Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) would most likely be proud of our Philadelphia area beer scene, but not because of a special interest in beer. Although he enjoyed the conviviality of a tavern and brought back a now-famous spruce ale recipe from France, Franklin preferred wine and trumpeted the virtue of moderation with drink. What makes him perhaps the original founder of our local beer culture, instead, is that he envisioned a citizenry of individuals who could think for themselves rather than depending on an aristocracy to make decisions for them, as had been customary in Europe for centuries.
While we of the Philly beer scene essentially self-govern our burgeoning craft brew movement, we are also rejecting the notion that a massive brewing conglomerate or any other distant corporate entity (not unlike an eighteenth-century aristocracy) should dictate our tastes. Consider these related parallels between Benjamin Franklin’s visions with the Philly beer scene today:
Cities: To begin with, Franklin was an urban creature, residing in Boston, Philadelphia, London, and Paris, but calling Philadelphia home; for him, the city was where one made friends, shared ideas, and organized the movements and institutions that ultimately constituted the heart of a nation.
Craftsmanship: Franklin disliked the pretenses of the aristocracy whose claim to power derived only from birth and envisioned, in contrast, a meritocracy where one’s social standing was rooted in the quality of one’s craft. Industrious and inventive, he lived out the working-class artisan’s ethic by not only publishing a newspaper and a broadly-read almanac, but in discovering electricity, inventing things like the lightning rod, bifocal glasses, and the clean-burning stove, advancing theories on the spread of the common cold, and launching a lending library, a college, a volunteer fire company, an insurance association, and a matching-grant institution. We of the Philly beer scene, whether as home brewers, professional brewers, magazine editors, beer writers, pub & restaurant owners, or active and conscientious connoisseurs, one could argue, treasure a similar notion of craft. Consider how much of our time together revolves around discussions about the integrity of any given finished product, be it home-brewed ale, a recently-published beer book, or the service and selection at a new gastro-pub.
Community: Life was best lived with one’s fellows, Franklin believed, and he contributed so much only through regular conversation and collaboration with his peers, often in a pleasurable setting. In 1727, for example, he formed the Leather Apron Club of young tradesmen and artisans; they originally met in Philadelphia taverns on Friday nights to discuss topics ranging from philosophy, self-improvement, and civic betterment. Today, the Philly beer scene consists of many groups whose purpose is a similar blend of fellowship/beer-drinking and the sharing of practical knowledge, from homebrew clubs and their Beer Judge Certificate Program (BJCP) competitions, the annual Philly Beer Geek competition, Tria’s Fermentation School, and countless others advertised through the Philly Beer Scene web site, Philly Beer Scene Magazine, and others.
If he were alive today, Benjamin Franklin would probably embrace the Philly beer scene with enthusiasm, lauding our many grass-roots initiatives, joining in our friendly debates, and savoring our high-quality local craft brew and intriguing food pairings. His vision of ideal citizenship, and an ideal city, is playing out here in Philadelphia as we shape our own local craft brew movement, independent of the Anheuser-Busches of the world. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is a great place to start should you want to learn more about his vision and why we truly do owe a debt to