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Brews' Clues

Joe Sixpack spills all.


From the March 5 , 2008 Philadelphia Weekly

Over the years the Philadelphia Daily News has hosted numerous semi-anonymous reporters with comic book-style names. There was the Phantom Rider, Joltmeister and the Urban Warrior.

But none of those characters developed as much of a cult following as Joe Sixpack, hero of the working-class stiff who's looking for a place to grab a cold beer.

Don Russell, the man behind the moniker, has collected his notes from 30-plus years of drinking brews, and published them in a new book, Joe Sixpack's Philly Beer Guide.

The veteran reporter and two-time national beer writer of the year sat down with PW to talk dimple mugs and double bocks.

Why is Philly a good beer town?

"It's a great beer town. There are basically three reasons. The tradition of beer in Philadelphia is unmatched. It goes back to William Penn. The diversity of beer here is unmatched. The clincher though, for me, is the Philly taverns. We have more great beer bars in this city than anywhere else. I could take you to 25 top-tier beer bars in Philadelphia. Then I could point you to more than 350 others where you could enjoy more than a half-dozen taps of craft beer with at least 50 more bottles of quality beer in stock."

Why is that? Philly is such a blue-collar town and craft beers seem so, well, not blue-collar.

"It is a blue-collar town, but that doesn't mean blue-collar people don't like good beer. Blue-collar people don't drink good wine. Great beer costs a hell of a lot less than great wine. Beer is the everyman's drink."

How can a city that loves beer so much waste it by throwing it at opposing teams' players?

"That's cheap beer! I don't think we'd waste good beer on their athletes. If we ever won another freakin' championship in this town, I'd be willing to spray the jocks with a good bottle of HopDevil or something."

What makes for a good beer bar?

"It's whatever makes you feel comfortable. My favorites are the neighborhood taverns. To me, Philadelphia is defined by its neighborhoods. There's really no better way to understand a neighborhood than to visit its taverns. That's where you meet the people from the neighborhood and you learn everything that's going on there."

Why did you have Bill Conlin come up with his top six beer brawl stories for the book?

"I love Bill Conlin. He's one of my favorite journalists. This book started as a reporter's notebook. Part of the experience of being a reporter is sharing great stories with other reporters. His stories are hilarious."

Don't you have your own good beer brawl stories?

"I've always had a really good sixth sense or whatever about bar fights. I've always been able to avoid them."

What's your favorite bar story?

"The first bar I was ever at was called the Fort in Shippensburg, which is where I went to college. I'm there late one night, sitting at the bar, and this guy comes in with his dog. They look like they just came from hunting all day. He plops himself at the bar. The barmaid says, 'What do you have?' He leans down, fumbles beneath the bar and comes up with a hollow leg ... with his hunting boot still on it, with the sock. He puts the hollow leg on the bar and says, 'Fill it up.' The barmaid puts it under a tap of Genesee, fills it up and gives it back to him. He drinks from it and passes it around the bar, and everyone at the bar is drinking out of his hollow leg. I fell in love with bars immediately."

Who from Philly history would you want to go drinking with?

"Ben Franklin. He was the original Joe Sixpack. He was a person who totally appreciated what beer quality meant and what beer meant to this city. And he respected what the tavern scene meant to the spirit of the city: The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were virtually written in taverns. The revolution was born out of a conversation that started in a tavern."

What's it like being Joe Sixpack? Does Joe Sixpack ever have to buy his own beer?

"I do get recognized every once and a while. I'm really happy when bartenders recognize me because I generally won't have to wait forever to get my beer. You don't even want to imagine what my bar bill is like. I spend a good portion of my income - way too much, really - on beer.