Richie's last tasting?

October 18, 2000

By Kurt Epps

It was as expected and awaited as the splashes of Fall color that usually accompany it -- this annual Michael Jackson fix organized by Richie Stolarz of beers International.

And for many of the Stolarz faithful, it was assumed that this event would, like autumn itself, be eternal.

For those first timers, in awe of Jackson and unused to his standard jokes and droll wit, it is always exciting. They marvel at Jackson's considerable experience, his skills and his marvelous anecdotes and humor.

Those regulars who know the Jackson tag lines by heart get a different kind of satisfaction--the kind that children get when they ask Daddy to tell their favorite story again.

For those folks, it's not a matter of excitement, but rather a comforting assurance that as long as Jackson and Stolarz are together in the Fall, all is right with the world.

The first time I caught the Jackson/Stolarz act was in Tim Schafer's place in Morristown last year, an upscale place with top-notch food, great beers and a classy elegance that, in retrospect, had absolutely no effect on either Stolarz or Jackson.

On this occasion, Ringmaster Richie had rented out a VFW Hall in Teaneck, NJ, and such halls exude a somewhat different ambience than upscale restaurants. You won't find, for example, pictures of Hanoi Jane Fonda pasted to the back of the latter's urinals. That's one reason I like VFW Halls.

And the food here was a tad different than Tim Schafer's outstanding, varied and creative cuisine. At the VFW, every table got a bowl each of potato chips and pretzels, and they weren't Utz's, Herr's or Cape Cod. Instead of gleaming glassware specially selected to bring out the best qualities of the beers, each table got a sleeve of opaque plastic cups.

Such stoic accoutrements, however mattered little to anyone. The beers were here, so were Jackson and Stolarz, and that's all you needed to have a good time.

Who else but Stolarz would dare introduce the greatest living beer authority in the world with a line like, "We got Michael Jackson here with us tonight, and we're gonna keep having him back until he gets it right."? Beautiful, just beautiful.

Stolarz worked the room as usual, hustling books for Jackson while selling 50-50 chances along with tickets that allowed most everyone to take home what he claimed was "rare beer memorabilia," some bric-a-brac he likely dredged up from his cellar. Even the newbies were on to his game, but like everyone else, they rushed up to claim their prizes. God was in his heaven.

The beers, a superb collection from some of the nation's finest brewers -- including an excellent sampling of homebrew from Steve Gale -- were the final ingredients for an always memorable night.

Gene Muller's Flying Fish Brewery was first up with its Blackfish, a combination of FF Pale Ale and Porter concocted by a creative publican. It joined the list of many great products that have been produced serendipitously.

Ommegang Brewery sent on its Rare Vos much to everyone's delight, prompting Jackson to declare it "perilously drinkable."

Yard's of Philadelphia was on hand with two exceptional beers, an Extra Special Pale Ale that wowed the crowd and the butt-kickingest IPA you'll ever come across. Fruity and full of bold flavor, it merits a cautionary respect with its 8% ABV.

Sebbie Buhler and husband Chaz were on hand from Rogue, fresh from their appearance at Philly's Sippin' by the River benefit four days earlier. They brought along the semi-toasty, but always drinkable Dead Guy Ale.

Gene Muller got the next at bat, and came through with a double--his super Abbey Double--drawing raves from my table which included DK's Tom O'Reilly, publisher of Jackson's beautiful, must-have Ultimate Beer Book.

From England's Samuel Smith's brewery came the always-popular Winter Welcome, and its winey, strong fruitiness did not fail to please.

Mad German Dave Hoffman and "Pops" Kurt were on hand with Climax Nut Brown, the Gold Standard of American Nut Browns, and an absolutely slamming Oktoberfest made with a lager yeast. I flipped over it when I sampled it a month before in its infancy, but like Jackson and Stolarz themselves, it got even better with age.

Greg Zaccardi's (High Point, NJ) Ramstein Oktober was also widely praised among the Marzen Men (and women) in my immediate area, and deservedly so. His Winter Wheat, however, actually appealed to me more -- citrusy, but smooth and well balanced. Jackson summarized, "It's a pleasure to taste beers like this."

The final entrant was that of homebrewer par excellence Steve Gale, whose picture appears in the dictionary under Beer Nut. His Tudor Hellfest Rauchbier--made with an ale yeast--was perhaps the most intriguing entry of the night, demonstrating a careful hand in the application of malts, smoked and otherwise.It was a substantial brew, distinctive, chewy and pleasant.

Jackson delivered his anticipated diversions to everyone's delight, at one point commenting that "Teaching our young people to drink bad beer is worse than sex on TV!" (I'll drink to that -- especially when all those wavy lines disturb the picture.)

Woven throughout the night, of course, was the casual interaction of Jackson-Stolarz. At one point, Jackson indicated that he was in need of a glass to conduct the next tasting. Stolarz, passing by the stage hawking something or other, threw him a plastic cup, prompting Jackson to observe, "When you do things with Richie Stolarz, there's always a certain amount of informality involved.

The evening concluded in jovial fashion with smiles, pictures and handshakes all around and with Jane Fonda getting more than her usual share of attention. God was in his Heaven and all was right with the world.

Eleven days later, Richie was dead, stricken on the plane that was pulling out of the gate in Denver after the GABF. God had called His Beer Guy home.

None of us could have known that this night would be Richie's last tasting--at least in this world. But I doubt that even if we had known, we'd have done anything different. Richie simply would not have tolerated it.

But one thing is sure.

Richie's now making plans for our arrival with a kickass tasting.

So don't be surprised if you meet a smiling God holding a couple of beer books, an old pub sign and a 50-50 ticket.

And hoisting a plastic cup as you enter.

®Kurt E. Epps 2000 All Rights Reserved

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Kurt Epps