beer experience that I enjoyed at Philly Beer Week wasn’t technically part of Philly Beer Week. Or, for that matter, in Philadelphia."

Alongside the expanded beer offerings comes an expanded menu. In lieu of charcuterie and toasties there are tacos, small plates, and larger sharing platters that skirt from the Japanese-inspired (hamachi crudo with chilli and scallion) to the Korean (spiced spare ribs with pickled vegetables) to the Middle Eastern (a hummus platter with flatbread and various veggies). The hamachi snapped with spice and citrus, cauliflower tacos were perfumed lightly with curry and topped with fistfuls of cashews. We savoured a plate of cheese laced grits draped in brilliant green shishito peppers and red wheels of chilli, and fought over the infamously good fried chicken – each bite leaking juice, blanketed in a crust as thick as a pound coin, crunchy as a fresh carrot, marvellous.


Despite the complexity of the globetrotting flavours, this was food that paired intuitively with what was on tap – it helped that much of what we drank was hop-forward, strong enough to hold its own but subtle enough to serve as a fine complement. The flagship ‘SaisonHands’, brewed with four grains and peppered with Cascade hops, was an excellent all-rounder. Shambolic, a spelt saison dry-hopped with Nelson Sauvin and Simcoe zinged with tropical citrus. However my favourite by far was the Virgins and Diamonds Mosaic IPA. Though its accompanying tasting notes included musky melon, I detected jalapeño and something else deeply savoury – soy, perhaps, and sesame, plus the spice of whole coriander seeds. It was so moreish and captivating, creamy golden in hue and rich in body, that I ordered it twice and still couldn’t place every note. I would have ordered it twice more but for the real estate occupied by fried chicken – we practically waddled back to the parking lot, clutching our bellies, wildly content.

Of course, not every Philly Beer Week story pertains to food. During our last day in the city, my brother and I ping-ponged around Center City, slowly displacing the water in our systems with beer. Sweating futilely in the humidity, we sought refuge at The Foodery on Pine Street – one of the first places in the city where you could score beer by the bottle or the six-pack (Pennsylvania has some of the most conservative alcohol laws in the US. The fact that it maintains a state-run monopoly and that the majority of beer sales can still only be made through official Pennsylvania distributors can make things tricky for local beer drinkers.) The rules are at last becoming more relaxed (and The Foodery now has three locations in the city), but visiting the original still feels like a homecoming.

We arrived in time for a tasting of California-based North Coast Brewing Company’s beers. On offer was the Puck petite saison, their PranQster Belgian golden ale, Brother Thelonious Belgian strong ale, and the always-delicious Old Rasputin Russian imperial stout. None of the four were new to me and though they may not be ideal summer beers at first blush, they were still refreshing. Soon we were distracted by the ample fridges and the packed shelves. In short order, we drained a can of Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin in the aisles before grabbing up armfuls of souvenirs; Free Will Peach Lambic, Sixpoint Jammer and the incredible Anderson Valley Gose.

"During our last day in the city, my brother and I ping-ponged around Center City, slowly displacing the water in our systems with beer."

Then it was a stumble over to the Firestone Walker Sour Happy Hour, held at the Good Dog Bar. The venue is warmly divey in the way that only Philly bars can be, dark and full of Center City suits seeking liquid cures for the day’s indignities. We wedged ourselves onto a few stools and proceeded. Beers ranged from Brett Weisse to Brett Rosé to Brett Reginald, the latter being my favourite, all malt sweetness and barrel-rich. It was my first time sampling the fruits of Firestone Walker’s barrelworks program and momentarily I longed to trade Philadelphia’s hectic streets for a slice of Buellton, California. Not for too long, though.

Philly Beer Week is many things to me. It’s a sudden re-immersion into a craft beer scene that has reached its full flowering, where even the diviest bars have craft taps as fixtures, a place where hundreds of thousands of people are really, genuinely interested in what’s in their glasses. It’s a glimpse into craft beer’s future and a chance to drink alongside those working to shape what comes next, hailing from both near and far. It’s a study in uncomplicated, unapologetic indulgence. It’s also an all-too-brief homecoming to a city I love.

Perhaps it’s also a roadmap for what awaits London’s beer lovers. Already August’s London Beer City is drawing comparisons with Stateside events like Philly Beer Week. While PBW remains an ineffably local staple, if it can provide a rough template for a new generation of brewing capitals looking to celebrate their own craft culture then its impact truly stretches beyond the City of Brotherly Love. And that would be a beautiful thing – as long as it doesn’t prevent you from ever visiting the original.