The anticipation leading up to Philly Beer Week is palpable. It’s not just the newspaper articles with features on each new beer, each wheat beer, each foreign beer. Nor is it the ads on the R5 train that takes me from my neighborhood to Suburban Station. It could be the new brews being sampled at the local bars or it could be the buzz online. Whatever it is, the excitement creates a measurable change throughout the city. It starts with Opening Tap on Friday night, but things really get going at the Great Beer Expo on Saturday.
We arrived at the Navy Yard Fairgrounds as crew members were still setting up tables. The 11:00am Chat and Chew media event was a meet and greet of sorts with food and drink samples involved, so naturally, the press (including myself and my mother) had our fill of cheesesteaks on pretzel rolls, beer infused ice cream and some kind of delightful dumpling taco before making excellent use of our tasting glasses. What I enjoyed about this portion of the day was making new friends before anything got too hectic.
Brittany Thomas, for example, is the first beer “slanger” I’ve ever encountered.
“I meant it as a joke!” she says of her title. “Then they gave me three-thousand business cards with ‘beer slanger’ printed on them.” However it was intended, the title does suit her. She’s worked for Fordham & Dominion for the past four years and seems to genuinely enjoy her job.
This seemed to be an ongoing trend. Not a single person who was with a brewery (or meadery or cidery, for that matter) treated it like work. Whether it was their first year or their fifth, everyone (everyone) was thrilled to pour a glass and chat with me.
At the beginning, it was all very laid-back, and for a moment, I was confused. Wasn’t this supposed to be crazy popular? Hadn’t all of my research suggested massive crowds? About two hours later, my confusion was gone. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people queueing up to get somewhere, and that includes Black Friday.
In its seventh year, Philadelphia’s Great Beer Expo drew over seventy-five breweries and over two-hundred different beers. Tack on the dozens of additional vendors including food trucks, beer truffles, flavored peanuts, pretzel necklaces, cigars and even a kilt stand (yep), there is no wonder crowds of beer lovers and beer newbies alike are interested. It was difficult to know where to begin. However Mom and I managed it, we grabbed coasters and business cards from every single table and I was able to speak with roughly half of the exhibitors before general admission was allowed into the fairgrounds. After that, good luck moving two feet at a time, much less grabbing another tasting glass full of pilsner.
As we made our way through the tents and around the pop-up stands, we got a much fuller sense of Philly Beer Week’s culture that my previous research had not quite been able to convey. The Committee to Benefit the Children had it’s own booth with raffles, fundraising information and some very cheery folks happy to clink a glass with passersby. Quarto Publishing also had a table of authors who were happy to sign their books for me, give me a few pointers about fermentation and inform me that March is “Beer Book Month” (I never would have guessed that one).
The usual suspects like Magic Hat, Woodchuck and Samuel Adams were out in full force while lesser known joints like Hobsons, Haymaker and Prism brought their best. Some hoped to gain attention for old favorites, while many were in the process of testing new concoctions on a wider audience.
While my personal favorites included the almost too sweet Sir Charles’ Honey Hop and Victory’s perfectly refreshing Kirsch Gose, not a single brew reminded me of any of the others. For an event that so widely covered the range of beer available, this year’s Great Beer Expo certainly did its job in terms of sheer size and variety. I hope very much to check it out again in 2016, though perhaps better prepared to carry things more souvenirs home with me next time.