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Beerdrinker of the Year

January, 1997

By Bobby Bush

An e-mail note from a fellow homebrewer brought the challenge to my attention. "Here's a contest you should enter," he wrote. I did too.

Denver's Wynkoop Brewing Company, which claims fame as the World's Biggest Brewpub, was sponsoring a Beerdrinker of the Year competition. Applications were due in mid-December and were to consist of a resume stating beerdrinking experience, homebrewing knowledge, beer festival attendance, brewpub and brewery tours, etc. and any other evidence of the applicant's range and depth of beeriness. Each hopeful's personal beerdrinking philosophy was requested.

Over 100 men and women applied. My resume, comprising about 230 pages in a three inch ring binder, consisted of photographs of my house and office (which are full of framed beer posters), my t-shirt closet (formerly known as a linen closet) and closeups of my coaster, bottle cap, pin, matchbook and label collections. Also included was a list of all 179 brewpubs that I have visited since 1989, the various beer festivals I have attended (20, from Oregon to Manteo) and my homebrewing accomplishments (regional gold in the last two American Homebrewers Association's national contests). The bulk of my submission were copies of over 100 articles written for FOCUS, 125 computer printed pages of beer label inventory and 25 pages covering the ol' microbrewery coaster collection. Postage ran ten bucks.

A brief statement of my beerdrinking background was followed by my personal philosophy: "All my life I've enjoyed being different. Drinking microbrewed, hand crafted beer allows me to express my individualism. Generic beer is for common people. Hand crafted beer is something special. Some people like scotch. Some folks drink wine. I prefer beer. Good beer. Hand crafted beer served in friendly places, consumed with friendly people."

I thought I had a good chance of winning and wasn't particularly surprised when a letter from Wynkoop owner John Hickenlooper arrived in late January with notification that I was one of 13 semi-finalists. Sixteen judges, many from the brewspaper publishing field, had narrowed the field down. Within days I received a phone call from Lew Cady, Wynkoop's public relations rep, that I was one of three finalists. All right!

A free trip to Denver, lodging and a contest of some uncertain sort was scheduled for February 22. What, I inquired, would the competition entail? Lew stumbled, claiming that this was the first such contest and that plans weren't set yet, but one thing for sure, he stated, beer would be included in whatever event was held.

This friendly competition, later to be known as The Oral Exams, was slightly disorganized. Bill Christensen and Jack McDougall, the other finalists (both from New Jersey) were extremely friendly, and very knowledgeable about the matter at hand. Both are in their late 40s and had been drinking good beer for many, many years. Christensen is listed in the Guinness Book of World's Records as the owner of the world's largest beer can collection and was can collector of the year in 1978. McDougall writes a regular column for Beer Cans and Brewery Collectibles, founded the Bar Tourists of America in 1981, co-authored "New Jersey Brewery Coasters" and has visited over 80 brewpubs. His crowning glory was a drinker's diary of all 654 different beers that he consumed in 1996 (that's six hundred and fifty-four different beers in three hundred and sixty-five days). These guys were serious drinkers and even more serious competition. My piece of cake award started to smell like skanky beer.

As a radio station set up for interviews along one wall of Wynkoop's Mercantile Room, we three assumed our positions at separate tables, ready for the onslaught of judges' questions. Beers in hand we entertained all eight judges in various combinations as they moved from table to table in their black robes and powdered wigs. The judicial review board consisted of Charlie Papazian, diminutive Zoot Suited president of the Association of Brewers; Dick Kreck, writer for The Denver Post; Rebecca Bradford of the Great American Beer Festival; Thom Wise of 5280 Magazine; Patricia Calhoun of Westword, a weekly Denver alternative publication; Bev Walsmith, publisher of Brew Magazine; A.J. Feldmann of Rocky Mountain Brew News; and of course Hickenlooper, consultant and part-owner of around 20 brewpubs nationwide.

Questions ranged from factual to trivial to esoterical. What does IPA stand for? What was the name of the first post-prohibition microbrewery? What do you see when you look at a pint of beer? The individual question and answer sessions went on for over an hour. Radio interviews with each contestant were followed by adjournment to another room of the massive brewpub. (It seems this room had to be re-arranged for a wedding reception). Judges rated each of us, from one to ten, in five categories: knowledge of beer the beverage; knowledge of beer legend and lore; beer experiences; love and appreciation of beer; and intangibles- beery intangibles.

When the scores had been tallied and the smoke had cleared, Judge Hickenlooper stood atop an unstable chair and, while explaining that the contestants were within three points of each other, declared Jack McDougall (he of drinking diary and can collecting fame) to be Wynkoop's 1997 Beerdrinker of the Year. McDougall posed for a photo with the judges, clutching his trophy, a fancy plaque sporting half a wooden cask which was to be permanently adhered to one of Wynkoop's hallowed walls. He will also receive a monthly shipment of Wynkoop's bottled beer and serve as a judge next year. Wisked away for a follow-up radio interview, Christensen and I hardly had time to wish him well.

What an experience! Even though I failed to bring home the cask, I spent quality time with two of the brewing industry's biggest names (Hickenlooper and Papazian). I asked them as many questions as they asked me. And I got all the free beer I could drink!

After the award was bestowed, Hickenlooper summed up the strengths of each candidate in this manner: Christensen knew the most about beer lore, its origin, its history. I was credited with being most knowledgeable about beer and brewing, while head Beerdrinker McDougall was the biggest consumer, able to describe the act of beerdrinking in what must have been orgasmic prose.

Shoot, I thought quality won over quantity every time. So much for clichés. Before the exam began, we joked that it might be best not to win, but to come back as a finalist year after year. I've already started planning and designing my beer resume for the 1998 Beerdrinker of the Year contest.

This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.

© Bobby Bush

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