On a rainy and windy Philadelphia evening, a Belgian strong ale was just the beer I was looking for. Potent and brooding at just over 10 percent alcohol, I was glad to have scored a taste of the Yards Grand Cru aged in a Dad’s Hat Rye Whiskey barrel before the only cask ever made emptied out.
I was also glad that the weather on that evening last June had seemingly gotten lost in the mail, swapped out for a delivery more suited to March. Because the amber liquid filling my snifter — like so many of the rare offerings enthusiasts salivate over during Philly Beer Week — was not an early summer beer.
I thought back to the early incarnations of the event, which, when it started in March 2008, was the first of its kind in the U.S. Now more than 100 cities, regions and states host their own week-long celebrations of craft beer (a “week” here usually being defined as 10 days).
But it turns out I’m not alone with my nostalgia for escaping the March winds, stepping into a bar, and warming up with a barleywine or an imperial stout I’d never seen before and might not ever again.
“You’re right, [June] is not the best time to have one of those beers,” Yards founder and CEO Tom Kehoe told me. “It’s tough.”
Kehoe, who sits on the PBW board, talked me through the genesis of the event. Until his death in 2007, English craft beer evangelist and writer Michael Jackson would make an annual visit to Philadelphia each March. After he died, key figures in the city’s beer community decided to do something to celebrate his legacy. It didn’t hurt that March was a sleepy time for the hospitality industry.
“It was a great time of the year to do it because January and February tend to be very down months for beer sales, or just restaurants in general,” Kehoe said. “It kind of kicked off the big selling season, which is the second quarter.”
But after two years, March didn’t make sense anymore. Philadelphia Brewing Co. president Bill Barton, who has never participated in Philly Beer Week, said he thought one major problem was that the event overlapped with the massive Zythos Bierfestival in Belgium, which drew leaders like Monk’s Cafe proprietor Tom Peters and also prevented Belgian brewers from attending.
Others who are involved with Philly Beer Week cite factors like the prospect of snow and the conflict with St. Patrick’s Day, which has owned the middle of March since long before Philly Beer Week.
So the event was moved to June. And kept there. No matter what arguments were made for or against, “people just hated the idea of moving the date again,” said William Reed, PBW board president.
Another timing question emerged this year, with Philly playing host to the national Craft Beer Conference. The annual gathering attracted over 13,000 industry professionals to the city at the beginning of May, and per Kehoe, the PBW board had taken a vote to potentially move Philly Beer Week to take advantage of the influx. The vote came back unanimous in favor of keeping it in June.
At a kickoff event for the CBC, Reed, who co-owns Johnny Brenda’s and Standard Tap, described the differences between the industry-focused CBC and the city’s annual beer carnival. “Philadelphia Beer Week is more of a hometown thing,” he said. “It’s more centered on the drinker.”
But downstairs at Johnny Brenda’s, while the visiting press was assembling on the second floor for the event, I ran into Joe Beddia at the bar. Before he opened the celebrated Pizzeria Beddia just down Girard Avenue., before he even started working in restaurants, Beddia worked as a brewer. I told him about my complaints with the week’s timing.
“I guess the problem with March is that it could snow,” he said. But Beddia also kept his two-man operation running through last January’s massive blizzard. “Really, people are going to go out anyway.” (Yup — if I lived in Fishtown, I would have loved one of his pizzas with a barleywine in the storm.)
“And who wants to drink wood-aged stout in June?” he added.
Some business owners are skeptical about the event for reasons beyond my concerns about not being able to drink the right beer at the right time of year.
Fishtown’s Interstate Draft House may be cozy, but with 16 taps it’s a go-to stop on that neighborhood’s craft beer circuit. Co-owner Brandon Bitros told me the bar has participated in Philly Beer Week in the past, but isn’t doing it this year.
“I’m running a little experiment to see if the numbers are any different,” he said. “You spend a lot of money to sign up, a lot of money to promote, and a lot of money to buy product for these big events. I want to compare the return to last year to see if it’s worth it.”
He and PBC’s Barton both flagged the worry that sometimes the “rare” beers purchased for Philly Beer Week don’t actually move, tying up a draft line or room in the walk-in for much of the summer.
“There’s a motto in the beer distributors handbook: ‘I bought it, someone else has to buy it,’” Barton said.
Truth: In 2016 Philadelphia, there’s no shortage of seasonally appropriate craft beer to get excited about during any week of the year — in almost every neighborhood.
“We don’t want to make a big deal about it,” said Kurt Wunder, co-owner of The 700 Club in Northern Liberties, which is almost 20 years old and has never participated. “We try to keep things consistent. We always want to have good beer that you can drink here.”