Don Rusell a/k/a Joe Sixpack

Having A Beer With: Joe Sixpack

…at the Dawson Street Pub in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia

February, 2011

BBJaze: You’re Joe Sixpack, but you’re also a beer connoisseur. How can you be both an everyman and a connoisseur?

JSix: Primarily because beer is an everyman’s drink. It’s an affordable luxury, something that just about anyone can enjoy. The difference between a crappy beer and a great beer is about 30 cents per bottle. There’s no reason why the common man can’t enjoy a good beer. Wine is much more expensive, and a lot of people, including myself, don’t understand the esoteric differences between different types of wine, but the flavor profile of beer is so wide and varied—most people can appreciate the distinction between a hoppy ale and a malty double bock.

BBJaze: True enough, but isn’t “Joe Sixpack” a plain-old Bud drinker who doesn’t get off his recliner except for emergencies?

JSix: That’s probably because he has six-pack right next to the recliner.

BBJaze: But is that you? It seems like you’ve got interests other than TV watching. Do you get off the recliner?

JSix: Not as much as I should—I’m trying to lose a few pounds. But I think even the most stereotypical proletarian has higher aspirations for his life, and great beer fits into that.

BBJaze: It’s interesting that you’re using Marxist language. I can’t remember which Marx brother was fond of the term “proletarian”—Karlo, maybe—but I do know that he believed in universal brotherhood.  Is there such a thing as a universal beer, one that you could call an “all the time” beer, a beer that’s appropriate for all occasions and all palettes, a beer that a person would never tire of drinking?

JSix: That’s a great question. Let’s see…

BBJaze: I’m afraid the answer will be Budweiser.

JSix: The answer is “beer.” The question should be “Is there a drink that can be enjoyed on all occasions?” And the answer is beer.

BBJaze: I agree with you that beer is, or at least should be, a universal beverage. But do you think our society has been making beer too precious?

JSix: I make that case all the time. I call it the “winofication” of beer.

BBJaze: What exactly is “winofication”?

JSix: It’s beer looking to achieve what wine has gotten. Wine has a prestige that beer wishes it had, and that prestige is manifested in things like corked bottles, expensive bottles, the whole pairing with food…I’m not opposed to any of those things, but what I’m saying is when that becomes the whole raison d’être of beer, then it’s wrong. Because what beer really should be, primarily, is an opportunity to kick back and relax and enjoy, without any of the other “add-ons.” For one, I worry about the price of beer going up too much, and I also believe that one of beer’s great benefits is that it is so universal, while wine is not—so why is beer striving for a smaller and smaller market?

BBJaze: Why is wine less universal than beer?

JSix: Because it costs more. And also because it’s a lot more difficult for people to taste subtle differences in types of wine than it is for them to taste those differences in beer. It’s ironic that part of the blame for the winofication of beer should be laid on people like myself who spend an awful lot of time talking about these mostly esoteric beers that no one will ever get to drink. The problem is, it’s become this whole cult thing where people want to be able to say that they drank a certain type of rare beer, where there are lines forming outside of restaurants so that people can get a taste. And I hate that, because beer should never be about standing in line—unless you’re at an Eagles game, of course.

BBJaze: One of the books you’ve written is called Joe Sixpack’s Philly Beer Guide: A Reporter’s Notes on the Best Beer-Drinking City in America. Other than being able to stand in line at an Eagles game, what makes Philly the best beer-drinking city in America?

JSix: We have an unrivalled tradition of beer in this city. William Penn was making beer in this city—

BBJaze: He was? Did he brew it from oatmeal?

JSix: If he didn’t he should have. He was making beer in the 17th century. This city was really the first professional beer capital of the whole country. George Washington wrote letters praising the quality of the porters that were made in this city and said that drinking a Philadelphia porter was the greatest gesture that somebody could make as an American. And we also have a really great diversity of beer styles. Ever since the microbrewing revolution, various areas have become known for specific types of beer. The west coast is known, for instance, for really hoppy beers. And we have those beers. The thing that I’ve noticed when I go to the west coast, and especially in the northwest, is that they’re very parochial about their beer—which is a nice thing, but they basically only drink their own beer, and they have no recognition that there’s great beer being made somewhere else. Philadelphia was behind the curve initially on all those great microbrews, in terms of breweries. We don’t have as many breweries here, but we were drinking all those beers. So we make our own great beers, but we drink everyone else’s great beer, too. And then you toss in the whole Belgian beer scene in Philadelphia—we were so far ahead of the curve on Belgians. And beyond all of those things, the one thing we have in Philly that no other city can match is an amazing inventory of great neighborhood beer bars.

