Nutter at Frankford Hall

Good taste, good timing: How Philly became the best beer city in America

The people who helped turn Philadelphia into America’s beer capital have different memories of the dark ages.

Tom Peters, owner of Monk’s Cafe, remembers leaving nice restaurants without eating because they didn’t have any good beers. The server would always say the restaurant had everything on tap and, pushed by Peters to expound, would tick off the names Bud, Coors, Miller and perhaps Heineken as the definition of everything. For Standard Tap owner William Reed, the memories are in his Old City loft. He’d brew his own beer and throw parties for others who wanted something better. Nancy Rigberg of Home Sweet Homebrew remembers the “Coors mystique” of the 80s. It was brewed in the Rockies and that counted as exotic because little else did.  

No matter the precise memory, the beer found in Philadelphia in the 80s and 90s consisted of, as Peters says, “every light lager you could change the labels on and would all taste the same.” The city wasn’t unique. During this time, no place in the country boasted a beer scene that went much beyond the Big Three of Bud, Miller, Coors and an import or two.  

“It was a strange time,” says Home Sweet Homebrew’s other half, George Hummel, “when you couldn’t get good beer.”

America has come a long way since then. Craft breweries and imports account an ever-growing slice of the revenue pie as the Big Three scramble to regain their foothold. Amid this ongoing beer renaissance, Philadelphia stands out. GQ, Esquire, Frommer’s, the AP and Forbes have all placed it at the top or near the top of best beer cities in the country — and, in the case of Frommer’s, in the world. So have experts, like the late Michael Jackson (not that Michael Jackson. This Michael Jackson is basically the Michael Jackson of beer criticism).

They praise our city’s variety and knowledge of beer. Philadelphia gets the European imports and the American crafts other cities don’t and has plenty of local brews. Some 14 breweries call Philadelphia home, according to the Brewers Association (with several others in various stages of planning), another 35-plus dot the surrounding area and still more exist within a 100-mile radius. Pennsylvania brewed more barrels of craft beer last year than any state in the country, so it’s not like our state is just full of hobbyists. People are enjoying drinking Pennsylvania’s product, and Philadelphia is responsible for plenty of it.

Whereas other cities are currently hailing the entry of women into the craft beer market, Philly’s Rosemarie Certo jumped into the game in 1985, founding Dock Street Brewery. Philly Daily News Journalist Don Russell made a full-time job out of writing as Joe Sixpack and regularly pronounced Philadelphia to be the best. Peters traveled across the world searching for the greatest beers and then brought as many of them back to Philadelphia as he could. Distributor Ed Friedland made sure the up-and-coming local brews and out-of-state craft beers reached Philly taps.

The transformation feels spontaneous. Twenty-plus years ago Reed was forced to be a shut-in to enjoy a good brew, and now he, you and everyone else can go almost anywhere, even to an off-beat “Vietnamese restaurant and they’ll have a great beer list,” he says. But beer nirvana didn’t happen all at once. It happened because a few beer-loving outliers, people like Certo, Reed, Peters and many more, wanted something better for the city and a way to make a living from their passion. They helped flood Philadelphia in good beer, one pint at a time.

‘A close-knit’ brewing community

Certo’s aversion to the bland selections of the Philadelphia beer desert began in the mid-’80s when she and her husband, Jeffrey Ware, started drinking Bass Ale. Its flavor led them to ponder why every beer couldn’t taste so good.

Certo emigrated here from Sicily and a family that made a fortune working with their hands, growing olive trees and making wine. With those customs in her blood, the next obvious step was to make a better beer herself. She and Ware began home brewing and soon decided if they were going to the trouble of making it they might as well try selling it.

They invested $80,000 into a new business and made history. It was 1985. New Amsterdam and Sam Adams had been the first two modern East Coast craft breweries. Dock Street became the third, and the first in Philadelphia.   

You have great ideas and you’re too naive to have anything like logic or reality,” Certo says, “and we pioneered our way through.”

Logic probably would have stopped someone from doing what Certo and Ware did. The people interested in drinking a beer that wasn’t fizzy, watery and yellow — or even knew an alternative existed — were few and far between up to that point. They had probably sipped a Duvel at the Khyber or tasted a Sierra Nevada on a trip to the West Coast. When they realized Philadelphia offered few places to get their fix, many of them began congregating at a shop in Rittenhouse Square called Home Sweet Homebrew.  

It followed closely after Dock Street, opening in 1986. Hummel and Rigberg bought it in 1990. There, a community formed featuring some of Philadelphia’s most passionate brewers, with some of them deciding to turn it into an occupation. Early customers included Bill Covaleski and Ron Barchet, Tom Kehoe and Jon Bovit, Gene Mueller, and Sam Calagione. They went on to start Victory, Yards, Flying Fish and Dogfish Head, respectively.

