Fishtown, you’re famous in Spain, of all places. And you have a bunch of beer drinkers to thank for that.
Specifically, the Fishtown Beer Runners, the enthusiastic, sneaker-wearing barflies who lace up on Susquehanna Avenue every Thursday night and lope off to different taprooms – all, as they proclaim, “in the interest of science.”
If you’ve ever found yourself rubbing elbows in a bar with 75 or so sweaty suds-slurpers in shorts raising a toast to “the professor,” that’s them.
You could say of such quirkiness, “only in Philly.” Except that – as is revealed in the warm, upbeat documentary “Beer Runners,” screening on the closing night of the Philadelphia Film Festival – the fun beer-drinking ritual has spread from Fishtown to Barcelona.
The movie, by first-time director Justin Wirtalla, traces the club’s remarkable evolution from its founding eight years ago to a well-organized exercise program in Spain.
It opens with 40-something David April, the narrative’s focus, remembering the group’s beginnings in 2007. He had just seen his marriage fall apart. Sitting in his rowhouse living room, he recalls trying “to figure out where my compass was.” A friend describes him as “a broken man.”
One night, miserable and alone, he leaves his house and runs to the end of the block to blow off some steam. “I wasn’t quite sure where I was going. But when I reached the corner, I felt better.”
April turns to a friend, Eric Fiedler, for physical training help. The two go on runs, and one afternoon in the midst of a 5-miler, Fiedler tells him about findings from a Spanish research center showing that drinking beer after exercise helps the body recover. They happen to be passing the New Wave Cafe on Allegheny Avenue and decide to stop in to give it a try.
The beer feels good.
The two make it a ritual: a run capped off with a beer.
“It got to the point where we realized we had to share this with others,” April says.
They tell their friends. Four show up the first time, and they head off to Druid’s Keep in Northern Liberties.
“It just kind of grew,” April says. “And it grew primarily because . . . you could run and have a beer afterwards. There’s that sense of personal satisfaction, knowing that you earned it. It makes the beer taste that much better.”
Indeed, Joe Galster, owner of Llama Tooth on Spring Garden Street, welcomes the club into his place one night and sees them having fun. “I looked over the bar and said to myself, ‘Why am I working? I want to be with them.’ “
So he joins. And so do dozens of others.
Each Thursday night, they gather in front of April’s house – a boisterous crowd of 100 or more – welcoming new members before running 3 to 5 miles to an area bar. Once there, they raise their glasses in honor of the Spanish researcher whose study started all of this madness:
“To the professor!”
The professor is Manuel J. Castillo of the University of Granada Medical School. He gets wind of the Fishtowners and invites April to speak to an academic session in Spain.
Word spreads, a Spanish brewery latches on and begins promoting beer running clubs nationwide. Within a year, nearly 50 clubs are formed with more than 7,000 members, with a website that credits it all to the Fishtown Beer Runners.
Castillo seems bemused by the club and the toasts in his name, acknowledging that it’s hard to be certain if there’s a cause and effect between beer consumption and fitness.
But even if the science isn’t settled, the documentary underscores the positive social dynamic of beer running.
In a Spanish tapas bar with April and other Fishtown runners, Castillo remarks, “If the toast was simply an excuse for making people run all together, having fun and socializing, that was worth doing the research.”
That’s the true theme of this documentary. It’s not just about beer or running, it’s about people – especially April, the club’s co-founder who transforms his life – making friends and finding new paths in pursuit of both.
That’s why you can’t watch this movie without thinking of Philly’s most famous moment on the big screen. Its steady-cam scenes evoke Rocky Balboa’s famous run along the streets of Philadelphia, with joyous runners embracing the city and each other. Like Rocky, they pace themselves beneath the El, along trolley tracks, past tattoo parlors and into neighborhood joints.
Only, instead of a slab of beef, the Fishtown Beer Runners pound beers.