Menuism Dining Blog
Dining education for foodies

Joe Sixpack, aka Don Russell

Don Russell, aka Joe Sixpack, has written about everything from no-calorie beer to the “winofication” of beer in his weekly beer column for the Philadelphia Daily News, which has been going strong for more than 10 years. Don is also the Executive Director of Philly Beer Week and 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, Most Unusual Beers of Christmas. Don just might be the original beer nerd. Check out Joe Sixpack to learn more about Don and sign up for one of his tutored beer tastings in Philadelphia.

You’re on record saying that Philly’s the best beer drinking city in the world. What are some of your other favorite beer cities, and why?

I think Philly is America’s best beer-drinking city because of the diversity of beer, its role in city history and—probably most importantly—the huge number of really fine beer bars. Literally hundreds of outstanding bars with world-class beer selections within 20 minutes of city hall.

But I do travel a good bit, and usually there’s beer involved. I love Brussels, but mainly for its beer—it’s everywhere. Munich is outstanding because beer is such an important part of its culture. Plus, they wash your glass just before pouring the world’s most amazing lagers into it.

I like San Francisco because of its people. I like Portland, Oregon, because of its brewpubs, though it’s extremely parochial and dwells way too much on over-hopped ales. Denver is overrated. It’s fun to drink there because of its breweries, but it has exactly one good bar. I haven’t been to the Midwest lately, but I’d really like to visit Michigan soon because I’m a huge fan of its breweries.

Can you share a few of your favorite watering holes, either local or afar?

Usually my favorite is whatever’s nearby at the time. In Philly, there are so many (Monk’s, McGillin’s, Nodding Head, Bridgid’s, Devil’s Den, Tria, Local 44…) [that] it’s kind of unfair to single out one. My local is Dawson Street Pub in the Manayunk section, mainly because it has three hand pumps, a nice tap lineup and the Phillies are usually on the TV. Also locally, I really enjoy Standard Tap. It’s the birthplace of the American gastropub trend—any foodie would love this place, with its menu of locally sourced ingredients and an eclectic mix of locally brewed drafts. It still has a neighborhood feel, and the owner is a friend.

Outside of the city, I love Kulminator in Antwerp because of its amazing selection of vintage beers. I like La Pinte in Paris. It’s a tiny place with only a few barstools and these really cool porcelain wall basins for the taps. In Munich, the Weisses Brauhaus for fresh Schneider Aventinus on tap.

In New York, my two favorites are DBA and the Blind Tiger. In Baltimore, Max’s Taphouse. In Portland, it’s the Green Dragon.

Favorite style of beer? Why?

I don’t discriminate. It really depends on my mood.

Are there any beer trends that we should keep an eye out for?

A lot of breweries have begun releasing Belgian-influenced versions of American ales. These are essentially hoppy American beers brewed with Belgian yeast and perhaps some sugar. The spicy flavors produced by the yeast fermentation play off the bitter hops. They’re brewed by both Americans and Belgians. Check out Flying Dog Raging Bitch, Flying Fish Exit 4, Urthel Hop-It and Terrapin Monk’s Revenge.

Any beer trends you wish would crash and burn?

I frequently harp about winofication—this urge among craft breweries to treat their beers so preciously, like they’re wine. Beer is more diverse than wine, it has a broader flavor range, it’s an ideal refreshment, it can pack a punch—and most importantly, it’s the everyman’s drink. Affordable and democratic—unlike good wine. So, yes, I wish the $25 bottle would crash and burn.

How’d you get your start as a beer reporter?

They say you should write about something you know. I loved beer, but I didn’t know a lot about it. Being a reporter allowed me to “investigate” the topic and share what I learned with other beer lovers. My editors were dubious at first, of course, but they’ve stuck with it and Joe Sixpack has grown into one of the paper’s important personalities.

Philly Beer Week seems like your pet project. Tell us a little bit about it.

