There it is, right on the cover of this year’s sprawling Philly Beer Week Guide, a phrase too boastful to ignore: AMERICA’S BEST BEER-DRINKING CITY. Like, whoa. That’s catchy. Certainly a clever bit of branded marketing. But we wondered—is it true or just hyperbole, a provocative but ultimately improvable slogan designed to grab attention? Is PBW Executive Director Don Russell really just Kanye West in disguise?
Well, we mulled it over, did some digging, and it turns out, yes, hands down, Philly is America’s Best Beer-Drinking City. (Did you really think we were going to go the other way with this?)
There’s ample evidence of Philly’s Beer Mecca status in the PBW guide proper, which you may begin to notice as you pore over the many listings of events like the dutiful and eager beer geek you are. There are a lot of new restaurant names in it. And we don’t just mean new participants of Philly Beer Week, though there are plenty of those, too. No, we mean actual new restaurants. They’ve opened their doors since last year’s PBW, and all have impressive craft-beer programs and multiple taps of stellar product.
We’re talkin’ nearly 20 new spots.
“That is impressive,” says Steve Wildy, beverage director for the Vetri Family of restaurants, after we run off the list of newbies to him. Marc Vetri’s Alla Spina is among those on the list (see sidebar). It opened at the end of February.
“Beer drinkers in Philly have an unbelievably high beer IQ,” says Wildy, who, by definition of job title, gets to see the Philly beer-scene landscape from a rarified perch and interact with it every day. “They have a very high level of understanding of the beer world—the varieties, the brewing process, all of it. I’ve always been impressed by that, but especially since Alla Spina opened.”
Alla Spina has 20 taps, five or six reserved for imported Italian beers selected by Wildy, a feat he says wasn’t possible just two short years ago. Because, as Philly’s beer IQ climbs ever upward, so too does the IQ of Philly’s beer distributors. They sell what the people want, and in Philly, they want a hell of a lot more than Bud Lite.
“There’s no place parallel to Philadelphia in terms of the variety of beers available,” says Brian O’Reilly, brewmaster at Phoenixville’s and Pottstown’s Sly Fox. “That includes all the different varieties our many breweries are producing—from lagers to hoppy ales to Belgian style ales—and the amazing array of imports available now. So we’ve got this amazing assortment of local and craft and imported and so many places to enjoy them.“
John Trogner of Tröegs agrees. “Not only can you get any beer from anywhere in the world in Philly,” he says, “but usually the best versions of them are brewed within three hours of Center City.” He oughta know: He’s traveled the country and world on beer excursions, and has yet to find a city that can carry Philly’s water (yeast, barley or hops). “It’s phenomenal,” he says.
Tröegs just underwent a massive expansion last October that saw them relocate from Harrisburg to Hershey. They’ve gone from brewing 28,000 barrels (one barrel equals 31 gallons, or 13.7 cases of beer) to a 50,000-barrel click a year. Weyerbacher, Sly Fox and Flying Fish have also all increased capacity and expanded recently, which speaks to the insatiable thirst of Philly’s beer drinkers, and for finely brewed craft beer in particular.
You can find Tröegs’ popular double bock Troegenator all over the city. It’s a beer so intense in flavor (with a healthy alcohol by volume to boot), Trogner didn’t think it’d sell. He only brewed it because, at the time, his other beers weren’t selling, either. During its first three years of operation, the beer from Tröegs’ tanks was tanking it. “If we’re going to go down, we may as well have fun,” he figured, when he threw caution to the wind and brewed the first batch of the stuff.
What he hadn’t anticipated, back in the late ’90s, was that Troegenator wasn’t too complex a beer for the drinkers here. He wasn’t, with Troegenator, going over people’s heads, but straight at their hearts. Philly likes a beer it can taste. Philly doesn’t mind a beer you can chew on. Philly will drink a beer so hoppy it gives you a dry mouth. Philly doesn’t want its beer to be water of a different color.
That’s not to say Philly’s beer culture is all about bolder, stranger, stronger. (Though O’Reilly fears it may be headed that way.) Wildy says drinkers at Alla Spina have taken very well to the more subtle, less intense flavors of the Italian drafts he imports. “People have been really excited about them. We sell quite a bit.”
The thing both have in common is quality. Philadelphians love interesting, sometimes outlandish brews from upstart brewers looking to burn down the established paradigm. They also like beers that are less Look-At-Me, like Wildy’s subtle Italians. And while one could argue that there are still plenty of Philly folk swilling lager made in giant batches, and that that somehow means all this talk of craft beer, of quality and smart drinkers, is absolutely not the whole picture, we will say this: You’re right, but you’re also making another point for the home team. We’re a beer-drinking city. The best one. We drink the stuff. We drink it all.
But the fact remains, more and more people are clamoring for the good stuff. They’re getting smarter. It’s why Philly Beer Week is now longer than a week. “Well-made craft beers are accepted as everyday beer here,” says Trogner. “It’s a matter of fact.”
There may be no better example of said fact than the gigantic Xfinity Live! sports complex, which opened this spring. The sprawling food and entertainment behemoth down by the stadiums was built for volume, and with sports fans in mind, and there are certainly places to find the stereotypical quantity-over-quality bro pouring unimaginative, big-box domestics down his fat mouth and neck. But you’ll also find Victory Beer Hall, from venerable local brewer Victory. (Victory does not own VBH, but instead has a licensing agreement with the complex.)
Victory Beer Hall has 22 unique taps, all of them from local craft brewers. You’ll find lots of Victory there, sure, but also Tröeg’s, Sly Fox, Weyerbacher, Dogfish Head, Dock Street and a dozen or so more.
So how are Philly’s sports fans taking to it?
“It’s doing fantastic,” says Victory’s communication director Karen Noonan. “Same could be said for any other restaurant selling good beer right now, it seems.” Noonan also notes that Citizens Bank Park has carried Victory for years, to enthusiastic Phillies fans happy to have the choice. (Especially now, we imagine, as it’s the only type of victory that can be savored at CBP since the Phillies decided to take off for the season. HEYOOO!)
Wherever you go in this town, there’s good stuff to drink. And Philly Beer Week is a brilliant excuse to veer off your familiar routes of life and try something new.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014