Philadelphia – despite occasional pretensions toward certain corked bottles of purple juice – is and always has been a beer town.
From America’s first ales made 300 years ago along the Delaware to the birth of the Industrial Revolution in Brewerytown to the craft brew renaissance citywide, the truth was always obvious.
But it was an out-of-towner – an Englishman, no less – who showed us, even in our darkest time, there never should’ve been doubt.
His name is Michael Jackson and, for the 1,000th time, I don’t mean the oddball pop singer. This Jackson is the British newspaperman, known as the Beer Hunter, who – thanks to his books, TV appearances and lectures – is indisputably the world’s best-known authority on our favorite adult beverage.
He’ll be in town next week for the 21st annual KitchenAid the Book & the Cook festival, Philadelphia’s tribute to the world’s notable food authors and the city’s fine restaurants.
It was Jackson’s first appearance at the festival 15 years ago that firmly demonstrated our town’s devotion to beer.
It was “a scrotum-freezing day,” Jackson recalled in an interview from his office in London. Though his annual tutored tasting is now held in the halls of the spectacular University of Pennsylvania Museum, Jackson’s lecture that year was under a tent outside on the lawn. Helicopters landed noisily on the nearby hospital’s rooftop. The sound system was on the blink.
Though good beer in Philadelphia was stretching its legs at the time (Stoudt’s in Adamstown and Dock Street and Samuel Adams in Center City had all recently opened), this was still a Coors Light town.
Worse, the Book & the Cook was thoroughly focused on (gasp!) wine.
Yet more than 1,000 people packed the tents and strained to hear the bearded Brit digress through four separate presentations on beer, simply beer.
Jackson’s welcoming that year was stunning proof that suds had grown beyond the corner bar. Even in the face of high cuisine, beer could more than hold its own.
Every year since, Jackson noted, “the biggest audience by far at the Book & the Cook has been for my beer tastings. I do sort of feel that’s not altogether recognized [by the festival organizers], as if they’re embarrassed by a beer guy . . . Maybe they think it should be a sommelier from France or a chef from wherever. “
There may be some truth to that, though the festival gives more than a passing nod to beer these days: at least four beer-related dinners and events appear on the upcoming Book & the Cook agenda.
This year, Jackson’s tasting will focus on gold medal beers – award winners at the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Championships. It’s a sign of Philadelphia’s increasing thirst for quality beer that he had no problem finding a healthy variety of local award-winners to match against out-of-towners. Among them: Triumph Keller from New Hope, Iron Hill Russian Imperial Stout from Newark, Del., and Nodding Head Grog from Center City.
“The original proposal for the tasting was to include some gold-medal beers from Europe,” Jackson said. “But I didn’t feel the winners from European contests stood up to the Americans. The European competitions are so boring. The brewers are very conservative. They tend to look for beers that are, quote-unquote, well-balanced. They give awards to very neutral, boring beers . . .
“Frankly, it’s hard to get Americans to believe that the most interesting selection of beers right now is in the United States. “
As U.S. breweries improved over these 15 years, Jackson observed, so have drinkers’ tastes.
“There’s been a development of a real – well, I hate to use the word – beer geek,” Jackson said. “They want more and more authentic, more and more extreme, more and more hoppy beers. There’s ever more connoisseurship, ever more zealotry . . .
“And they very quickly have started to reject things that they thought were good just a few years ago. “
Samuel Adams Boston Lager, for example. “It was like a boon when it came along 20 years ago,” Jackson said. “But people are reluctant to accept it today because of the circumstances in which it’s made and the way it’s marketed. It’s the sort of example of a beer that people, after a while, just dismiss. “
I wondered if Jackson had changed, too.
Fifteen years ago, he was still largely a writer. Today, the way beer freaks flock at his feet, he seems more of a guru.
Does Michael Jackson still regard himself, I asked, as a Beer Hunter?
