What makes a Philadelphia beer?

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IN A TOWN where craftsmen have been brewing for 300 years, we still don’t have a Beer we can call our own. That’s Beer with a capital B – a beer that we can say is truly Philadelphia Beer.

Oh, there’s Yards and Dock Street and Independence. And before them, Schmidt’s and Ortlieb’s and Esslinger. And before the Prohibition there was Weisbrod & Hess, Poth and Hohenadel. And in centuries before that, William Frampton and George Emlen and William Penn.

But in 2005, when this city is enjoying the greatest flow of beer in its history, there is no such thing as Philadelphia Beer.

A few months ago, a handful of area craft brewers tried to come up with one. They were preparing for the Brewers Association’s National Conference, meeting in town this week for the first time. Tradition calls for brewers in the host city to prepare a special symposium beer that is distributed to each of the more than 1,200 attendees.

Naturally, the brewers – proud that they’d persuaded their colleagues to visit their home – hoped to make a pint that evoked Philadelphia’s great beer-making tradition.

A certain anarchist among the bunch, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware, suggested simply dumping a bunch of Philly-made beers together and bottling it up. This, it should be noted, came from a guy who over the years has made beer with honey, grapes, chicory, raisins, pumpkins, apricots, peaches, ginger and saffron.

After the laughter subsided, the talk turned to lager. The first American-made version of the crisp, German-style beer was made here in 1840, by John Wagner, near Poplar and American streets, in Northern Liberties. Lager made Philadelphia the nation’s first brewing capital, before St. Louis and Milwaukee, employing thousands of workers and satisfying the thirst of millions. Even today, with the huge breweries of Kensington and Brewerytown long gone, Philadelphia is largely a lager town, thanks to Pottsville’s Yuengling.

The problem facing the younger generation of brewers was that they now mainly make ales. And an ale-influenced lager – say, a hoppy Marzen – seemed too weird.

So they reached back further, to colonial days, when America’s revolutionaries met here to form our nation. It was said that in 1774, a Philadelphia brewer named Robert Hare crafted America’s first porter, an English-style dark ale. The beer apparently was so flavorful, Gen. George Washington requested hundreds of barrels for his troops. For generations after, brewers around the world made a Philadelphia-style porter.

The only catch, remembers Tom Kehoe of Yards, was in whose brewhouse it would be made.

Kehoe’s brewery makes a colonial-style George Washington Tavern Porter, based on the president’s own recipe. Flying Fish makes a porter and so do Victory and Iron Hill; even Yuengling makes a lager-style porter.

That’s when the talk got back to Calagione’s whacked-out plan: Pour beers from every local brewery together to make a hybrid porter.

“At first, everyone looked at Sam like he was nuts,” Kehoe said. “But the more we talked, the more it made sense. “

The original London-made porter was, in fact, a blend of three beers: a strong pale ale, a fresh brown ale and an aged brown ale, mixed at the spigot. The popular ale was known as “three threads. ” (In 1732, English brewer Ralph Harwood created the same beer from scratch, calling it “entire porter. “)

Moreover, the brewers felt a blended beer might symbolize their own unity.

“The whole project became indicative of how unique we are,” Calagione said. “We’re small, individual companies competing in the marketplace, but we all get along. There’s a lot of mutual respect for each other.

“I think our diversity is shown even in this beer. “

But the brewers’ blend, I think, makes an even broader statement about Philadelphia Beer, and it took an outsider to make that connection for me.

Earlier this week, San Diego brewer Tomme Arthur stopped by Center City’s Nodding Head Brewery to cook up a batch of his Swami’s IPA, a thoroughly hoppy, West Coast-style ale. He and Eric Rose of Santa Barbara Brewing and Nodding Head’s Gordon Grubb spent the morning fussing with steaming kettles and chatting about their craft.

I asked Arthur what came to mind when he thought of Philadelphia Beer. “The lager-brewing culture, of course,” he replied.

But there was something else. The night before, some locals had taken him on a pub crawl through some old-time joints in Northern Liberties and Fishtown – Standard Tap, 700 Club, Johnny Brenda’s.

“We just don’t have 150-year-old buildings that have that kind of character in San Diego,” Arthur said. “There’s just so much texture and flavor. “

Just like a well-made, hand-crafted beer.

And it’s not just the physical buildings. It’s the people inside them, so much character.

“It’s a sense of community,” Arthur said. “Philadelphia has this pub-drinking culture. It’s comfortable, it’s casual. “

It’s not mass-produced, pre-packaged, chain-store vanilla. It is diverse. It has raw edges. It is real.

The beer, the pubs, the people . . . Maybe, in a town where craftsmen have been brewing for 300 years, there is still no such thing as just one Philadelphia Beer. At our best, we are a blend.

About the symposium beer: It’s called Seven Threads, but don’t look for it in stores. It’s not for sale. It was bottled specially for attendees of the Brewers Association conference.

But the recipe, if you care to re-create it, is simple. Equal parts of:

  1. Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale,
  2. Flying Fish Porter,
  3. Independence Brewpub Oatmeal Stout,
  4. Iron Hill Pig Iron Porter,
  5. Nodding Head Grog,
  6. Stoudt’s Fat Dog Stout,
  7. Victory Storm King Stout,
  8. Yards India Pale Ale.

If you’re counting, Seven Threads contains beer from eight breweries. Philadelphia brewers are craftsmen, not mathematicians.

Beer radar

Though the Brewers Association conference is not open to the public, beer-drinkers have plenty of opportunity to rub elbows with America’s best brewers. They’ll be hanging out this weekend at many of the haunts included in Joe Sixpack’s Philadelphia Beer Map on pages 68-69.

Also, look for them at Independence Brewpub (1150 Filbert St., Reading Terminal), where they’ll be sucking down pints from 10 p.m. till closing.

Today, McGillin’s Olde Ale House (1310 Drury St., Center City) will host a tasting and a meet-the-brewers party, 5-8 p.m. Brewers from Stoudt’s, Yards, Flying Fish, Troeg’s, Victory and Sly Fox will be on hand. No cover, 215-735-5562.

Later, Carol Stoudt, the first woman of Philadelphia brewing, will lift a glass or two at O’Neal’s (611 S. 3rd St., near South). Look for discounted pints and giveaways.

Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a bottle of 7 Threads.


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