Friday, March 21, 2008

Pulling up to Dock Street and Nodding his Head in Triumph - Joe Sixpack's Philly Beer Week Interview

Don Russell, the man known as Joe Sixpack deserves a break. He was a key organizer for that swaddled newborn: Philly Beer Week, he played the role of golden boy as he and his book were everywhere for the 10 day toast, and he's been one of Philly's favorite voices for decades. What started as a big precursor during the hype and anticipation of Beer Week got lost somewhere between CNN, WIP, and MSNBC, so now that all the big boys have had their way with him The Grain Bill is back to get Joe Sixpack's take on Philly Beer Week. The Draught Lines cover model emerged, liver and equilibrium restored, to talk Beer Week via email.

Joe Sixpack 03/20/08

How exciting was it for you, as long as you have been in town and as involved as you have been with its bars, drinkers, and citizens in general, to have the kick off event at the first ever Philly Beer Week?

The kickoff reminded me of my wedding day. You work for months planning the whole thing, then on the big day everything is such a rush, you don’t even get to taste the cake. In my case, that meant I missed about half of the 20-plus beers that were pouring. But the event was a blast. I was proud as hell to have so many beer fans enjoying all of these great beers. Plus, Mayor Nutter was an absolute star, tapping that first keg. To me, it was recognition that Philly is, indeed, America’s best beer-drinking city.

How did you choose your venue, The Marketplace at East Falls?

We had bounced around with several venues. But I’d visited the marketplace last year before it had opened and it was obvious the place would make a great site for a beer fest. Jeff & Lisa Baskins, who operate the place, were a little nervous going into the event because they’d never done a festival before. But Chris DePeppe, Andy Calimano, Ken Correll of Shackamaxon Catering and all of the marketplace’s great vendors came through. It turned out to be the perfect place, and they’ve invited us to do it again next year.

The tap list was a far cry from flagships and standards. What were you trying to say about the craft beers of the area with your list of beers?

I chose each of the beers because they’re among my personal favorites. But more importantly, I was trying to speak to Philly’s diversity. We had everything from pilsner to lambic, although looking back on it, there were probably to many bocks. That just happens to be one of my favorite styles.

What can you say about your other events? A lot, I’m sure. What were some highlights for you from the point of view of event host?

My single favorite event outside of my own was the brewers pub crawl in Center City on Wednesday night. I only caught up to the end of it at McGillin’s, but it was a blast. Seeing Casey Hughes in his Steve Mashington t-shirt was a riot, and McGillin’s owner Chris Mullins couldn’t wipe the smile off his face, he was having such a great time. Otherwise, the highlight for me was getting word on how crowded all of the events were. We had over 230 events, and some cynics were saying that was too many, that everyone would be fighting for patrons. Nonsense. The lines were out the door at many locations. Next year, we’ll have even more.

What else were you up to when you weren’t at your own events?

Unfortunately, I was suffering from this lousy cold that seemed to be sweeping the city. Most of my work was done BEFORE the week. Between promoting the week plus my new book, I think I did about 1 dozen TV and radio interviews, and several reporters got the bright idea that it would make a good story to go drinking with Joe Sixpack. So Philly Beer Week lasted about two straight months for me.

Do you think many Philadelphians are walking away from Beer Week with a new buying agenda? Was new interest in craft beer a focus during your planning or was it more about serving those in the know?

I sure as hell hope so. Primarily, I wanted Philadelphia to take pride in its beer scene. In addition to discovering the beer, people were exposed to the city’s unparalleled tavern scene. Most people discover different varieties of beer for themselves, but they need a little nudge to check out a new joint. Hopefully, PBW introduced them to a few new places.

How much did you have to work with the city on Beer Week and how much of a help were they? You had Michael Nutter in pocket, so it couldn’t have been that tough…right?

Most of our work was with the Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corp. which is a quasi-governmental agency. I’ve been talking to them for more than two years about promoting beer, and they absolutely get it. We’re hoping to attract more involvement from tourism agencies at the state and local level. As for the mayor, I’ve known him for about 10 or 12 years, and I was very hopeful he’d agree to tap the first keg. But I didn’t get final word on that till 10 days before the event.

The timing of many things, Philadelphia Brewing Company’s first round of beers, Sly Fox / William Reed’s Standard Ale, Joe Sixpack’s Philly Beer Guide, just seemed to work out perfectly in conjunction with Philly Beer Week. Do you think Beer Week will give breweries a bit of a deadline in rolling new beers out in the future? I mean Standard Ale was brewed specifically for Beer Week, the possibilities could be endless.

Amazing, huh? Don’t forget, we also managed to pull four major festivals together over two weekends. Personally I was astonished that you could put 10 beer drinkers in the same room and they’d agree on anything. Some of that was happy coincidence, and some was hard work. But I’m hopeful that now that we have a track record, we’ll also be able to be a bit more organized. But not too organized – the chaos is kind of fun.

Anyone who drinks in Philadelphia knows that it is the best beer city in America. What sort of impact are you hoping to make by putting this fact on the cover of your book?

Look, I’ve been a newsman for 30 years, the past 20 at a tabloid. I know one thing: controversy sells newspapers. Make a ballsy claim and you’ll have a bunch of people trying to shoot you down, sure, but you’ll sell some books, too. The thing is: Philly has the nuts. It’s not just opinion, we proved we are the best beer-drinking city in America.

A man cannot possibly write such a comprehensive guide with Google alone. Will there be a book that’s even more fun to research and compose than Philly Beer Guide in the Joe Sixpack cannon?

Coming this fall: Merry Christmas Beers: The World's Cheeriest, Tastiest and Most Unusual Beers of Christmas (Rizzoli USA). It’s the first ever book on Xmas beer.

During the Michael Jackson Tasting at Penn last weekend, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “What would Beer Week be like if Michael were here?” Maybe you could help answer that question.

I actually spoke to that during one of the sessions at the tasting. We might’ve been able to pull off a big beer fest, but it would be absent the diversity of beer styles. That’s the number one thing I think Michael gave us: a recognition of so many different types of beer. And I think it’s the one thing Philly has that no other city in the world can match: pure diversity.

Is it too early to tell how much of a success Philly Beer Week was? It seems like many of the events sold out. I know Tria had an outstanding week and many of the pub reports I’ve heard have all been very positive.

We’re surveying all the participants, asking them for feedback on attendance, etc. I’ve heard of only one event that was canceled, stupidly, and that was 2 weeks before PBW even started. The venue, out in the suburbs, was afraid it wasn’t selling enough tickets. Big mistake.

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