“I wouldn’t want to be too literal about that,” he said, explaining the name was an accident, the result of a moment’s inspiration while filming his original Beer Hunter documentary series for TV. “I’m still always on the lookout for new beers. So, yes I still am a beer hunter. But whether I’m a guru, it’s for other people to say, isn’t it?
“I keep a sense of proportion – what’s the saying, ‘Don’t believe your own publicity?'” he continued. “It’s very gratifying that it’s that level of interest. “
But he reminds me his career started in newspapers, writing in London for the Independent and the Observer. And he’s still pumping out books. (His newest, “Whiskey” from DK Publishing, hits the stores in May. )
“I’m a newspaperman at heart.” declared Jackson, who turns 63 this year.
“People say to me, ‘When are you going to retire? ‘ I wouldn’t want to retire. I can’t give up my bad old habits of sitting at a keyboard and writing on deadline.”
On March 11, the University of Pennsylvania Museum will host Jackson at a beer-matched three-course in the Museum’s Lower Egyptian gallery. 6:30 p.m., $85, 215-898-4890. On March 12, the museum presents “Golden Treasures: A Tasting with Michael Jackson” with three seatings, at 1, 3:30 and 6 p.m. $45, 215-898-3900.
Speaking of beer scribes, the city will host another literary luminary later this month. Conrad Seidl, the Bier Papst (Beer Pope) of Vienna will be featured guest at a pair of events, at Victory Brewing (March 20) and Moriarty’s in Center City (March 22). The lederhosen-wearin’ Seidl will talk about his favorite lager-style beers. Look for more details in my next column; meanwhile, reservations for the Moriarty’s dinner can be made at 215-627-7676 . . .
Iron Hill marked the first anniversary at its North Wales spot on Wednesday. If you asked nicely, brewer Larry Horwitz would serve you his “small” beer, a unique, low-alcohol ale made from the final “runnings” of his Russian imperial stout (it’s like getting a second batch of joe from used coffee grounds) . . .
The Grey Lodge (6235 Frankford Ave., Mayfair) usually waits till Friday the 13th for its quirky real ale splash, but bar owner Mike (Scoats) Scotese notes that today’s strange date (3/4/05) is worthy of a bit of beer craziness. Thus, he’ll lug four pins (4 1/2-gallon kegs) of Yards Brewing’s ESA, Philadelphia Pale Ale Love Stout and IPA onto the bar tonight about 7, open the spigots and let gravity do its work . . .
New on local shelves: Southampton Publick House Biere de Garde, Appalachian Volks Weizenbock and Westmalle Trappist Tripel in 750ml bottles.
Tomorrow: Seventh annual Main Line Brewfest at the Desmond Hotel (One Liberty Blvd., Malvern). Twenty breweries show off their best ales and lagers during tutored tastings, seminars, cooking demonstrations and foam-slurping. Beer pours noon to 3:45 p.m., 610-296-9800.
Tomorrow: Beer & the bench, a beer tasting/fund-raiser for Linda Carpenter, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court candidate and wife of Yards Brewing boss Tom Kehoe. Sample beers from seven area microbreweries at Fairmount’s Ukrainian Club (23rd and Brown streets). Taps open 4-7 p.m., $40 (checks, credit only), 215-681-3179.
March 11-12: Belgian beer tasting at the Farmhouse Barn (1449 Chestnut St., Emmaus, Pa.). Chef Michael Adams pairs a five-course dinner with Flemish favorites, hosted by John Hansell of Malt Advocate magazine. 7 p.m., $70, 610-967-6225.
March 12: Open house at Heavyweight Brewing (1701 Valley Road, Ocean Township, N.J.). Get the freshest taste of the brewery’s two farmhouse styles: Biere d’Art and it’s one-time-only Pfarmhouse Saison. No cover, but bring canned food/dry goods donations for a local food bank. Drink up 1-4 p.m., 732-493-5009.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a pint of Iron Hill double bock.