The Ultimate Beer Run

It’s not even 8:40 a.m. and I’m already sipping my first beer of the day. Normally, this would be early even by booze writers’ standards but I’m about to kick off Philadelphia’s annual Beer Week festivities. 

We’re at the Hop Angel Brauhaus and Barry “Chez” Chezik is buying everyone their first beer of the day. “Because beer is a way of life,” he philosophizes.

It must be true, because 10 of us are way out here in the Fox Chase neighborhood, getting ready to board the Sugar House Casino double-decker bus to follow the path of a comically oversized hammer—the “Hammer O’ Glory,” lovingly known as “the HOG.” The oversized tool is the centerpiece of Philly Beer Week’s opening event, the so-called HOG Relay.

You don’t want to rush something like that, so we have 17 stops planned between the Brauhaus and the ceremonial Opening Tap, which is at The Fillmore, a concert hall in the Northern Liberties neighborhood. Drinking a beer at each stop is optional, and the HOG, like the Olympic torch, is handed over as each volunteer carrier completes a leg of the frothy sojourn. The modes of transport will be increasingly bizarre as the day progresses.

Courtesy of Stephen Lyford

The Hammer is bestowed upon its first guardian of the day and the carrier recites, as they will at each changing of guard: “Noble carrier, we entrust you with The Hammer of Glory, the omnipotent symbol of our beloved Philadelphia Beer Week. May your journey be safe. Work ye up a thirst, for there shall be a beer waiting for you at your destination. Godspeed!”

The first HOG carrier mounts an open-topped Jeep—a basic means of transport, but it’s five miles to the next stop—and we’re off. The weather is perfect, clear and sunny, about 75 degrees, and everyone’s having fun already.

As we get going a small bit of history seems appropriate. Philly Beer Week started 10 years ago when another Philly institution, The Book and The Cook festival, collapsed. There’d always been a strong beer component of the event, including an annual mass beer tasting by legendary writer Michael Jackson at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and the beer geeks didn’t want to lose that. Out of the ashes Philly Beer Week was born.

The first year saw about 500 events (dinners, tastings, contests, festivals, and crazy stuff like beer dunk tanks and brewer “sumo” wrestling) across the city and suburbs. After swelling to more than 1,000 events for a few years, this year there are a more sensible 700, including the HOG Relay. The beer week conceit spread quickly, and there are more than 100 beer weeks around the world now… but Philly was, amazingly, the first one.

10:20 a.m., The Grey Lodge Pub, in Mayfair: The publican here, Michael “Scoats” Scotese, was one of two bar owners who dreamed up the idea of the Hammer (we’ll meet the other one at the end of the Relay). Why did Philly Beer Week need a Hammer? “We didn’t want it to get super serious, like a wine event,” Scoats admits. “It needed something stupid. We wanted something like the Olympic torch, and the mallet we were using to tap the opening firkin [a small keg] was kind of lame.” Philly metal artisan Warren Holzman forged the Hammer O’ Glory, and stupidity was ensured.

Courtesy of Stephen Lyford

The HOG is carried to the next stop by “The Running of The Santas,” at least eight people in a variety of Santa costumes. We board the bus again.

We miss one stop—the Philadelphia Brewing Company, where the HOG is transferred to a pedal-powered truck chassis tricked out as an AT-AT Walker from Star Wars—when the bus gets stuck under the elevated rail line on Frankford Avenue. “Too high under the El,” calls one spectator on the sidewalk, “just like everyone else!” We respond with laughter and cheers of “Philly Beer Week, baby!”

11:30 a.m., Evil Genius Brewing, in Fishtown: Christian Gunsenhouser, one of the “storm troopers” who pedaled the HOG here, is gulping down a beer to re-hydrate. “It’s always a big spectacle for Philly Beer Week, a huge gathering,” he says. “You just come out and have fun.” Evil Genius is busy, and there’s a long line of people queuing up for their fresh beers.

Courtesy of Stephen Lyford

One of them is State Senator Chuck McIlhinney, who recently steered a bill to the governor’s desk that helped update Pennsylvania’s backward booze laws. But today he’s just having a beer and some fun on the HOG Relay. “Philly Beer Week is still going strong after ten years and is emulated across the country,” he proudly says. “It’s a testimony to Pennsylvania beer culture.”

