PHILADELPHIA — Never mind the cheesesteak. Where's the beer?
It's a question that should be asked more often in a city whose neighborhood pubs and award-winning brews have been sorely overlooked as a point of pride and historical significance, according to beer aficionados.
In fact, Philadelphia is the best beer-drinking city in America, argues Don Russell, also known as beer columnist Joe Sixpack. And he's out to prove it as one of the organizers of Philly Beer Week, a 10-day, 150-event extravaganza designed to highlight the city's centuries-old tradition of brewing — and tippling.
"Our Founding Fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence and Constitution in the taverns of Philadelphia," Russell said.
It kicked off March 7, when Mayor Michael Nutter tapped the festival's first keg, now followed by beer tastings and dinners, brewery tours, pub crawls, seminars, meet-the-brewer events and trivia contests, including the "Philly Beer Geek" competition.
It's a chance to see every aspect of the region's beer community, said William Reed, co-owner of two bars and a former brewer. He also sees it as an opportunity to champion the brands he proudly pours at the Standard Tap and Johnny Brenda's, which serve only local brews.
"Sometimes Philadelphia sort of has a low self-esteem problem. We wanted to kind of put our foot down and say, 'be excited about the local stuff,'" Reed said. "These guys locally are doing great, great beers."
Philadelphia's beer history dates back at least to 1680, when city founder William Penn began work on his brewery. The first American lager is said to have been brewed here in 1840. And U.S. Marine lore holds that the corps was conceived at long-gone Tun Tavern in the Old City neighborhood in 1775.
By 1870, there were 69 breweries in Philadelphia, according to Russell, and eventually an entire neighborhood called Brewerytown. But Prohibition shuttered many facilities, and the last city brewery, Schmidt's, closed in 1987.
It wasn't long before the microbrew trend caught on and the region began returning to its roots. Today, there are at least 20 breweries in the Philadelphia area, including Yards, Flying Fish, Stoudts, Sly Fox and Victory. Yuengling, the oldest brewery in America (1829), continues to operate about 75 miles away in Pottsville.
Besides the number of breweries, Reed said what's notable is the variety of beers being made, such as double bock, Belgian-style and world-class Pilsners. The Great American Beer Festival has honored numerous regional breweries, including Iron Hill and Dogfish Head.
But Philly Beer Week, which follows the city's Craft Beer Festival, is also out to celebrate taverns where the suds are served. Some, like Nodding Head, are gastropubs with higher-end food and beer brewed on site; others offer a historical atmosphere, like McGillin's, the oldest continuously operating tavern in Philadelphia (1860). The city's Belgian bars, including Monk's Cafe, were the first in America to regularly serve Belgian ale on tap, said Russell.
"We used to just write them off as corner bars," he said. "They're really something special."
The beer industry employs 16,000 workers in Philadelphia, producing about $422 million in wages and $122 million in taxes, according to the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. The agency now hopes brewing can boost tourism as well, since it appeals to history and beer buffs.
"The tavern scene shows off neighborhoods, it shows off local creativity," said spokeswoman Cara Schneider. "(It) is such a great way to visit the city."
Ironically, Russell, 52, grew up outside Philadelphia in a Baptist household that forbade alcohol. As he explained over a California Dreamin' double IPA at the Manayunk Brewing Co., he discovered beer in college.
Russell worked at the Philadelphia Daily News in various roles for 18 years, starting the beer column in 1996. He made a splash two years later with a report that sports fans at Veterans Stadium were being shortchanged about two ounces of beer every time they bought a cup.
Though he left the paper in 2005, Russell continues his beer column and has collected his brew knowledge in a new book, Joe Sixpack's Philly Beer Guide: A Reporter's Notes on the Best Beer-Drinking City in America.
No offense to Milwaukee, St. Louis and the Denver area — home to Miller, Anheuser-Busch and Coors, respectively — but the quality and tradition of Philadelphia brewing is unequaled elsewhere in the U.S., said Russell.
"We were a major beer city when Milwaukee was a cow pasture," he said. "It's not about behemoth brewing. It's about small, artisan brewing — craftsmanship."