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Philly Beer Week is the perfect time to hoist a pint

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By Robert DiGiacomo
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 28, 2010

When I came of (legal) drinking age in the late 1980s in Philadelphia, I thought I knew something about good beer. Back then, I preferred the made-in-Pennsylvania Rolling Rock and Yuengling to the seemingly more generic Budweiser or Coors.

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More than a few six-packs later, I realize that I didn't know my tripels from my stouts and that none of those basic lagers really stood out.

That was a bad time for anyone who cared about well-crafted, nuanced beers. At the nadir, only 80 breweries, most owned by a few large manufacturers, produced all the domestic beer in the United States. Such consolidation ran counter to this country's deep brewing history, in which the first English and German settlers brought their beer-making traditions with them and produced distinctive styles in small batches.

The situation was so dire in the late '80s that Philadelphia, a city that before Prohibition could boast of a brewery in almost every neighborhood, was producing no beer at all.

If this sudsy tale makes you want to comfort yourself with a cold one, you're in luck: Philly Beer Week, a celebration with hundreds of tastings, dinners and special events, is coming right up.

It begins with the Opening Tap kickoff party June 4 at the Independence Visitors Center and includes such events as a biking tour of city breweries, a visit by "express bus" to 10 beer bars, appearances by dozens of brewers and multiple beer-themed dinners.

But even if you can't make it for the festivities, any week can be beer week here. That's because Philly has gone from being a no-brew town to one with arguably the biggest beer celebration -- and selection -- in the United States.

From that corporate-driven low point of two decades ago sprang a national craft beer movement that has led to the opening of hundreds of smaller breweries and brew pubs. Today, more than 1,500 breweries operate nationwide, including about 30 in the Philadelphia area.

The city's beer list includes such well-regarded local brands as Philadelphia Brewing, Yards and Victory, as well as hundreds of respected independents from all parts of the country and the world. Belgian beers are especially well represented, leading some to dub the city "Brussels on the Schuylkill."

"I like to say Philly will drink everything," says Don Russell, executive director of Philly Beer Week and a longtime beer writer who runs the Web site JoeSixpack.net. "We have wonderful local breweries, and pretty much every brewery in America is either here, or wishes they were here."

I can recommend a beer bar to suit anyone's taste. Monk's Cafe (264 S. 16th St.), in the heart of Center City, was one of the first gastropubs and offers a comprehensive list of Belgian as well as local and American beers. Within a few blocks are Good Dog Bar and Restaurant (224 S. 15th St.), another beer-focused gastropub; McGlinchey's Bar and Grill (259 S. 15th St.), a dive bar perfect for a shot and a beer; Tria (1137 Spruce St.), a wine bar with a sizable beer list, and Nodding Head (1516 Sansom St.), one of five brew pubs in the city.

Another good destination is the newly gentrified Northern Liberties neighborhood, site of the city's last major brewery, Schmidt's, which shuttered in the late '80s. It's anchored by Standard Tap (901 N. Second St.), which serves only local beers on tap and is known for its daily chalkboard menu emphasizing fresh local ingredients. Northern Liberties also includes the Swift Half Pub (1001 N. Second St.), a newcomer in the retail-residential Piazza complex built on the site of Schmidt's, and two warm-weather favorites: N. 3rd (801 N. Third St.), for its large sidewalk cafe, and Silk City Diner Bar & Lounge (435 Spring Garden St.), for its seasonal outdoor beer garden.

A few blocks beyond this neighborhood is Johnny Brenda's (1201 Frankford Ave.), a Standard Tap sibling that places a similar local emphasis on beer and food and also features live music.

Still thirsty? Near the University of Pennsylvania campus is City Tap House (3925 Walnut St.), a newcomer that has five dozen beers on tap and provides tasting notes and alcohol content for each.

In my Italian Market neighborhood, my "local," the Royal Tavern (937 E. Passyunk Ave.), is known for its well-curated beer list and its juicy burgers and fresh-cut fries. Meanwhile, Brauhaus Schmitz (718 South St.) seeks to replicate the German experience, from the dirndl-clad waitresses to decent versions of Wiener schnitzel and spaetzle and, of course, an authentic selection of German and German-style brews.

To Russell, the Philly week and similar events now taking place in more than two dozen cities are not just about raising a pint glass. They also celebrate the sense of community that can develop when people grab a beer together.

"My feeling has always been, the true nature of a city can be found in its bars," he says. "This is a tribute to the many great cities of beer."

DiGiacomo is based in Philadelphia and is the co-founder of The City Traveler.

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