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George Hummel and Nancy Rigberg bought Home Sweet Homebrew in 1990.

Mark Dent

“It was like everybody knew each other,” says Rigberg. “We were always bouncing ideas off each other and really encouraging collaboration and encouraging the exploration of different flavors and different tastes.”

Reed worked for a while in mid-90s at the Sam Adams brewpub, located above Sansom Street’s Oyster House. Along with Dock Street, they were the first of their kind in Philadelphia. He remembers Kehoe and Bovit stopping in during the planning stages for Yards for recon on how to properly clean kegs. Business and profits mattered, but never enough to weaken the culture of sharing among the beer lovers.

“Certainly it felt like a close-knit community,” Reed says. “If somebody was thinking about starting a brewery and hadn’t started it yet, you knew them. And if one opened up within like 200 miles you’d be like, ‘Let’s go. Let’s go see that place.’”

Peters took that mantra to an entirely different level. He’d regularly travel 2,000 miles or more to see breweries. In the last 20-plus years, he’s been to around 100 American breweries, several in countries like Germany, Canada and the Netherlands, and more than 50 breweries in Belgium.

A trip to Paris with his future wife, Barbara, in the early 90s led him to try the Belgian beer Kwak on tap. When he returned to America, he didn’t want to settle for drinking it out of the bottle. Peters, who at the time managed a Center City bar called Copa Too, spent a year making phone call after phone call trying to convince Kwak to sell him their product.

“In Belgium (they) believed we were Bud and Miller drinkers,” Peters says. “They didn’t get that we were on the edge of what we are now.”

Kwak finally relented. But rather than borrow the kegs and return them to the brewer as was the normal custom, Peters would have to pay $50 each for them. He dropped $800 out of his own pocket for 16 and offered Kwak at Copa Too. It was the first time in history America could taste Belgian beer on tap, and it happened right here in Philadelphia. Peters’ thirsty customers downed the 16 kegs in two weeks.  

“It was his thing and he made it other people’s thing out of his own enthusiasm,” Reed says, “and because it was good beer.”

Monks
Monk's Cafe

Monk’s opened in 1997. The Grey Lodge Pub opened the year before, introducing good beer selections to the Northeast. Yards, Dogfish Head, Victory and others brewers were growing around Philadelphia, and Dock Street continued to thrive. Philadelphians could enjoy these crafts and a rapidly-growing list of imports if they went to the right places.

But making good beer is one thing. Same with finding tasty imports. Making them readily available so people other than hardcore beer lovers can try them is another.

The gamble that made good beer mainstream

Beer funnels to the consumer via what’s called a three-tier system and it works like so: A brewer, be it as small as Tired Hands or as large as Budweiser, gets a license with the state then sells the product to an importer/distributor. The importer/distributor then sells the beer wholesale to bars, bottle shops and beer stores. In order to get their product to drinkers, independent brewers in the Philadelphia region and beyond needed to find a distributor, a middleman — someone who believed in them and would push their beer into Philadelphia bars and stores. Fortunately, they had Ed Friedland.  

“He was receptive to small, unusual breweries,” Hummel says.

Friedland’s grandfather, also named Ed, bought a distribution company shortly after Prohibition and named it the Edward I Friedland Company. Friedland’s parents, Martin and Edith, took over in the 1950s. They loved to travel. Martin Friedland had a habit of booking a new vacation as soon as he returned from one just so he would have something to look forward to.

I don’t know whether the traveling got them into beer,” Friedland says, “or the beer got them into traveling.”

Either way, they discovered exotic beers, and their distribution company was responsible for most of the few bright spots during the dark days. Philadelphia was likely the first city on the East Coast and possibly all of America to get Guinness and Bass Ale, and the Friedlands distributed it. They also introduced imports like Brazil’s Brahma and Belgium’s Chimay.   

But people often weren’t ready for something outside of the ordinary, and bars and stores were reluctant to pay more for the unknown. They tried to sell a cherry-flavored Belgian beer called Bellevue, for instance. It ran $23 for a 24-pack at wholesale in the 80s, compared to about $12 for Heineken.   

Still, when the opportunity to distribute the craft breweries starting up in the late 80s and early-to-mid 90s arose, Friedland took it. He was the first to distribute Yards, Victory, Dogfish Head, Brooklyn, Flying Fish and several others. His efforts didn’t stop at distribution, either. Friedland once helped Gene Mueller, founder of South Jersey’s Flying Fish brewery, get a loan for his business.