It’s not my pet project—it’s a passion for nearly everyone in the Philly beer business. We firmly believe that there’s something special going on here, and there’s an incredible spirit of unity among folks who are competitors otherwise. The week is an opportunity to showcase the city’s beer scene, to both its locals and out-of-town visitors. It’s a big part of the local tourism marketing effort, and it provides a decent economic boost to the city. Last June, Philly Beer Week (now entering its 4th year) hosted 1,000 events—dinners, tours, tastings, pub crawls, festivals—at about 175 restaurants across the region. It drew about 60,000 people, and it helped promote the city as a year-round beer destination.

As for me, I’m a lifelong Philly boy, and I’ve always been proud of my home. Being able to work on something I love in the town I love, well, that’s a dream come true.

Favorite beer of all time?

Easy: A pint of Yards Extra Special Ale. It was my wedding beer. Both of us worked at the Daily News at the time, and we packed the Pen & Pencil Club with hundreds of friends from the newsroom. The cask kicked in about 30 minutes.

What beers are in your fridge at home, right now?

Right now there are about 60 different beers in my fridges, and another 150 that are cellared. Which is why it’s always so damn hard for me to decide what to drink! I rarely buy cases because I’m always trying something different, but my last two were:

Weyerbacher Big Beer Variety, which includes Merry Monks (a World Cup winner that is about half the price of a standard Belgian tripel).

Lancaster Kolsch, canned and full-flavored, very refreshing. My new lawnmower beer.

What are a couple of your favorite beer and food pairings?

Pizza and Marzen. Simple and completely satisfying. Also: India pale ale and bleu cheese.

What’s your take on dessert beers? Any recommendations?

I usually favor something dark and strong—a barleywine like Sierra Nevada Bigfoot or Thomas Hardy’s. This summer, though, I’ve been digging beer floats. Just pour a nice Stoudt’s Fat Dog Imperial Oatmeal Stout over Ben & Jerry’s vanilla ice cream. It’s a really fun treat.

Where do you stand on can vs. bottle?

I love that craft brewers have re-discovered cans. They’re perfect for tailgates and the beach. And, because canning lines are a bit cheaper than bottling lines, they allow small brewers to package beers that might otherwise be available only in kegs.

Besides beer, what other thirst-quenchers top your list?

Thirst-quenchers? Water—good ol’ Phillly tap water, aka Schuylkill Punch. As for other booze, I like Ron Del Barrilito rum, which I discovered in Puerto Rico about ten years ago. Just pour it over ice. And I like Bluecoat Gin, which is distilled here in Philly. As for wine, right now I’m into Jumilla.

How many different beers would you say you’ve tried in your lifetime?

I tried to keep count one year and lost track after about six months. But it’s fair to say I try about five to ten new beers every week. I’ve been drinking beer for about 35 years. So… a lot.

How important is it to drink beer from the proper glass?

It’s important, but not as important as some people say. The proper glass elevates the experience, but it’s hardly essential. I’ve had gueuze in a paper cup and it tasted pretty damn fine.

What’s next for you?

One of these days, I’m going to tackle another book. But in the meantime…more travel. In September I’m headed to Paris and Brussels with my wife, then onto Munich for Oktoberfest. And then it’s back to the continued planning for Philly Beer Week in 2011. It’s going to be bigger and better.

Anything else you’d like to add?

It’s not really about the beer. It’s about drinking the beer. The occasion, the friends, the place, the spirit.

Posted by on September 3rd, 2010

Nikki Jong is an earth-friendly eater who’s never met a vegetable she didn’t adore. In addition to her edible plant obsession, she nurses a neverending hankering for sustainable seafood and is a champion oyster eater (and shucker). Nikki loves hoppy beers, bold, spicy reds, and believes that nothing beats a cold glass of moscato d’Asti on a hot summer afternoon. As Editor of The Menuism Blog, she has the pleasure of interviewing some of the hungriest, thirstiest and most ambitious folks in food and wine.

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