BBJaze: What’s the worst beer city in America?

JSix:  I’d say Dallas.

BBJaze: Dallas?

JSix: Among the cities I’ve visited, it’s Dallas.

BBJaze: What about Washington, D.C.?

JSix: It’s gotten better. There are a few good places, but not many.

BBJaze: Mostly what you find in D.C. are large granite buildings dedicated to people like J. Edgar Hoover.

JSix: D.C. is not a good beer city—that’s true—but Dallas is even worse. There’s nothing there. First of all, downtown Dallas is completely empty at night. Maybe there are roadhouses out on the periphery, but downtown Dallas is dead at night. The south mostly sucks for beer, and southern brewers will tell you that, too.

BBJaze: If you were stranded on a deserted island or, worse, somewhere down south, is there one beer you’d like to have with you?

JSix: Everybody asks that. What I tell them is read my column next week, because it changes every week. If I could only have one kind of beer for the rest of my life, it would be something I’d brew myself. If I could bring a bottle to the desert island, it would be a bottle-conditioned beer that had a live yeast in it so that I could start my first beers.

BBJaze: So the answer is “fresh beer.” That’s a great answer. What would it take for you to drink a Bud?

JSix: One of the things that happened for me this past year was that one of my favorite bars in the city, McGillin’s Old Ale House—which is the oldest bar in the city—had their 150th anniversary last year. It was a wonderful event, the family that owns it are just wonderful people, and they brought in the Clydesdales for the event, and I put on a tuxedo and my wife put on a really nice dress, and they invited me to climb on top of the beer wagon—

BBJaze: With a top hat?

JSix: No, I couldn’t find a top hat. But I will say that climbing on top of those beer wagons is not easy at all. It’s one of the reasons I started to try to lose a little weight—

BBJaze: Because the Clydesdales couldn’t pull you?

JSix: That would be pretty bad. No, those wagons don’t have steps, they have rungs, and I was wearing hard shoes and it was hard to get up there, but once I got up there they gave me a Bud. You can’t be sitting on top of the Clydesdales and not be drinking a Bud. It’s just a fact of life. And they took a photo of me up there. I’m not sure if they did it for blackmail purposes…

BBJaze: So you would only drink Budweiser on a special occasion?

JSix: I’ll taste it once in awhile, but it doesn’t make any sense for me to drink it professionally, because I’ve had enough Budweiser in my life, and I don’t need to waste a beer drinking opportunity on a beer that I’ve had a thousand times before, and, honestly, I don’t hold much respect for the flavor of it. I do want to point out that a lot of brewers I know really do respect that beer because of how well it’s made.

BBJaze: I thought we were talking about Budweiser.

JSix: Well, it’s about consistency and purity.

BBJaze: Just because the Budweiser employees are required to wear shower caps…Isn’t that stuff made with rice?

JSix: Right, but it’s good rice.

BBJaze: But that puts the beer in violation of the German Beer Purity Law, does it not?

JSix: Absolutely, but the German beer purity law is a whole problem in itself. No one in the world right now is looking to Germany for examples of how to brew great beers. They’re old school. Some microbrewers may respect what German brewers are doing, but they don’t look to Germany for new ideas. I love German beer, but it’s not at all innovative. It’s great partly because they’re tradition-bound and partly because they’re excellent brewers, but I wouldn’t consider them artists. I’d consider them technicians.

BBJaze: Yes, Germans are very precise.

JSix: Personally, I wouldn’t want to live in Germany. I’ve visited Germany several times, and it’s a pain in the ass to go there. You do get a lot of great beer—German beer in Germany in unbelievably great. But you only get a few styles of beer in the whole country: a lager, a helles, a wheat beer, and maybe in season you get a bock. And that’s it. There’s no such thing as a hoppy ale, there’s no such thing as a stout or a porter. When I come back from Germany, there’s nothing I want more than a hoppy ale.

