By: Joe Strupp
When Don Russell started his “Joe Sixpack” column for the Philadelphia Daily News in 1996, it was actually the smaller paper’s effort to counter a move by the rival Philadelphia Inquirer. Russell recalls that the broadsheet competitor had come out with a wine column: “It seemed obvious to me that the Daily News, the blue-collar paper, should have a beer column.”
Soon after, Joe Sixpack was born ? first as a biweekly column, then moving into a weekly position. Between 1996 and 2005 he juggled the brewery beat with other columns and general assignment reporting, but still handled issues as varied as new brewing technologies and the local beer market. Readers could also count on an annual “Year in Beer” piece detailing the ups and downs ? and spills ? of the previous 12 months.
Russell even broke news on occasion, getting city council attention when he revealed that beer cups at Veterans Stadium were shortchanging buyers by up to four ounces from the advertised sizes. That led to city regulations being tightened on the sales of such draft delights. “It has become a Daily News fixture, it gets a lot of reader reaction,” Russell, now 52, says of his alter ego. “It is a signature column, and they are very pleased with it.”
But since leaving the Philly tabloid’s staff three years ago after taking a buyout, Russell has turned his Joe Sixpack identity into something of a full-time gig. In addition to penning the weekly column on a contract basis, Russell also blogs regularly at www.joesixpack.net, offers beer-related seminars and speeches around town, and has just authored the first of two suds-related books to be released this year. He is also a lead organizer of the first Philly Beer Week, set for March 7-16, and occasionally holds beer tastings at Philadelphia’s Pen & Pencil Club, the local press organization and social club. One popular class is Russell’s Philly Beer 101 at the local Mount Airy Learning Tree. “It sells out all the time,” he declares.
His decision to take the buyout and work the brew beat full time “was a good move for me,” he says. “My wife and I were both at the paper, so it was a time to diversify ? and I could do more with the column.” Russell’s wife Theresa Conroy, who had worked for the Daily News as a courts reporter, chose to accept her own early retirement in 2007.
Russell’s first book, Joe Sixpack’s Philly Beer Guide (Camino Books, 2008) hits bookstores in March, with what he contends is the first true guide to the City of Brotherly Love’s lager largesse. He plans to follow that in the fall with Merry Christmas Beers, a book he says will explore the craze of holiday-themed brews: “I did a lot of traveling for that one, even going to Norway.”
Ironically, Russell admits that newsroom drinking and post-deadline social gatherings at the local pub are on the decline. “There is evidence of a little bit of a comeback,” he says. “I never had a problem having a beer at lunch, because it was part of my job.” He notes that the days have passed when scribes who visited nearby Westy’s, a longtime Daily News and Inquirer watering hole, had to check to make sure that production workers and pressmen had not dirtied the seats ahead of them from their post-overnight shift visits. “You used to have to check your bar stool to make sure it wasn’t covered in ink,” he says. “You checked before you sat down.”