Belgian Trappists are renowned for their dense, complex ales. Berlin is justifiably famous for its bracing Berliner Weisse. But with all the attention that our own city’s brewing and drinking culture has received in recent years, the answer to one essential question is still open to debate: Does Philadelphia have a definitive style of beer?
It’s not an unimportant question. After all, fermented products around the world have helped shape the image, reputation and very definition of the places where they’re produced and consumed most passionately. You can’t separate the lush richness of bourbon from its home in Kentucky; the peaty, iodine zip of Islay Scotch from its far-flung home; the funky, often floral expressivity of pinot noir when grown and produced in Burgundy.
When it comes to beer, then, what defines us?
“The thing that really stands out for me is the availability of Belgian beer styles,” says Dean Browne, the Yeast Life-Coach at Philadelphia Brewing Co. (He deals with recipe formulation and testing of new brews there and, yes, possesses the best job title in the world, aside from maybe the guy who’s business card says NATO Supreme Allied Commander.)
“That’s very unique,” he says, “but I wouldn’t necessarily identify Philly just on those terms if you’re talking about what is Philadelphia’s beer. Because there are other aspects to it. And as much as [so many people here, especially during Beer Week] like to identify with more extreme styles and exotic beers, the truth is Philadelphia is more of a blue-collar kind of a town, and things that are down to earth really kind of speak to what I think is Philadelphia culture. Things like session beers are where I really think it’s at for Philadelphia’s sort of style.”
And within that category, says Andy Farrell, general manager of City Tap House, pilsner is king. “The great thing about a pilsner is you don’t have to have this ‘amazing palate’ to be able to pick out the simple, clean flavors of a good pilsner and appreciate it,” he tells me. “It’s good with food, it’s good with everything you need to have a good beer with. You can have one at the ball game, you can have one sitting with a four-course dinner at your house.”
In general, Glen O’Neill, manager of the Foodery, sees that playing out at the retail level, too. Extreme beers get the most attention, he says, but when people “want to just, say, watch a Phillies game and have some beers during the game, they know to ask for a session beer. And there are [beers] out there that fill that category now that are good, that are interesting and that are not Budweiser.”
Philly Beer Week Director and Joe Sixpack columnist Don Russell, however, sees a problem with many of these session-style beers: Pricing.
“The fact is the beer consumer is very aware of what he’s getting when he buys beer,” Russell says. “And there’s definitely some push back from the consumer, I think, about drinking lower alcohol, so-called sessionable beers if they’re not priced right. People will spend money on occasion for a high-priced beer, but it’s price that really drives it in the end.”
Our local beer culture has shown a remarkable ability to accept and integrate a wide range of styles and brewing traditions at all price points. Russell, for example, sees Philadelphia’s modern local style of beer (as opposed to the porter we were once famous for) as being defined by its paradoxical lack of definable style. “As you look at beer styles today, certain areas in America have become known for [specific] beers,” Russell says. “Mostly, though, there’s really no one style, and as a matter of fact, in Philly, we really have a thing going with the whole diversity of beer styles here. I mean, I know this for a fact because I travel a lot, and there’s no city in America that has the diversity of styles that we have here. So when you say, ‘What’s Philly beer? What kind of beer is it?’ my reply almost always is, ‘Well, we don’t have one single beer, we have them all.’”
That range of styles, and the unique access that Philadelphia’s beer-lovers have to them, also means that serious beer fans are being born here all the time, and often in unexpected ways.
“We have customers that used to go for malt liquor, and they’ve upgraded to things like Belgian golden ales,” O’Neill says. “People that used to walk around with 40s now like drinking something good.”
Even home brewers are trying their hand at the range of styles our city is known for, though according to George Hummel, co-owner of Home Sweet Homebrew and author of the recently published The Complete Homebrew Beer Book , richer styles are leading the way.
“More exotic beers definitely are the trend these days. Belgian beers are popular, and what we’ve sort of dubbed extreme styles are more popular, beers with unusual ingredients or extra-strength or ridiculous amounts of hops,” he says. “I think that’s what’s driving the market right now—the wilder stuff, stuff like the beers from Dogfish Head.”
There’s an intimate connection, in fact, between homebrewers and the major craft breweries of our region: Many of the latter began as the former. Hummel remembers when Monk’s owner Tom Peters and the guys from Victory would come in to buy homebrew kits back in the day. “The whole area just sort of grew out of a lot of homebrewers that just sort of outgrew their kitchens and back yards,” he says.
That sense of discovery, of excitement in the face of all the options that the beer world presents us with in such abundance, is just as powerful today as it was back when this whole revolution began.
“You know, when I go out to a restaurant for a beer,” Russell says, “I know that they’re going to have something that fits my mood. If I’m not in the mood for hops, I know they’re going to have something that’s malty. If I don’t want an American beer, I know they’re going to have a Belgian beer on tap. I mean, it’s just amazing that there are so many different flavors out there that you can find in Philly.
“And that’s one of the things that we’ve really pushed with Beer Week—that we have this really diverse scene. And it’s not just in the beer, obviously. It’s a diversity of the bars themselves: We have corner pubs and high-end restaurants, and the brewers are all making different things. And it’s something that the rest of the country just does not have.”
With all due respect to the Mummers, cheese steaks and those Rocky imitators running up the Art Museum steps, the city has been in dire need of a fun, new tradition for a while now, and the annual relay featuring the Hammer of Glory—better known as the HOG—that kicks off Philly Beer Week festivities has become just that in three short years.