The Yogi Berra of Beer goes home

October 9, 2000

By Kurt Epps

Richie Stolarz loved people. He also loved beer. Perhaps that's why God decided to call him home immediately after one of the greatest assemblies of both beer and people in the world -- the Great American Beer Festival.

The hearty, avuncular president of Beers International was taken ill as his plane to new Jersey was pulling out of the gate in Denver. Efforts to revive him failed, and the result is a major loss for not only those who love beer, but those who love life.

Richie was the type of guy you had to meet only once to know that you had actually known him forever. There was an immediate human connection--beyond the beer link--that Richie made with you. A combination of Yogi Berra and Yogi Bear, he was immediately likable. He had a heart like your favorite uncle, an attitude like Will Rogers and the demeanor of Santa Claus.

His love for good beer was so strong that it is no stretch to say his passion ignited the Bunker Hill of the Beer revolution on the East Coast long before the West Coast got all the media attention and credit for winning the war.

The affable host of too many beer dinners and tastings to list, Richie attracted the best in the beer world to his side, from brewers to writers to beer lovers. His love for beer was contagious, and his love for people was always reciprocated by the faithful who traveled around the country --indeed the world -- with him in search of good beer. The travel and the beer might be variable but, Richie was the constant, an amiable anchor in an often sudsy sea of information and opportunity.

So grounded was Richie in beer knowledge, that beer guru Michael Jackson, who is invited to every beer gathering in the world, was a regular Stolarz sidekick and guest. What's more, any observer could tell that Jackson was as taken with Stolarz as most of us in the beer world are taken with Jackson.

At their last beer tasting in Teaneck in late September, Jackson was on stage in the middle of tasting and commenting on beers when he ran out of clean glasses. Stolarz walked up to the greatest living beer judge in the world and threw him a plastic cup, prompting Jackson to comment wryly: "When you do things with Richie Stolarz, there's always a certain amount of informality involved."

And perhaps that was what endeared him to everyone. Richie was unpretentious, honest and real without being vulgar. He was able to see very clearly what counted in life and what was fluff. He passed that feeling on to the dedicated cadre of people who planned their calendars around his tastings and dinners, and people don't do that unless they like you.

While there will certainly be some temporary sadness about this vacuum in the beer world, it will be just that -- temporary. Richie lives on. He lives on in each of us who knows he has touched a deep and resonant life chord. Like a guy who disdains the beer judge's technical evaluation of beer, he helped us all to get through to the most critical question about both beer and life -- did you like it?

Richie didn't just like people, life and beer; he loved them.

And we know in our hearts that we haven't seen the last of Richie Stolarz. It's oddly comforting to know that with Richie there, in heaven there will be beer.

®Kurt E. Epps 2000 All Rights Reserved

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Kurt Epps