A tribute to Richie

October 2000

By Gary Monterosso

I vividly remember the first and last times I spoke with Richie Stolarz. I had been writing professionally for only a year or two and met him at a beer and wine event in southern New Jersey. I guess I was attracted to the array of Belgian beers he had made available for sampling. Speaking with him for that first time, I found a jocular, unpretentious, obliging man who went out of his way to make me feel welcome as I joined the fraternity of beer writers. He gave me his business card: "Richard Stolarz, President, Beers International, Teaneck, NJ" and asked me to contact him at any time.

I recognized the organization immediately. Beers International helped bring some of the world's finest beers to New Jersey and beyond. As the 1990's rolled on and I saw Richie at various events, he talked with me about beers and his business philosophy, stressing appreciation and education. His tours became noteworthy; his beer dinners were legendary. Beers International brought Michael Jackson to New Jersey for 13 consecutive years to host a craft beer tasting. Earlier this year, Michael told me, "Rich is a big guy physically as well as metaphorically. He's done fantastic work in beer education in the northern part of the state and in the New York area."

Richard Stolarz passed away as he prepared to return home from the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado, on October 8, 2000. His wife, Elaine, had accompanied him on the trip, as well as a group of friends and associates. So highly regarded was Richie for his work and positive influence that Rogue Ales of Colorado once honored him with a commemorative 22-ounce bottle featuring his caricature.

The last time I saw Richie was in Atlantic City, NJ, just a few months ago. I had just finished speaking at a beer dinner when I glanced up to see him standing about three feet to my right. Elaine and him were in the city for a few days of relaxation. I introduced him to a number of friends in the beer business from my part of the state and made arrangements for him to appear on a radio show on which I am a regular guest. The interview was to be done by phone and would last about ten minutes or so in duration. After plans were finalized, Rich called me aside and said, "You know, I am comfortable doing radio but my wife says I cuss too much. I tell her she's f-----g crazy." Of course, this was said in jest, but my reply was for him not to worry as the producer always could hit the delay to bleep out anything out of the ordinary.

By the way, Rich invited me to come to northern New Jersey for his annual Michael Jackson beer tasting which took place on September 28. I was to come as his guest and he would make arrangements for me to spend the night there. "You can stay at Tim Schafer's ("The Brew Chef") place," he said. Although I readily agreed at the time, circumstances prevented me from attending. Oh, Tim never knew I was to be his house guest but, as he told me later, "If Rich said you were to stay at my place, you would be staying there."

My relationship with Richie was limited to seeing each other at shows, tastings and so on. In the last two years, we communicated regularly via email. In fact, we exchanged thoughts just a few days before his untimely passing. People who knew him were well aware of his charitable efforts, especially when children were involved. In fact, anyone who has been inspired by him is encouraged to make a donation to: Tomorrows Children's Fund, Don Imus/WFAN Pediatric Center, Hackensack Medical Center, 30 Prospect Avenue, Hackensack, NJ 07601. You may want to note on your gift that it is in memory of Richie. This non-profit organization's goal is to ease the pain and suffering of children with cancer and serious blood disorders.

There can be no greater testimony to the impact that a person has had than to study the words of one's peers. Below is a sample of the feelings of some people in the beer trade who knew Richie Stolarz:

"We are saddened by the loss of Rich. We need not shed tears; rather, let's think about what he's done as a pioneer for the growth of our industry."
- Carol Stoudt, Stoudt's Brewing, Adamstown, PA.

"Rich brought lots of people in the industry together. I'm going to miss him for that. He was happiest when people around him were having a good time."
- Dave Hoffman, Climax Brewing, Roselle Park, NJ.

"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 Epps, writer.

"He was the prince and the ambassador for the craft brewers segment. He will be missed and he'll live on, not only in memory, but in Beers International."
- Dean Palmer, Brooklyn Brewing, Brooklyn, NY.