Back on the bus, and we follow two guys in green bodysuits who run the HOG to St. Benjamin Brewing. There it is handed off to a classic Mustang convertible escorted by motorcycles for the cross-town trip to London Grill, where owner Terry Berch McNally is waiting… dressed as Marie Antoinette, along with Chris McCollum, who is dressed as what he calls “Mantoinette.” As everyone’s having a good time on the sidewalk, a woman walks by with flowers from the florist a few doors down: “Happy Beer Week!” she calls out as she threads the crowd. Marie and Mantoinette mount a Vespa Scooter and take off down Fairmount Avenue. We follow on foot.

Courtesy of Stephen Lyford

Two stops later, we’re up in a 12th floor office in Center City (as we call “Downtown” in Philly), the home of the Billy Penn local news service. They’ve got cold cans of 2SP Brewing Delco Lager and ASAP IPA for us, and we watch Fergus Carey, owner of Fergie’s Pub and who dressed up as a mime today, hand off the HOG to Billy Penn’s culture editor, Danya Henninger. Naturally, Carey just shows Henninger the proclamation, and accepts his beer with a silent shrug. She’s in MC Hammer pants, a beautiful visual pun. We grab to-go beers and get on the elevator… eight of us get on the elevator… and it stops between the 4th and 5th floors.

We stay calm, drink our beers, and joke about cannibalism. One of Senator McIlhinney’s friends plugs a hand-sized speaker into his phone. “I’ve got Tom Petty, ‘Free Falling,’ he says, and we all laugh. Well, most of us laugh. When the firemen get the door open an hour later, we’re grinning and listening to the Who’s “Who Are You?”

But we missed four stops! Luckily, we’re able to walk to the Hammer’s next destination. We arrive just in time to watch the HOG pass local Greek tavern Opa, where it’s greeted with the traditional smashing of plates. It then turns down Philly’s shortest street, Drury Street, and comes to a halt at Tiki. The HOG is used with great accuracy and verve to smash three watermelons on plaster columns. Well done.

Courtesy of Stephen Lyford

We pick up the pace, as we push to get on schedule. The HOG is transported in quick succession by more motorcycles, a skateboard, and a bunch of bicyclists in star-spangled shorts. Then the Fishtown Beer Runners, more than 20 of them, carry the Hammer to Standard Tap, where co-owner William Reed is waiting. He’s the Hammer’s other father. He jumpstarts things a bit by Hammering a tap into a firkin of unfiltered lager, brewed at Sly Fox Brewing from a 100-year-old recipe by the 91-year-old Bill Moeller. He was the last brewmaster at the Schmidt’s brewery, which stood just a few blocks away. The beer is absolutely delicious.

What’s next for the HOG? “I can’t believe we haven’t blown it up yet,” Reed mused. “We’ve busted plenty of shit with it.”

Courtesy of Stephen Lyford

And with that, the Philly Roller Derby girls skate off with the oversized tool, headed downhill to Yards Brewing. At this point, things turn into a real street parade. The brewers at Yards have built drum kits out of buckets and steel barrels. There are also vuvuzelas and a trumpet and bells. We’re escorted by this ad hoc marching band half a mile to Frankford Hall, then a block and a half to Garage and then back across Girard Avenue to Reed’s other bar, Johnny Brenda’s. He’s waiting for us in a space suit and is standing next to a golf cart tricked out as a lunar rover. Lights flash, the charge is recited one last time and the cart moves out. To mark the occasion, Reed is firing frosty blasts of carbon dioxide from the “cryogun” he’s rigged up.

We chase after Reed to The Fillmore and the Hammer O’ Glory is finally delivered to Tom Peters, who runs Philly’s world-renowned beer bar Monk’s Cafe, and George Hummel, owner of Home Sweet Homebrew, where many of the area’s brewers first learned to make beer.

The HOG is used to tap the opening keg and its frothy contents are dispersed to thirsty fans who have gathered around it… and with that pint the day is finally complete.

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