Meet the world’s most avid beer drinkers.
By Don Russell
Matt Venzke, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, had a major beer-drinking problem during his recent deployment to Kuwait. Over the years, his worldwide travels had allowed him to sample brews in 15 different countries and 35 states. From Tel Aviv’s only brewpub to Silver Gulch Brewing in Fairbanks, Ala., he’d tasted it all – at least 60 different distinct styles of ale and lager. Back home in Papillion, Neb., his basement was packed with 48 metal beer trays, 272 brewery glasses, 3,060 coasters and 3,297 bottle caps. In the last 3-1/2 years alone, he’d tallied more than 2,000 different beers—an estimated 1.6 different beers per day.
Kuwait is dry. No beer allowed.
His solution: Venzke kept his palate in shape by tracking down and recording his tasting notes on 17 new non-alcoholic brews.
“It’s sad,” Venzke admits. “But I had to have my beer.”
Venzke is an unapologetic beer geek. Before before we go any further, let’s get one thing out of the way: For the truly impassioned beer drinker, the fanatic who bathes him or herself in the culture of suds, “beer geek” is not a pejorative. It is a proud badge to be earned while sampling the local taps in a faraway town, to be worn on the sleeve while spreading the word among friends and family and to be shared among the fellow fans who invariably gather at famous beer haunts and festivals around the world.
A beer geek is someone like Diane Catanzaro (pictured below), a Norfolk, Va. college professor who writes beer haiku and named her cat “Chimay,” after the Belgian Trappist ale. Or John Ahrens, of Mt. Laurel, N.J., who was once listed in the Guinness World Book of Records for the largest beer can collection (30,000+). Or Ray McCoy, whose slogan is, “Life’s a journey. Pack a cooler.”
Beer geeks keep databases of every stout, pale ale or porter that crosses their lips. They post opinionated reviews on beer-tasting websites, they trade hard-to-find bottles by mail, they travel the world and worm their way into even the most private monastic breweries. They amass collections of rare, vintage beers and resist the urge to crack them open for decades. But they are not snobs; they’ll try almost anything and they won’t judge you harshly if you don’t share their taste. You might call them obsessive, but they say they’re just having fun.
“I consider beer one of the building blocks of a full and happy life,” said Warren Monteiro, a New York City playwright. “It’s not a habit, it’s a lifestyle.” Of course, it’s a lifestyle that in Monteiro’s case includes:
• A collection of more than 2,000 beer labels he’ll one day use to paper his bathroom
• Beer treks to Asia, Europe or Central America every other month
• An apartment with not one, but two beer fridges, set at separate temperatures for ales and lagers
I know these details because Monteiro, along with the others above, have copiously documented their beer-drinking chops in official three-page resumes submitted over the years to the annual Beer Drinker of the Year contest at Wynkoop Brewing in Denver. I was a member of the powder-wigged panel of judges who had the duty to sift through the resumes, quiz the contestants and select the 2006 winner.
During a grueling Q & A session, the candidates showed off their knowledge and quick thinking. “Describe the entire history of beer in 40 seconds,” one judge demands. “Dick Cheney invites you to accompany him on a hunting trip,” another challenged. “What beer do you bring?” Another question: “Evil terrorists are threatening to wipe out the world’s entire supply of hops. Do you negotiate with them?”
Despite his willingness to subvert his palate with near beer, Venzke didn’t even make it to the finals. The winner was a guy named Tom Schmidlin of Seattle who gave up his day job as a computer programmer to enter a Ph.D. program in biochemistry, just so he can study yeast. He took home lifetime drinking privileges at Wynkoop and a cash allowance at his home pub, not to mention the undying envy of beer geeks everywhere.
But there’s more to beer geekdom than bragging rights and free beers. These devotees also play a key role in the whole envelope-pushing growth of American craft beer. The entire genre of so-called “extreme beer”–triple bock and imperial stout and double IPAs–might not even exist if it weren’t for these extreme fans. In North Carolina, for example, when the state legislature finally voted to “pop the cap” and permit the sale of high-alcohol beer like barleywine, it was beer geeks–not the malt liquor lobby–that got the credit for changing the law.
“My brother and I have always viewed beer geeks as our voice,” says Chris Trogner who, along with his brother John, runs Troegs Brewing in Harrisburg, Pa. “They speak not only to the rest of the beer community, but to their friends and family who may not know as much about beer.”
“Without their support, I don’t know where we’d be,” says Sam Calagione, president of Dogfish Head Brewing in Delaware. “They are, in essence, the early adopters that their peer group looks to for advice.” That’s important, considering the daunting nomenclature of craft brewing, from ABVs (alcohol by volume) to IBUs (international bittering units), Calagione says. “Beer geeks have taken the time to educate themselves, and they’re willing to teach others.”
Calagione is one of the darlings to these fans, and is known to banter with them on Internet sites and invite them to his brewery for private tours. Last summer, he hosted a two-day “intergalactic” bocce tournament for supporters at BeerAdvocate.com, a beer-rating website. Some fawned over Dogfish Head’s “off-centered ales for off-centered people;” others didn’t hesitate to get into Calagione’s face with suggestions on improving one of his loopy varieties.
The event might’ve been a savvy means of selling to an important group of consumers, but Calagione noted, “Beer geeks are a pretty individualistic and self-reliant group of people. They’re unimpressed by marketing campaigns and advertising. They don’t want to be told what to drink, they explore for themselves what they like.”
Logan Perkins, a 40-something fan from Denver, has been a “beer hunter” for 25 years, who, at one point in his trek, spent four months overseas visiting places from Portugal to Cambodia, Croatia to England, and hit five Belgian beer fests, the Hamburg International Beer Fest, and the Copenhagen fest. For the last year, he has been living out of a van, traveling the country in search of great beer. “I’m driven by discoveries of new taste, places and people I meet,” he told me in an email. When I tracked him down this summer, he was traipsing through Transylvania, on the trail of an obscure Hungarian lager. “It’s a hobby that satisfies my love of culture, travel, architecture, city design, sharing stories and tasting beer.”
And meeting new friends…in the words of Hunter S. Thompson, “Good people drink good beer.”
That’s the motto of Cornelia Corey and Ray McCoy, the only couple to win the Beer Drinker of the Year contest (2001 and 2003, respectively). To me, they exemplify that impassioned discovery better than anyone. The two North Carolinians met each other in a bar 17 years ago, before either knew the difference between an ale and a lager. A vacation to England showed them a whole new world of brews. Since then, they’ve gone to beer camp in Kentucky, graduated from ale university in Seattle, accumulated a library of beer books, attended and organized festivals around the world, opened their own home brewery, collected hundreds of pieces of breweriana…
And, to top things off, finally tied the knot earlier this year.
Their wedding, appropriately enough, featured the ceremonial tapping of a “unity keg” of a hefeweizen brewed by McCoy. “We tapped the keg right in the middle of the ceremony,” said Corey. “It was a way for us to share our passion for beer with all our friends.”
If the minister didn’t say it, allow me: I now pronounce you beer geeks for life.