Thursday, March 8, 2007

The Way We Were

Reminiscing … there’s a danger to it, a danger in clinging to the past.

Then somehow gets a rose-colored upper hand on Now, no matter that a cell phone these days effortlessly fits on your ear, while that size-10 Topsider with an antenna and Motorola logo on it you once carried barely fit your mitts.

But glory days are something that go well with a beer. So what the hell, let’s pour one and talk about Then and less about Now, as last Saturday’s Philly Craft Beer Festival slips lower on the horizon and this weekend’s Atlantic City gathering (Celebration of the Suds) gets ready to take the stage …

Go big or not at all

Philly beer columnist Don Russell, dispensing advice for making the most of the 2007 Philly festival, pointed out the 10-plus years since Philadelphia beerfest planners went growler instead of pint to summon the thirsty for a giant mixer.

We checked with Don to see if he was referring to that April 1995 festival at the Philadelphia Civic Center. Indeed, he was.

There were other notable Philly festivals that followed -- the Electric Factory and Poor Henry’s. But the Civic Center bash still stands as a benchmark, as if some gates had just opened to a wider world. The official taster glasses even stirred up the crowd for more, with a teaser to a planned summer Atlantic City festival emblazoned on one side. (New Jersey’s beer police saw to it that a 1995 AC festival wouldn’t get off the ground. But the ball was already rolling in the bigger picture, and Garden State beer fans would eventually gather for festivals at Waterloo Village in Sussex County and elsewhere.)

Sometimes memory lane has potholes in it (there’s a joke in there; think about it). But if you recall, a dozen years ago, the microbrew craze (with the West already in its pocket) was homesteading in the Mid-Atlantic region. The import craze continued to whet appetites, too, and pretty soon you weren’t thinking about the ones you already knew: Beck’s, Heinken or Lowenbräu. St. Pauli Girl, well, you did end up forgetting your first girl.

Your palate was challenged to mature. And British ales were a major reference point, with ESB the call letters. (Seems like ESBs are to Then what IPAs are to Now.) At that Civic Center bash, beers you clamored for included some of the UK’s choice names, Fuller’s … Young’s … Batemans Good Honest Ales (their XXXB was pretty good; honest).

Remember Double Diamond? Forget Foster's, how about Cooper’s Australian stout? U.S craft brewers weighed in, too. Hooked on Red Hook? Get Wicked? Hike the Sierras? And did an in-law sign you up for a beer of the month club? The beer geek in you was being groomed and served.

In New Jersey, The Ship Inn and Triumph would open their doors; Flying Fish would find a lane on the Information Super Highway and go from modem to a glass.

Planet Beer had Boston Beer’s Jim Koch inspiring the do-it-yourself set as a keynote speaker at the American Homebrewers Association conference in Baltimore (where an on-the-road version of the Great American Beer Festival would be held three years later, the same weekend the media would start spreading the news that Sinatra had died).

Speaking of homebrewing, seems like every time you mentioned to someone back then you had joined the brew-your-own crowd, they felt compelled to offer some tale of an uncle and exploding bottles in a basement.

And speaking of uncle, ready to cry it? Too much reminiscing? Well there’s more. But maybe another time, another beer.

(By the way, the Civic Center in University City is gone now, demolished, turned into a memory. Atlantic City Race Course has practically gone condo and shopping mall. Trivia tidbit: Joni Mitchell stormed off the stage during a 1969 pop festival at AC Race Course, pissed off at the audience. Legend has it, the experience soured her enough that she skipped Woodstock. Reality or Wikiality?)

A photo gallery from the Philly Craft Beer Festival can be seen here. And then there’s this photo animation ...

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