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January, 1999

By Bobby Bush

For the third year in a row, I participated in the Beerdrinker of the Year contest. However, this time my role had changed. From one of three finalists in 1997 and last year’s winner, I contributed this time to the final round judging at the BDOY Oral Exams, held by sponsor Wynkoop Brewing Company at their “World’s Largest” brewpub in Denver.

Contest director Lew Cady and a team of Wynkoop employees narrowed the applicant pool down to ten. This year’s semifinalists hailed from Vermont, North Carolina, Connecticut, Tennessee, New Jersey, New York and two each from California and Washington. A panel of 29 beer experts, mostly editors of beer/brewing publications and the two previous winners, served to cull this elite semi-finalist group down to three finalist, based on their four page beerdrinking resumes.

On January 23, these three knowledgeable contestants met at Wynkoop to compare and contrast their beer knowledge and experience. These fortunate fellows were Stephen Pawlowski, a finalist runner-up last year who makes his living as a letter carrier in Roselle Park, NJ; Jay Van Horn, an industrial engineer who works from a brewing equipment manufacturer in Bellingham, WA; and Jim Robertson, a 64 year old Department of Defense engineer from Pomona, CA.

Joining yours truly in long black robes and hot, sticky white wigs in the Mile High City were Michael Bane of Zymurgy magazine; Paul Gatza, director of the American Homebrewers Association; Tony Todd of Rocky Mountain Beer News; Dick Kreck of the Denver Post and Wynkoop owner and all around nice guy John Hickenlooper. Well versed in the ways of the Oral Exam, this tribunal, blessed with amply Wynkoop brew, blasted questions at the contestants for over an hour: “What concerns you most about the microbrewery industry in its current state?” “Do you have a bottle opener in your pocket right now?- Let’s see it.” “Offer a toast in as many languages as you can.” “What have you done in the last 365 days in terms of beer drinking for you to be deserving of the title, Beerdrinker of the Year?”

And one of my favorites: “Imagine that you’re in Las Vegas, walking past a wedding chapel and suddenly Carmen Electra comes out and says, ‘Come right in and let’s get married!’ Then she say. ‘You bring the beer.’ You know it’s going to be a really thirsty honeymoon, but you can only bring three kegs of microbrew for the honeymoon. Which three kegs do you bring?” Pawlowski answered: “Climax ESB, Climax Gold and Climax Pale Ale.” Robertson proffered: “Since there’s an urgency of time, here, I’d stick to Las Vegas breweries. So I’d take the IPA from Monte Carlo, the hefeweizen from Holy Cow! and the pale ale from Triple 7.”

Even the audience, at around 75 strong, chimed in: “What’s the worst beer you ever had?” “What makes beer better than water, wine or whiskey?” The competition was friendly, but serious and fierce.

The qualifications for BDOY are simple, the selection process is not. The criteria has two parts: The winner must truly deserve the title, and the winner must not only enjoy and appreciate beer, but also know a great deal about how it’s made, it’s legend and lore. At this stage of the game, it’s a fine line between winner and runners-up.

After all was said and done, Robertson took home the Railyard Ale, eight cases in fact. His knowledge was vast- he has tallied over 9,000 beers in his pub-hopping diary and has penned several books about beer -and his personality, along with quick and confident answers, impressed the judges as they convened to select the honoree. Robertson’s name will be permanently engraved (right beneath mine) on a plaque hanging in Wynkoop and he’ll serve as a judge for next year’s competition.

Robertson claims Westwood Brewing Company, near downtown Los Angeles, as his home brewpub. His preferred beer style is dopplebock and his favorite beer is D.L.Geary’s Hampshire Special Ale. His beerdrinking philosophy was succinctly expressed in his closing statement in Denver:

“Eschew the ordinary. Strike out on your own and find the really great beers that exist in America and in the world. The brewers need encouragement, too. They need to know when they do something really well. Tell them.”

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

© Bobby Bush

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