“Mum’s the word…..for BEER! "
For 51 years I’ve been marching in the Philadelphia
Mummer’s Parade as a member of the Aqua String Band
(so named because when the band was organized on
the eve of prohibition, there was nothing to toast with
except water, hence “Aqua”). Though I was only 15 at
the time of my first parade, I learned even at that
tender age that beer is an integral part of any “mum”
activity, whether on the bus en route to a parade, at
post rehearsal gatherings around the bar, social
functions, or working on projects such as making
costumes or maintaining the clubhouse.
After parades, while I was drinking my Dad’s Old
Fashioned Root Beer, I watched the older guys
socializing with their cans of Ortlieb’s or Schmidt’s and
longed to be one of them, since what came out of their
cans tasted so much better than what came out of
mine. A few years later I did become one of them and in
fact now claim the distinction of being the oldest
tenured member of the band. Over the years many
brews have been downed and have contributed to a lot
of stories that will live forever in string band history.
But before I get too much into the string band/beer
relationship, one noteworthy incident from another
division of the Mummer’s Parade should be mentioned.
Leading off the parade every New Year’s Day is the
Comic Division, the original “root” of the parade. Part of
the Comic Division are the “wench” brigades, in which
hundreds of otherwise normal, manly adult men don
“wench” dresses, Betsy Ross type caps, and gold
painted combat boots (the theme song of the Mummer’
s Parade is “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers”) and do the
“mummer’s strut” “up the street” holding their three
tiered umbrellas and cans of beer.
A few years ago the city decided to ban alcohol by the
marchers and to combat that ban, one wench brigade
opted to ignore it. The result of the defiance was shown
on January 2nd when the Philadelphia Daily News ran a
photo of the brigade’s captain, smiling in his sequined
wench dress, handcuffed and being shoved into the
back of a police car with a large cigar sticking out of his
mouth. The photo’s caption supplied the information
that the arresting officers had also confiscated
something like 100 cases of beer along with the captain.
And that was only for the march! Many more were no
doubt on tap at their clubhouse to wet the whistles of
the marchers after the parade.
But being a member of a string band, the rest of my
beer/”mum” recollections involve that more widely
known division of the Mummer’s Parade.
In the 1970’s our band was actually sponsored in many
parades by Schmidt’s Brewery. I always loved the
“Schmidt’s jobs” because the contract with the brewery
required us always to be in full costume with backpieces
and minimum number of musicians, so we always had a
good band on the street. (Not to mention the cases of
Schmidt’s iced down on the bus or the bottomless
glasses of “the Eeaasy beer” from the Schmidt’s truck
at the end of the parade.) One such Schmidt’s job
provided no such truck but did provide something even
better. At a parade in Hanover, Pennsylvania, a summer
cloudburst forced us to quickly leave the line of march
since our costumes and instruments are very expensive
and could be ruined by the torrential downpour.
As luck would have it, a large warehouse was right there
and we were told to duck into it to wait out the storm.
The large warehouse turned out to be a beer
distributorship. Perhaps anticipating such a rain delay
and knowing that thirsty mummers were in town, the
distributor had prepared a huge galvanized tub , about
twenty feet long and filled with ice and hundreds of
bottles of local Pennsy brews: Yuengling, Reading,
Kaier’s, Stegmaier’s and Iron City. We hoped the rain
would never stop!
A couple of years back we did a Christmas parade in
Baltimore on the warmest December 5th in history. It
was so warm, in fact, that our supply of Yuengling for
the ride home was exhausted on the way there. But not
to worry. After encasing the instruments and getting
back into street clothes we boarded the beerless bus
and started looking for a source from which to restock.
Luckily, one was spotted within a half mile: a liquor store
in a small strip mall at the top of a steeply sloped
driveway. Unwisely, the bus driver attempted to drive
up. And as he did, the front end of the bus, a Van Hool,
noted for the lengthy overhang behind the rear wheels,
went up the slope, causing the rear bumper to get
snagged on the street below. But that, coupled with the
forward momentum, caused the rear wheels to rise
several inches in the air, rendering them useless.
Several hours passed before a tow truck managed to
pull us off the driveway, but thankfully, the liquor store
was open. Pictures of the mid air suspended rear wheels
were taken to make believers out of wives skeptical
about the late return!
I once figured that in 51 years I’ve averaged about 75
trips a year to Philadelphia. At about 150 miles round
trip I’ve totaled over a half million miles to perform with
the band. Figuring an average of four beers per trip
(possibly less for rehearsals and more, sometimes many
more for parades) and converting twelve ounce cans
into gallons, I’ve averaged almost 70 miles a gallon! Not
Each New Year’s Day a string band must have a new
theme, complete with new costumes, new music,
presentation and props for its four minute show in
competition with the other string bands. In 2001 Aqua
presented my idea of “Rhapsody in Brew”, featuring
hats shaped liked foaming steins of lager, backpieces
with trays of beers attached, capes of beer kegs, a
dancing “sax pack” with six saxophone players encased
in large beer cans, and a beer wagon prop loaded with
cases of “Aqua Ale”. We played such crowd pleasing
mum tunes as “Belly up to the Bar”, “Long Neck
Bottles”, “Can Can” for the sax pack, and of course the
great old polka, “In Heaven There is no Beer”.
The intense rivalry with the other bands demands
complete sobriety on New Year’s Day, so no beer was
quaffed during the parade. But later on, after we
finished,…..well, that’s another story.
In addition to the fees charged for our parades, a fund
raising tradition for almost every string band is the
annual “Beef and Beer”. Rent a hall, hire a DJ, order in
hot roast beef sandwiches and beer, mostly beer, and
sell tickets. Try to sell a ticket to a “Beef” and you’ll still
have ticket #001 left at the end of your sales campaign.
