It's one of Philadelphia's biggest festivals. Last year, it went on for a week. This year, its popularity led to a ten-day run. It draws 15,000 people and now boasts more than 500 separate events. Participants come from all over the U.S. and Europe, and a dozen or so major works will make their premier at the festival. But the most astounding thing about this homegrown festival is that, in its intensely competitive world, this Philly festival has become the largest of its kind in the world in only its second annual appearance.
What's it all about? Opera? Chamber music? Italian cooking?
No, it's beer. Yup, Philly Beer Week has taken what many culture-vultures think of as the ultimate downscale product and elevated it to the status of a major cultural good.
Philly Beer Week is evidence of what much of the world already knows: Beer is complex, delightful and an interesting companion to good food. So many people have discovered this lately that they've developed into a community of beer-lovers devoted to and knowledgeable about good beer.
Exciting beer, mediocre wine
Beer may have a bad reputation in some places, and it may have even earned that reputation once upon a time. But the increasing homogenization of the wine market and the rise in prices of the handful of interesting wines left around has opened up an opportunity. These days, you can taste some of the most exciting beers in the world for the price of a glass of mediocre wine.
Of course, Philly Beer Week didn't accomplish this all by itself. Hundreds of brewers and hundreds of thousands of consumers have quietly supported the development of a whole new world of delicious, particular, local products.
In case you haven't been paying attention, the upswing in beer's status has been gathering steam slowly for the last 30 years or so with a tremendous acceleration in the last decade. Much of the action has occurred in and around Philadelphia. We have some of the most innovative breweries in the country. More important, we have a dozen or so world-class restaurants whose cuisine is based on good, or even great, beer.
Your choice of mob scenes
How do you get in on the fun? It's easy. Just go to the Beer Week website and pick an event. Some of them are gigantic tastings where mobs of people move among dozens of tables offering samples of different beer.
One of the most appealing is Zythos America, on March 15, a celebration of Belgian brewing to be held at Penn's Anthropology Museum. Purchase your ticket in advance for $45. There will be 75 specialty brews on tap and a buffet. (VIP tickets let you in an hour earlier and include a tutored tasting session with Chris Bauweraerts of Brasserie d'Achouffe.) There's also an Olympian Opening Tap ceremony at the Comcast Center on the 6th.
You can navigate through the host of possibilities at www.phillybeerweek.org. Want to learn more about beer? Check out "The Short Course in Beer."