I wrote a letter to the bank saying that there would be a market for these kinds of beers, because it was so new,” Friedland says. “Now, craft beer is like money in the bank but back then they didn’t know that.”

Friedland’s position carried significant risk. In 1987, American craft beer represented 0.1 percent of America’s beer by volume. If people didn’t switch from their old standbys and try these new beers, his family’s distribution company would be on the hook for a bunch of contracts with craft brewers and no bars or stores willing to purchase from them.

By 1994, the share had increased to 1.3 percent and to nearly 3 percent by 1999 (it’s now about 11 percent). Friedland helped accelerated its growth in Philadelphia as much anyone in these early days.

“They didn’t understand it and they didn’t think it was going to survive,” Friedland says of many other distributors. “They really thought it was a bad gamble and didn’t want to put their money down. But we were always the specialty niche wholesaler. That’s the type of product I’m interested in and passionate about. It was easy for me to sell. It’s like anything else. Once you have good beer, you don’t go back.”

Reed provided an ultimate test case for whether local and craft could work. He opened Standard Tap on New Year’s Eve 1999 in a Northern Liberties that you couldn’t even describe as developing at the time. The bar featured 12 draft lines and two handpumps in a mini-fridge. As remains Standard Tap’s custom today, every beer came from within 200 miles or so of Philadelphia.

Bar owners like him did their best to transfer their love of beer to Philly’s general populace. Michael Jackson, the famous writer, helped set this exchange in motion by visiting Philadelphia for several years in a row for an annual event at the Penn Museum called The Book and the Cook starting in the mid-90s. His way of describing hops, the beer’s color, carbonation levels — anything — enlightened the bar owners and bartenders who passed the knowledge on to their customers.

“He’s the man who created the whole lexicon for everyone,” Peters says. “Without him we’d be floundering in the water in terms of how to describe a beer….It made Philadelphia the most beer savvy town in the country.”

Still a leader

Everyone drinks craft beer and top imports in every city these days. What separates Philadelphia now?

Part of it is the head start. Philadelphia got a leg up on the beer renaissance, and its reputation for savvy brewers, bar owners, bartenders and consumers has endured and multiplied at a rate faster than other cities. Other strengths can be attributed to  economics (cost-wise, it’s easier for a bar to spring up here than New York or San Francisco and to offer a decent-priced drink), a diversity of people that has led to a diversity of local beer types, the brewers’ close relationships and, ironically, even Pennsylvania’s draconian liquor and beer laws.  

With limited options for six packs and limited places to buy them — especially until recent years — it made sense for people to drink from taps, creating a thriving beer bar scene. Friedland also introduced local bars to the concept of rotating draft lines before most other cities were trying it. Kehoe says Pennsylvania consistently ranks among the top states for share of beer consumed on draft.   

“That kind of moved things along,” he says.

The same people who congregated at Home Sweet Homebrew in the 80s and 90s are still here today ensuring its spread. In 2008, Peters and fellow beer experts Russell and the late Bruce Nichols started Philly Beer Week, an annual festival that draws 50,000 people and has been replicated by dozens of other cities.

When Peters would leave all those restaurants in the 90s for lack of good beer, he usually tried to explain to the managers why they needed to diversify their beer lists. Soon, restaurateur extraordinaires George Perrier and Marc Vetri were coming to him, asking for advice on how to match some of the best food in Philadelphia with the best beers.

In Philly you can go to any dive bar and get a good beer,” Peters says, “and you can go to the best restaurants…and get good beer at every one. There’s no other city that offers that.”

And just in the case restaurants didn’t get the memo, Craig LaBan, the Inquirer’s nationally renowned food critic, routinely judges restaurants on their beer lists. Other cities don’t have influencers pushing for good beer.

“We definitely have a culture in this city that is a product of people who don’t want to let their friends down, let themselves down, and are staying in touch with the beer business,” Friedland says. “And thank God.”

Reed adds, “We also call each other out on any bullshit which is…a strong Philadelphia trait. If a beer isn’t good somebody is just going to tell you it’s not good. That’s great feedback for the breweries. I think that’s pretty cool.

People from outside Philadelphia don’t always understand, though. A friend of Hummel’s was in a hotel bar not long ago and met someone dissatisfied with the availability.

He meets a guy from out of town, in for a convention,” Hummel says. “(The guy) goes, ‘I don’t know what the big deal is about Philly being such a big beer town. I’ve been to six bars tonight and not one of them had Bud Light on draft. All they’ve got is stuff I’ve never heard of.’”

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