BBJaze: That’s why I think the beer purity law is ridiculous.

JSix: What do you think is ridiculous about it?

BBJaze: Well, as you’ve pointed out, it has really restricted creativity in brewing, and that’s probably why Germany lags behind America in terms of the flavor palette of their beer…

JSix: Right, but on the other hand, they’re not making any Miller Lite in Germany.

BBJaze: True, but I really don’t see why any German brewer would take pride in sticking to the old law these days. I can imagine that in 1516 the law may have been enacted for hygienic purposes or something like that, sort of like the kosher laws—

JSix: Haven’t they evolved?

BBJaze: I’m not sure, but I do know that many Jews think it’s okay to eat pork as long as it’s in Chinese food.

JSix: Well…

BBJaze: I guess the issue with the purity law is that it restricts choice—but maybe too much is a bad thing. How many microbreweries are there in the U.S.?

JSix: About 1600.

BBJaze: And they each produce about ten beers or so?

JSix: A conservative estimate would be that there are about 20,000 microbrews available.

BBJaze: Do you think that so many choices can be oppressive for the consumer?

JSix: A lot of people say it is. It’s certainly hard for me, because I’m sort of expected to taste all those beers and tell people what they’re like, and I can’t do it anymore.

BBJaze: You poor guy.

JSix: Too much choice is more of a problem for people who have to sell the beer than it is for me as a person who has to write about it. But really, most of those beers are not available to most people. Your store with a reasonably good selection of beer will only have about a hundred brands.

BBJaze: Are you excited by the home brew movement? Do you think that we’re going back to the future when everybody used to brew their own beer?

JSix: Well, about 300 years ago brewing was becoming centralized. By the early 1700’s people were drinking at taverns and inns, so they didn’t have to brew their own. But if you go way back, it’s true that everyone had to drink their own beer. And the thing that I always point out is that it was women who were making beer back then. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that men were doing the brewing—it’s just another thing that men took away from women.

BBJaze: That’s going to shock the average Bud drinker. Well, why aren’t there more women these days brewing beer?

JSix: Part of it is that women have shied away from beer as a beverage for themselves.

BBJaze: It’s not dainty enough?

JSix: My theory, and I’m going to stand by this—

BBJaze: Is this an exclusive? A BBJaze exclusive?

JSix: No. I don’t know if I’ve ever written about this, but I’ve said it before…

BBJaze: Well, if it’s not a BBJaze exclusive, I’m not that interested anymore.

JSix: Here’s the deal: For a lot of people, their first taste of beer is in college. Guys would go to fraternity parties and get shitfaced, and they would drag their girlfriends there, and the girls would drink the beer because they’d be with their boyfriends and they’d have to drink it. And eventually they’d get disgusted with their drunken boyfriends, and they would associate beer with a bad time—

BBJaze: With the smell of socks and dirty underwear—

JSix: Guys, on the other hand, love it, of course. I still love the smell of stale beer—

 BBJaze: And I still love the smell of dirty underwear.

JSix: So because of their bad associations with beer, women migrated to wine. And I’ve given up on trying to convince women to give up their wine. If that’s what they like, then fine—who am I to tell them what to drink? It’s amazing to me. I do a lot of free samplings, where I give out free beer. I give people free beer, and I’ve been in places where a woman has a wine glass in front of her, and I say “Look, I’ve got this free beer, would you taste it” and she’ll say “I don’t like beer, I won’t try it.” That has happened so many times, I’ve given up.

BBJaze: Maybe you could explain that beer provides essential nutrition.

JSix: Well, it’s more than just essential nutrition. There is the buzz factor, and we should never ignore that. And I think wine does actually ignore it sometimes. There’s alcohol in the stuff, and people like to get buzzed. And we shouldn’t deny that. People have been getting buzzed for millennia, and we shouldn’t forget that part of beer. It is fun to get a buzz.

BBJaze: I think that should be the final word.

Don Russell, a.k.a. Joe Sixpack, writes a weekly column for the Philadelphia Daily News and is the author of Joe Sixpack’s Philly Beer Guide: A Reporter’s Notes on the Best Beer-Drinking City in America and Christmas Beer:  The Cheeriest, Tastiest, and Most Unusual Holiday Brews.  Learn more at