It’s shaping up to be an extra-beery spring in Philly this year.
During the first week of May, upwards of 10,000 brewing industry pros representing more than 500 breweries from all over the country will descend upon the Pa. Convention Center for the Craft Brewers Conference. Run by the national Brewers Association, the annual trade gathering lands in a different city each year — last year it was in Portland, the year before in Denver.
The last time CBC was held in Philadelphia was 2005. In the world of beer, things were quite a bit different back then.
Across the U.S., there were fewer than 1,500 breweries (now there are more than 4,200). In Philadelphia, the beer bar scene was just starting to explode — the list of beer-focused bars was impressive, but instead of an uncountable number, it was relatively easy to run down. And while the city had already made a name for itself among drinkers with its unprecedented selection of Belgian beer, there were just a handful of local breweries, as opposed to the dozens serving the region today.
Philly Beer Week was but a tiny gleam in the back of local brew experts’ minds. It was winter 2007 when Tom Peters (Monk’s Cafe), Don Russell (Joe Sixpack) and the late Bruce Nichols (Museum Catering Co.) formalized their idea for 10 days of coordinated craft-beer-focused events, tastings, dinners and talks.
When the first Philly Beer Week went down in March of 2008, it was the first festival of its kind in the country, and it was a success. Within a couple of years, the annual event had become so popular that it was moved to June, when the weather was more welcoming to the hordes of brewers and beer-drinkers descending on the city from around the U.S. It’s been held in early June ever since.
Which means that this year, Philly will host two big beer confabs within a month of each other. Will the brewers who show up for the first — something that’s nearly mandatory for anyone moving and shaking in the industry — make the effort to come back for the second?
And that’s not just the wistful boosterism of a local beer writer who wants as many breweries as possible to experience America’s best beer-drinking city to its fullest (yes, the superlative phrase is a trademarked tagline for Philly Beer Week, but it’s also true).
Some of the most respected veterans in the industry feel the same way.
“Of course breweries should come to both the Craft Brewers Conference and Philly Beer Week,” says Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head and general craft beer rockstar. “At CBC, you’ll learn about your own business. At Philly Beer Week, you’ll learn about Philadelphia consumers.”
Why should out-of-town breweries care about Philly consumers? “Philadelphia drinkers are tastemakers!” he says. “Why is it that Philly is the only [East Coast] city to get California beers like Russian River and Port Brewing?”
Tomme Arthur, brewmaster and co-founder of Port Brewing and Lost Abbey, is even more blunt.
“The two events reach totally different audiences, which is why I’m coming back for both. Any brewery that thinks they’re going to reach consumers at CBC is crazy,” he says.
Both those brewers have been coming to Philly Beer Week since the beginning, but even newcomers to the market are gung-ho enough on the Philadelphia scene to swing back twice within 30 days (CBC is May 3-6; PBW is June 3-12).
Chris Matthiessen, national sales manager for San Francisco’s Almanac Brewing, has never before attended a Philly Beer Week. But he’s extremely excited for his first one.
“I’ve heard really great things,” he says. “Specifically, that Philly Beer Week is the only one that rivals SF Beer Week. A lot of the beer weeks I’ve attended,” he continues, noting that his job pretty much requires him to flit from beer week to beer week, “just don’t generate as much enthusiasm or draw as many beer-loving tourists.”
In addition to the reputation of the festival itself, it’s Philadelphia’s beer-friendly community that’s a big draw. So far, Philly has been the most responsive of Almanac’s 15 non-California markets, he says. “We wouldn’t be coming back if we didn’t really love this region, how supportive drinkers have been of our beers. If CBC was somewhere else, I’d probably only go to one or the other, not both.”
Philly Beer Week executive director Kristine Kennedy recognizes the importance of brewers attending the Craft Brewers Conference, and is planning to organize a free transportation loop for CBC. But she doubles down on the importance of connecting with drinkers directly during PBW.
“This is a business built on relationships,” she says. “If you’ve met a brewer and heard them talk about the heart and soul they put into their beers, you’re going to have a special connection with that brewery. This is especially important as the market gets more competitive. Philly drinkers are loyal, so forming that relationship with them makes a difference.”
As it turns out, although there’s been a lot of chatter about whether or not folks will travel to the area twice in such quick succession, the events’ proximity doesn’t seem to be having a detrimental effect.
“I actually haven’t seen a drop off in registration from out-of-town breweries,” Kennedy says, “which speaks to the esteem they hold for Philadelphia as an important beer-drinking market.”