Play Philly June 28, 2006
Be a Patriot, Drink Beer
By Lauren Kurz Staff Writer
"Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." —Ben Franklin
In America, beer is older than freedom from tyranny.
Thomas Jefferson made his own beer. George Washington was known to brew a batch or so. And good ole wild child Ben Franklin…well, he may have been too busy flying kites to whip up his own suds, but he likely had some recipes for his favorite ale.
If the founding fathers were beer enthusiasts, it’s no surprise that the tradition of beer and brewing has endured in Greater Philadelphia, and that the raising of a pint (or can or bottle) has become linked to the Fourth as fireworks and hotdogs.
The colonials knew what beer they liked and modern day Philadelphians do too. “(They’re) generally educated about the beer, they know what they like and know where to find it,” Matt Guyer of The Beer Yard in Wayne, said.
“It’s always been a big part of the city. Back when, Philadelphia was the largest seaport in the colonies, so they were shipping beer throughout the colonies and throughout the world really,” Philadelphia and Pennsylvania beer historian Rich Wagner says.
Philly was also the site of the first porter (a dark beer) and was also the coming out party for the first lager beer in 1840.
While the colonials may not have had a cold one (room temp beer wasn’t too odd back then, similar to some European countries today) they were definitely keeping their paws locked around a brew, and for reasons that went beyond beer as social lubricant.
People argue over their favorite beer, but for the colonists, it was a political stance.
“Washington was another one, who, especially when they were starting to disagree with the crown over taxes and stuff, he was quoted as saying he drinks only porter made in the colonies,” Wagner says.
Once upon a time, in the early days of Philadelphia (and America), you could get away with the argument that beer was something of a necessity. The colonists may not have been savvy about bacteria, but they knew there was something special happening when you added some hops and heat to water.
“When the first colonists got here, back then, beer was a staple. It was part of a diet, it was food, basically,” explains Wagner. “They had bad experiences with water over in Europe. They knew when they drank beer, they didn’t get sick.” Wagner even describes the beer as “nutritious.”
Colonials also liked beer behavior better than how people reacted to hard liquor. (Something else that has carried over to 2006.)
“To celebrate the ratification of the Constitution (July Fourth, 1788)…they substituted beer and cider for ardent spirits (i.e. serious booze) and the powers that be, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson; and these guys were noted as saying that they were impressed with the civility of the affair,” Wagner says.
Philadelphia, as the largest colonial port, was the place where a lot of the beer was shipped from Europe. But, it didn’t take long for distinctly American brewing to begin, and again, Philadelphia was in the thick of the trend.
The City Tavern was one of the places where a lot of discussion went
down, including some of the more well-known colonial figures that
would have been in Philadelphia.
“The City Tavern is not the original building, but it was rebuilt to be the way it was and this is where these guys were eating and drinking and talking politics,” Wagner says. The City Tavern was also very near to the first brewery in Philadelphia, which began operation in 1680.
So how would colonial beer taste? Was it the same thing that we guzzle today?
Wagner says that the ancient craft of brewing, which has been around almost as long as farming (like medieval and beyond.) The process is similar but that equipment and methods have changed the practice - and the taste of the beer.
“We make beer a lot better…the beer probably tastes better to our palate now because of the science and tech improvements,” Wagner says.
Various organizations hold historic beer tours and pub crawls (one such is the Tippler’s Tour, gophila.com or 215-629-4026) that feature colonial drinking spots, but the most fitting tribute are local craft brewers who commemorate the founding fathers by keeping up the tradition of brewing distinct beers for one and all to imbibe.
“Yards is making their Presidential Ales of the Revolution. One is patterned after what George Washington made,” Wagner says.
Yards and other local beer companies are carrying on the rich tradition of brewing in Philadelphia and are a part of the growing craft beer movement. A couple of the craft (not mass produced and almost artisanal) breweries in Philly are Yards Brewing Company and Manayunk Brewing Company.
The specialization of beers has led to some serious consideration of the hops and barley concoctions in the area.
“There’s even one beer writer who says, ‘listen to your beer,’” Wagner says. “You can smell it, you can taste it, its food. That’s the other thing that’s a little bit different than a lot of alcoholic beverages. The craft brew movement (takes beer) a couple steps closer to the consumer. See the guy actually making the beer. It’s not just something that’s being shipped from thousands of miles away in a package.”
Guyer says that while Philly has a great brewing tradition, the suburbs and other outer lying regions are not to be forgotten for their contribution to the quest for delicious (and nutritious?) locally brewed beer.
“We sell a lot of Victory, out of Downingtown, Yards, out of Philadelphia, Weyerbacher, out of Easton.,” Guyer says. “I could go on and list a lot.”
So why are beer and Philadelphia locked in a big sloppy hug?
“It kind of cuts across socio-economic boundaries because anybody can afford a good beer,” Guyer says.
“For one thing, there’s just so many different kinds of beer. Another thing, it stimulates conversation and conviviality without sending you off the deep end,” Wagner says. “You can have several beers and enjoy company with other people more so than if you were drinking ardent spirits, shall we say.”
And, what’s Wagner, the beer expert’s favorite beer?
“The one that I have in my hand,” he says with a laugh.
Support Craft Brewing in Philly It's Your Patriotic DUTY!
"They're the places the beer aficionado seeks out," Rich Wagner says of beer bars. "They cater to the people." These are the places that will have a heady mix of many types of beer and lots on tap. They're not for the ultra-casual Keystone Light drinker. Here's Some Beer Bars Rich Wagner recommends:
Old City: Sugar Moms The Khyber, Eulogy.
Northern Liberties: Standard Tap, Johnny Brendas.
Center City area: Fergie's Pub, McGillan's Ale House, Monk's Café.
South Philly: Grace Tavern
Fairmount: London Grill, Bridgid's, The Bishop's Collar