Its not even 8:40 a.m. and Im already sipping my first beer of the day. Normally, this would be early even by booze writers standards but Im about to kick off Philadelphias annual Beer Week festivities.
It must be true, because 10 of us are way out here in the Fox Chase neighborhood, getting ready to board the Sugar House Casino double-decker bus to follow the path of a comically oversized hammerthe Hammer O Glory, lovingly known as the HOG. The oversized tool is the centerpiece of Philly Beer Weeks opening event, the so-called HOG Relay.
You dont want to rush something like that, so we have 17 stops planned between the Brauhaus and the ceremonial Opening Tap, which is at The Fillmore, a concert hall in the Northern Liberties neighborhood. Drinking a beer at each stop is optional, and the HOG, like the Olympic torch, is handed over as each volunteer carrier completes a leg of the frothy sojourn. The modes of transport will be increasingly bizarre as the day progresses.
The Hammer is bestowed upon its first guardian of the day and the carrier recites, as they will at each changing of guard: Noble carrier, we entrust you with The Hammer of Glory, the omnipotent symbol of our beloved Philadelphia Beer Week. May your journey be safe. Work ye up a thirst, for there shall be a beer waiting for you at your destination. Godspeed!
The first HOG carrier mounts an open-topped Jeepa basic means of transport, but its five miles to the next stopand were off. The weather is perfect, clear and sunny, about 75 degrees, and everyones having fun already.
As we get going a small bit of history seems appropriate. Philly Beer Week started 10 years ago when another Philly institution, The Book and The Cook festival, collapsed. Thered always been a strong beer component of the event, including an annual mass beer tasting by legendary writer Michael Jackson at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and the beer geeks didnt want to lose that. Out of the ashes Philly Beer Week was born.
The first year saw about 500 events (dinners, tastings, contests, festivals, and crazy stuff like beer dunk tanks and brewer sumo wrestling) across the city and suburbs. After swelling to more than 1,000 events for a few years, this year there are a more sensible 700, including the HOG Relay. The beer week conceit spread quickly, and there are more than 100 beer weeks around the world now… but Philly was, amazingly, the first one.
10:20 a.m., The Grey Lodge Pub, in Mayfair: The publican here, Michael Scoats Scotese, was one of two bar owners who dreamed up the idea of the Hammer (well meet the other one at the end of the Relay). Why did Philly Beer Week need a Hammer? We didnt want it to get super serious, like a wine event, Scoats admits. It needed something stupid. We wanted something like the Olympic torch, and the mallet we were using to tap the opening firkin [a small keg] was kind of lame. Philly metal artisan Warren Holzman forged the Hammer O Glory, and stupidity was ensured.
The HOG is carried to the next stop by The Running of The Santas, at least eight people in a variety of Santa costumes. We board the bus again.
We miss one stopthe Philadelphia Brewing Company, where the HOG is transferred to a pedal-powered truck chassis tricked out as an AT-AT Walker from Star Warswhen the bus gets stuck under the elevated rail line on Frankford Avenue. Too high under the El, calls one spectator on the sidewalk, just like everyone else! We respond with laughter and cheers of Philly Beer Week, baby!
11:30 a.m., Evil Genius Brewing, in Fishtown: Christian Gunsenhouser, one of the storm troopers who pedaled the HOG here, is gulping down a beer to re-hydrate. Its always a big spectacle for Philly Beer Week, a huge gathering, he says. You just come out and have fun. Evil Genius is busy, and theres a long line of people queuing up for their fresh beers.
One of them is State Senator Chuck McIlhinney, who recently steered a bill to the governors desk that helped update Pennsylvanias backward booze laws. But today hes just having a beer and some fun on the HOG Relay. Philly Beer Week is still going strong after ten years and is emulated across the country, he proudly says. Its a testimony to Pennsylvania beer culture.
Back on the bus, and we follow two guys in green bodysuits who run the HOG to St. Benjamin Brewing. There it is handed off to a classic Mustang convertible escorted by motorcycles for the cross-town trip to London Grill, where owner Terry Berch McNally is waiting… dressed as Marie Antoinette, along with Chris McCollum, who is dressed as what he calls Mantoinette. As everyones having a good time on the sidewalk, a woman walks by with flowers from the florist a few doors down: Happy Beer Week! she calls out as she threads the crowd. Marie and Mantoinette mount a Vespa Scooter and take off down Fairmount Avenue. We follow on foot.
Two stops later, were up in a 12th floor office in Center City (as we call Downtown in Philly), the home of the Billy Penn local news service. Theyve got cold cans of 2SP Brewing Delco Lager and ASAP IPA for us, and we watch Fergus Carey, owner of Fergies Pub and who dressed up as a mime today, hand off the HOG to Billy Penns culture editor, Danya Henninger. Naturally, Carey just shows Henninger the proclamation, and accepts his beer with a silent shrug. Shes in MC Hammer pants, a beautiful visual pun. We grab to-go beers and get on the elevator… eight of us get on the elevator… and it stops between the 4th and 5th floors.
We stay calm, drink our beers, and joke about cannibalism. One of Senator McIlhinneys friends plugs a hand-sized speaker into his phone. Ive got Tom Petty, Free Falling, he says, and we all laugh. Well, most of us laugh. When the firemen get the door open an hour later, were grinning and listening to the Whos Who Are You?
But we missed four stops! Luckily, were able to walk to the Hammers next destination. We arrive just in time to watch the HOG pass local Greek tavern Opa, where its greeted with the traditional smashing of plates. It then turns down Phillys shortest street, Drury Street, and comes to a halt at Tiki. The HOG is used with great accuracy and verve to smash three watermelons on plaster columns. Well done.
We pick up the pace, as we push to get on schedule. The HOG is transported in quick succession by more motorcycles, a skateboard, and a bunch of bicyclists in star-spangled shorts. Then the Fishtown Beer Runners, more than 20 of them, carry the Hammer to Standard Tap, where co-owner William Reed is waiting. Hes the Hammers other father. He jumpstarts things a bit by Hammering a tap into a firkin of unfiltered lager, brewed at Sly Fox Brewing from a 100-year-old recipe by the 91-year-old Bill Moeller. He was the last brewmaster at the Schmidts brewery, which stood just a few blocks away. The beer is absolutely delicious.
Whats next for the HOG? I cant believe we havent blown it up yet, Reed mused. Weve busted plenty of shit with it.
And with that, the Philly Roller Derby girls skate off with the oversized tool, headed downhill to Yards Brewing. At this point, things turn into a real street parade. The brewers at Yards have built drum kits out of buckets and steel barrels. There are also vuvuzelas and a trumpet and bells. Were escorted by this ad hoc marching band half a mile to Frankford Hall, then a block and a half to Garage and then back across Girard Avenue to Reeds other bar, Johnny Brendas. Hes waiting for us in a space suit and is standing next to a golf cart tricked out as a lunar rover. Lights flash, the charge is recited one last time and the cart moves out. To mark the occasion, Reed is firing frosty blasts of carbon dioxide from the cryogun hes rigged up.
We chase after Reed to The Fillmore and the Hammer O Glory is finally delivered to Tom Peters, who runs Phillys world-renowned beer bar Monks Cafe, and George Hummel, owner of Home Sweet Homebrew, where many of the areas brewers first learned to make beer.
The HOG is used to tap the opening keg and its frothy contents are dispersed to thirsty fans who have gathered around it… and with that pint the day is finally complete.