Add the word “beer” and the event will be a success.
My own particular favorite beer and mum scenario
occurs every March when we do a four day gig in
Western Massachusetts. Conveniently located adjacent
to our hotel in Springfield is a Pizza Uno offering 15 or
twenty craft beer taps which are constantly in use after
our arrival. There’s always a new IPA from a local
brewery, but my banjo playing friend, Joe Farrell, looks
forward every year to many large glasses of Berkshire
Brewing Company’s Steel Rail Ale, unavailable in
Philadelphia. During the four days, when not actually
strumming his banjo, Joe can be found seated on the
same stool at any time. Sometimes I wonder why the
band wastes its money on a hotel room.
The first musical engagement comes early in the evening
after our arrival. It’s not hard to pry the guys away
from the bar at Pizza Uno because the gig is at The
Student Prince, a wonderful German restaurant also
Known as “the Fort”, because of the 19th century
fortress in which it’s located. Rudy, the owner, provides
very well for us as we play music and socialize with the
patrons while downing steins of the outstanding gratis
German brews on tap. A tradition at The Student Prince
is the annual ceremonial tapping of the Maibock for the
Accordion player Paul Gluck, who lives in Springfield and
is crazy enough to fly to Philadelphia (he works for an
airline and flies for free) to make rehearsals and
parades, tells me that this is a highly anticipated local
event with the mayor pouring the first glass.
Unfortunately for the permanent residents of Springfield
the maibock is almost kaput by the time we’re gone.
The craft brews at Uno’s and the excellent German
imports at the Student Prince only serve as a warmup
for the next gig, in my opinion the beer highlight of the
trip. We march, in costume and playing music for
several blocks to Smith’s Billiards, a huge second floor
pool hall with a bar and a small bandstand. No seating is
We play two sets and eagerly survey the chalkboard
beer menu before selecting what brews will be tried
during the break and the lengthy post gig hanging
around. Not a Bud or Coors in sight! Smith’s features
stuff like Kentucky Breakfast Stout, Pretty Things
Saison, Brooklyn Chocolate Stout and Dogfish Head 90
minute IPA. Towards the end of the second set the
notes may sound a little strange and the intonation may
be a little off. Possibly a “tired” sax player may even
miss the name of the next tune and play the wrong
song. But who cares? We got a lot of banjos and
everyone in the standing audience has been sampling
the brews on the chalkboard also. And they were doing
so before we got there!
While some of the guys put together a small combo to
hit some Irish pubs the next day and Joe Farrell heads
to Uno’s for more Steel Rail. I generally rest up for what
lies ahead that evening: the annual Springfield St.
Patrick’s Day Mummers Pub Crawl, for which local people
buy wristbands, enabling them to board double decker
London sightseeing buses with open air tops and travel
to 5 or 6 pubs with unlimited kegs aboard. Arriving at a
pub, the whole entourage piles out of the buses (by the
end of the evening many are falling out) and enters the
pub where the Mums and the Caledonian Pipe Band of
Holyoke each play a set.
The whole thing is a benefit for charity and is organized
by Brian Elliot, a Springfield cop who is also an accordion
player and has been known over the years to also be
crazy enough to travel as far as Dover, Delaware to
parade with the band. When the pub crawl ends about
midnight anything left in the kegs is wheeled into the
hotel lobby, pizzas are delivered, and the festivities
continue. Once the kegs provided by the Paper City
Brewery of Holyoke were labeled “Aqua Spring Ale”.
Those kegs were emptied rather quickly.
This year, after resting up from the pubcrawl, several
band members who are also craft beer enthusiasts and I
drove to the Paper City Brewery, where for $7 one can
obtain a tour and unlimited pints of the Paper City
brews. The tour was given by the assistant brewer who
is heavily into craft beer and who obviously likes the
fruits of his labors since he seemed to be happily
influenced by them.
The brewery is located on the 6th floor of an otherwise
empty 19th century industrial building and on this very
breezy March afternoon all the huge windows were
open, making for the first brewery taken while having to
hold onto my cap. Maybe they figured that tour and
tasting participants wouldn’t stay too long in order to
escape the wind, thereby pouring less beer for the
seven dollars. But mummers, who insist upon holding
their annual competition on January 1st, sometimes in
gale force winds and sub freezing temperatures, are a
hardy lot, so we managed to get the most of our seven
Actually, the tour was very informative and allowed for
frequent trips back to the tasting room to replenish our
glasses. To top off the afternoon the owner of the
brewery gave our party of four a couple of twelve pack
samplers free of charge to show his appreciation for the
mummer’s participation in Holyoke’s renowned St.
Patrick’s Day Parade to be held the next day. The
sampler pack contained two bottles of Paper City’s
Winter Palace Wee Heavy, which I’d never had before.
This beer is outstanding and recommended to all.
A stop back at the Student Prince for a bite to eat
allowed for some more excellent German beers before
the “beery” aspects of the four day trip took a back seat
to the musical grind ahead: several more gigs that night
and playing for the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Parade
Committee breakfast the next morning and lengthy
parade that afternoon. To be sure, there were ample
opportunities to drink more beer, but discretion is the
better part of valor and since I had my own car and had
to drive back to Jersey, I just played music and thought
about the cases of Berkshire ales securely stowed in the
trunk on the ride home.
Borrowing an idea from former New Jersey Governor
Tom Kean’s TV ads, “Mummers and Beer…..Perfect
has to say
and it could
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Beer My Way.........
Beernexus.com proudly presents....DAN HODGE, beer reviewer, historian and raconteur
anything and everything about beer
by Dan Hodge