The skeptics were wrong.
By all accounts, the first Philly Beer Week surpassed expectations for locals and out-of-towners alike, as the 10-day festival celebrated the city's unique brew culture and shone a spotlight on the sheer number of taverns pouring diverse craft beers.
"Many people think of Denver as America's top beer city," said Marty Jones, a cofounder of Oskar Blues Brewery near Denver. "But our beer-bar culture doesn't come close to what you have in Philadelphia."
A conservative estimate of 15,000 people attended nearly 300 beer-themed events in the city and suburbs from March 7 through 16, ranging from tastings at neighborhood taps with craft beers on draft to the Brewer's Plate fund-raiser at the Independence Visitor Center, where more than 1,000 guests paid $50 to $100 each to sample food and beer pairings from 21 restaurants teamed with as many craft breweries, raising about $30,000 for the White Dog Foundation.
No doubt about it, Beer Week filled the spring void left by the struggling Book and the Cook program's move to a fall schedule last year. (The Book and the Cook has promoted the city's restaurants for 24 years by hosting guest chefs and cookbook authors.)
Attendance at the beer events ran from about 30 folks supping in a restaurant's private dining room to 1,200 tippling at three sold-out sessions of the University Museum's annual tutored beer tasting. Several of the week's bar-hopping participants reported venues filled to capacity.
While no firm attendance figures are available as many events did not require tickets, conservative estimates suggest that Philadelphia's debut as a world-class beer town drew at least 15,000 drinkers and diners, on par with Book and the Cook at its prime.
Early reports from attendees and venues suggest that many pubs did weeknight business comparable to usual weekends', and that the weekends were, if not the best, then among their best ever.
"It was a coming-out party for Philadelphia's craft beer culture," said Beer Week cochair Bruce Nichols, head of Museum Catering based at Penn's University Museum.
"The response was way beyond what we expected. It was overwhelming. I kept hearing about places where you couldn't get in the door," he said.
"Philadelphia put its best foot forward," said Tom Peters, at Monk's Cafe, also a cochair. "Visitors were blown away by our beer culture, its variety of styles, the ability to get good beer not just in great restaurants but in dives. They've never seen anything like it."
Though not yet a match for Denver's established Great American Beer Festival, which drew a record 46,000 to its 26th annual beerfest over a single weekend last October, Philly Beer Week has potential, covering a broader, more eclectic niche with year-round appeal.
"I can't wait to come back," said Denver brewer Jones. "And my wife wants to come along next year. People don't realize what an unsung tourist and economic benefit can come from a good beer culture. There are people who travel all over the country to enjoy craft beers."
Events ranged from simple meet-and-greet socials - bringing together brewmasters and locals in neighborhood pubs, no cover charge, and pay-as-you-go drafts, often at special prices ($3 or $4) - to formal receptions and dinners at classy restaurants, each course matched to a beer, at $95 plus tax and gratuity.
One such dinner, at the University Museum, became a tribute to the late Michael Jackson, the British beer and spirits writer who hosted beer tastings and dinners at the museum for 18 years on the Book and the Cook schedule until its move last year.
When the museum's beer tastings with Jackson last spring sold out despite the loss of Book and the Cook backing, it fueled hope that a beer-themed festival would succeed in Book and the Cook's stead.
The tribute dinner (Jackson died Aug. 30) drew beer-world luminaries including Fritz Maytag (Anchor Brewing), dubbed by some the "patron saint" of the craft beer movement in America; Tom Dalldorf (Celebrator Beer News); Sam Calagione (Dogfish Head Brewery); Carol Stoudt (Stoudt's Brewing); and Philadelphia Daily News beer columnist Don Russell, also known as Joe Sixpack, who also helped organize Beer Week. Russell went on to conduct (in Jackson's place) the museum's hugely popular tutored beer-tasting sessions the next day.
The response to Beer Week was so overwhelming, in fact, that some have suggested cutting back and limiting the number of events next year. Others see room to expand the schedule with more restaurant participation. Word is that several more chefs have already expressed interest in being included.
Among those on board for this first fest, City Tavern chef/proprietor Walter Staib not only paired food courses with beers for the two dinners he hosted with brewmasters from Yards and Yuengling, he also used the brews in most of the recipes, including his ale-braised duck sausage.
His menu with Yards' Ales of the Revolution also was offered as a special in the restaurant throughout Beer Week, bringing 280 more hits for a total of 360 beer dinners served that week, enough to prompt Staib to add the beer dinner as a prix fixe, three-course special ($45, including ales) on the restaurant's regular menu.
Even some places not directly involved in Beer Week shifted focus to craft beers, as with Brasserie Perrier's new beer menu promotion.
Beer bloggers were out in force. And 10 beer and travel writers invited by the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. generated coverage in newspapers and beer trade publications nationwide as well as online.
Dates for Beer Week 2009 have not been set, but the success of its debut on craft beer's world stage virtually assures a spot on the craft beer calendar. "There are standing events around the world that we have to dodge," said columnist Russell, "but the next Philly Beer Week should come at about the same time next year."
And of Russell's claim that Philadelphia is the best beer-drinking city in America? Denver brewer Jones says: It "has two solid legs to stand on."
For information on Philadelphia's beer culture and Philly Beer Week, visit www.phillybeerweek.org, www.joesixpack.net, www.thebrewersplate.org, and www.phillycraftbeerfest.com.
Contact food writer Marilynn Marter at 215-854-5743 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.