By Tara Nurin
“Philadelphia is to beer what Sonoma is to wine,” says Keith Wallace to anyone who’ll listen. Considering the source, the proclamation, perhaps incendiary outside Pennsylvania, might sound outright puzzling within city limits. That’s because in 2001, Wallace, a winemaker, wine columnist, and author of two upcoming wine books, founded and still runs Philly’s best-known vinology school. So why is he extolling his territory’s beer lust at the expense of its pursuit of viticultural knowledge?
Because, acknowledging a craft revolution, he’s invited beer to take a permanent seat at The Wine School’s table.
Wallace’s partner, a burly bald man named Dean Browne, asserts the alliance as he introduces himself to a group assembled in one of The Wine School’s classrooms on an early March night.
“Welcome to the Philly Beer School,” he says. “Tonight’s topic is Illegal Beer.”
As Browne speaks, dozens of bottles of obscure brews from Scotland, Japan, and Delaware linger behind him, waiting to be poured into students’ glasses. Despite the encroachment of a poster for The Wine School and a wall-sized vintage advertisement for a defunct wine co-op on his lecture space, Browne spends the next two hours pouring samples of Gooseberry Ale and Hitachino Nest Real Ginger Brew, passing around baggies of juniper berries and wormwood, and dissecting in a jocular manner the history and legacy of pre-hopped beers.
This is how Browne, a brewer at Philadelphia Brewing Company (PBC), has occupied himself for many a Friday night since he and Wallace founded the Philly Beer School last March. The two met while Browne was taking a class at The Wine School and, sensing the opportunity to fill a vacant niche in a craft-beer-thirsty city, they partnered to open the Philly Beer School. Browne operates the beer school while Wallace maintains ownership of both programs.
“It’s wonky, it’s fun, and I noticed that brewers were going through my wine programs because there really wasn’t anything out there for them,” Wallace says via phone.
To that end, he and Browne schedule bi-monthly one-time classes like Beer Wars: Old World Vs. New World Brews and Beer and Homebrewing 101. Students comprise aspiring brewers, elderly couples, first dates, groups out for girls’ night, and sons treating their dads to birthday celebrations.
In just one year, Wallace says he’s taking in a profit and all of his classes are selling out despite no advertising budget, no quid-pro-quo with breweries, no public relations firm, and practically no local press. What he does have working in his favor is a dedicated repeat business, a solid pull from his wine school roster, and a regional pool of potential clients whose curiosity is piqued by an onslaught of mainstream craft beer news.
What he also has going for him is a unique identity as the only full-time beer school operating outside of academia in the U.S. Whereas other programs are either far more formal or far more casual, Wallace’s is the only business to exclusively offer regularly scheduled beer classes geared toward consumers and homebrewers.
Wallace intends to be the first to add another particular dimension to the beer experience, as well. To mark the first anniversary of the opening of the school during last year’s Philadelphia Beer Week, he plans to announce the creation of the nation’s only homebrewer certification program during this year’s beer week, which has been moved from March to June.
The course will start this fall and will consist of four weeks of classes and four weeks of immersive lab work at a brewery. The certification doesn’t afford recipients anything but bragging rights — yet — but Wallace says he’s developed wine certifications that have caught on throughout the industry.
“What we’ve done with The Wine School is build up our certifications, then people started adopting our programs nationally,” he says. “We tend to be the forerunner.”
As a pioneer in using education to simultaneously deconstruct and advance the mystique of wine and craft beer, Wallace knows better than anyone that there remains one key difference in approach, based on whether the conversation centers around Philadelphia or Sonoma County, hops or grapes.
“Keith has been trying to break down the walls of the snob factor in the wine industry,” Browne says of his partner. “We’re not trying to break down the snob factor here. We’re trying to build it up.”
– Tara Nurin is a Camden, NJ-based freelance journalist who covers women and craft beer as the host(ess) of the Michelob Minute on the Internet and cable TV show “Still Crazy After All These Beers.”