"I first met Richie about a year ago and spent some time with him in late September at the Michael Jackson tasting. He never remembered anyone's name but he always remembered mine. He said, 'I always call the women sweetheart, that way I don't have to remember their names."
- Nancy Barton, Yards Brewing, Philadelphia, PA.

"He was like a grandfather to me in a way. I first opened the brewery in 1996 and the distributor who handled our beer sent me with Richie for two weeks. I sat next to him in the car and he taught me how to sell beer. Even though we moved on to other distributors, he remained a faithful friend, a real supporter of the small guys who cared about their products."
- Greg Zaccardi, High Point Wheat Beer Co., Butler, NJ.

"Through my culinary growth, Richie taught me ultimate respect for alcohol, between beer and food. I wouldn't be a chef today without that knowledge. He brought validity to my writing. I attribute much of my success to Richie's influence: don't give up. Just serve the truth, put out a quality product."
- Tim Schafer, Tim Schafer Cuisine, Morristown, NJ.

In the days when the beer movement was predominantly a West Coast phenomenon, Pat and George Saxon, of Phoenix Imports, were doing pioneering work in the East. Although I had already made some high-profile appearances in the East, they arranged my first tour here. In D.C., we had a good evening at the Brickskeller; in Maryland, we had a nightmare night with a terrible sound system; then we headed north for our "New York area tasting", somewhere in Jersey. After the nightmare night, I was not feeling too confident about the rest of the tour. We arrived at an anonymous-looking hotel, in no particular town, and were greeted by this huge guy with a rather gnarled appearance. It seems that I looked very dubious about the whole enterprise. At least, that is the way Richie loved to tell it. He was the huge guy, of course, and he was always ready with a self-deprecating story. I was depicted as the over-refined Englishman and he was the regular guy. In fact, my own family background was remarkably similar to Richie's, and I immensely enjoyed spending time with him. I always looked forward to seeing him, especially if we could contrive to meet for a drink at Andy's Corner, in Bogota, N.J. That is one of my favorite pubs, and it always seemed perfectly to fit the mood and moment. Richie and I seemed to trigger reminiscences in each other about our childhoods. I grew up in a neighborhood that was largely Irish and Polish, and therefore Catholic. Richie went to a Catholic school. Both of us had been boxing fans in our youth, and remembered some of the classic fights at the Garden. He had been there; I had listened on a crackly radio.

Back in London, I would hear Richie's voice on the phone, with a nugget of gossip or an after-lunch joke, and my spirits would be lifted even on the most deadline-scarred of days. His personal warmth could be felt at a range of three thousand miles.

My appearance for his group Beers International became an annual event. Most years, we did two, on consecutive nights: one a tasting, the other a beer dinner. We did it for a dozen years. When I am in the area, I always stay at the Algonquin. Over the years, Richie would have various members of his family pick me up and drive me to Jersey. I came to know a lot about the family, especially his daughter Lisa. They all seem to have the same warmth that made Richie such an irresistible character, and they all worked so hard to support him with Beers International. He loved good beer, and made his personal obsession into a crusade. Some of the smaller brewers in the region know how much he did to help them, but the whole industry owes him a debt of gratitude.

He usually attended my annual tastings at the University of Pennsylvania. When I had my tenth show there, and they put on a black-tie roast, Richie arrived looking like a mobster. He was wearing a regular necktie and shirt - but both were black. "You said black-tie," he laughed. "Will this do? It's black..."

I also saw him most years at the Great American Beer Festival. This year, his wife Elaine was there, and was nice enough to corner me for a chat. On the Saturday night, Richie visited the booth where I was signing books. "I came to say goodbye," he announced. "Are you leaving tonight?" I asked, surprised. "No, tomorrow morning. But in case we don't see each other again..."

He had arrived in my life with a bold suddeness...and suddenly he was gone. I am a different, and better, person for having known him. I am not alone in that.

- Michael Jackson

®Gary Monterosso. All Rights Reserved

Gary Monterosso