is an award winning
member of the North
American Guild of Beer
Writers. His blog
Adventures in Beerland
is now a regular feature of
|A holiday tradition at the beloved Libertine Pub is the Santa Showdown. On the day before the day before Christmas
management invites their serious regulars to gather in a side room and bring not more than three or less than three
beers. Keeping directions simple is best for this group. Each then shares their bottles scoring each 1 – 10. The
person with the highest overall average wins the grand price - the coveted Santa Championship Hat complete with
beer stains in the shape of an elf, sweat lines that look like a holiday wreath, laurel sprigs, and a small independent
brewers logo. Several years ago we used a hat with a Budweiser big red B but it was burned in protest of, well, in
protest of everything Bud. The winner is allowed to wear the hat throughout the year at every Libertine function but
must bring it back in pristine condition for the next’s year’s contest. It’s a heady responsibility. Ah, that’s “heady” as
in hat as in…..never mind.
On the day before the day before the day before Christmas I looked in my fridge for something worthy of the
competition. I saw a few decent things but the fact was they all were sure losers. That meant only one thing – a trip
to the beer store. However a look at the clock said I would only have 30 minutes to shop not nearly enough time to
select my 3 beer team. I had a dentist appointment and being late was out of the question. Being late for a dentist
appointment is almost as bad as having an appointment in the first place. The one person in the world you never
ever want mad at you is a dentist. Those who are late get Novocain that is well past its ‘best if used by date’ and was
purchased in the clearance aisle at Wal-Mart. Canceling my appointment wasn’t an option either. A last minute
cancelation meant possible tooth removal on your next visit whether you needed it or not. I had no choice but to
search for my beers the day of the event. In a word – pressure.
That night I prepared my game plan to make my beer hunting as efficient and productive as possible. The beer shop
was the key element. Most places divide their beer into three categories, imported, macro, and craft. To many of
these places everything that isn’t Budweiser, Miller, Coors and Yuengling somehow is craft. That begs the question
why do managers put Yuengling in the macro section since the Brewer’s Association classifies them as craft?
Probably because they deserve to be there. Yuengling might be called craft by the BA but isn’t well crafted. The fact
is that the BA changed the definition of craft in 2015 (and just did again) when they decided that Yuengling and its 3
million barrels of production might be a useful ally in the epic battle against InBev and the other big boys.
Did you ever notice that after the beers are segmented by category stores then arrange them in alphabetical order to
make shopping really easy? Neither did I. That method seems to make sense which might explain why it’s not done.
Now before you write me that your shop does arrange them from A to Z I’m willing to concede that I’ve never actually
looked for beer that way. Beside it doesn’t matter, I wasn’t going to your shop.
Maybe the easiest way for efficient consumer shopping is for the store to put all beers from a single brewery
together. Makes sense to me. Grouping the beers by style also seems logical. In fact it’s so logical I’m sure that’s
the way it’s done on Vulcan at the Mr. Spock Liquor Emporium. All the IPAs go here, all the Double IPAs go there, all
the New England IPAs on the right, all the Brut IPAs on the left, all the…. wait, the IPAs have taken over the entire
cooler. There’s no room for the Romulan Ale.
Having said all of that my particular store followed the one method that must make it really easy to stock the shelves
– random placement. Foreign beers are mixed with local beers that are mixed with micros that are mixed with macros
that are mixed with ciders that are mixed with everything else including cheese platters and pasta sauce. Silly?
Maybe not. It got me to walk the entire length of their huge coolers several times, which I’m guessing is just what they
wanted. I saw beers I never saw before. Even more, all that walking burned a few extra calories which for a beer
drinker is a good thing.
Finally I made my selections. Throwing caution to the wind I picked beers even if I thought they were not ones the
contestant/judges would know, had tasted, or even heard of. If they were worthy they would win since everyone there
was impartial and honest. After all, these were serious beer people who wouldn’t be swayed by a fancy name, well
known brewery, or an envelope of cash. I’m sure of the last one. I tried it in the past and it never worked.
Since the competition was to be a best in show type meaning all styles could be entered I tried to cover the gamut. I
bought one Russian Imperial Stout, one American Imperial Stout, and one Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout. I
might not win but considering they averaged 11.9% ABV at least I would do my part in getting everyone to feel happy.
I was however worried that the imperial stout from the Cricket Hill Brewery might not be good enough. It was then that
fate, in this case also know as my friend Larry, intervened. There in front of my door he had left a bag with a ribbon.
The note said Merry Christmas, the label on the bottle said Pliny the Elder. Yes that Pliny, the one rated “World
Class” by BeerAdvocate and “Overall 100” by Rate Beer. Ah, victory was surely at hand with my new surprise
entrant. Cricket Hill went to the bench. It would only get in the game if a starter got injured as in a bottle slipped and
broke. I would save Pliny for the final round as a surprise bit of shock and awe.
The moment of truth was at hand as the bar manager called the group to order. He was wearing what looked like a
stripped referee shirt with a Hello My Name Is sticker over a WWE logo. On the sticker he had boldly printed
“Libertine” making his role as scorekeeper, referee, and bouncer official and legal. That in turn covered all
concerned just in case any agent from the state Alcohol and Beverage Control Commission came around.
In the first round I brought out a Founder’s KBS to clearly audible yawns of several contestants. Just gamesmanship
I thought since what’s not to love about an imperial stout that was aged in oak bourbon barrels for over a year. Ah
those smells and flavors of vanilla, oak, bourbon, licorice, cinnamon, chocolate and coffee explain why this is an
iconic classic. Everyone handed their secret rating to the scorekeeper who eventually announced it was give an
average of 8.1. A bit low but still competitive. After suffering through some mediocre IPAs, pale ales, and two
barleywines the round ended. I was nicely sitting in third place. I hoped to move up with my next entry, Revolution’s
Deth’s Tar. Some of the group clearly were not familiar with the beer and mumbled that Revolution really doesn’t
make anything good. No, in this case they make great. This Russian imperial stout is aged in two different types of
bourbon barrels (Heaven Hill & Old Forester) then blended to create a rich, silky mouthfeel and deep, complex malt
flavors and aromas reminiscent of dark baker’s chocolate, fresh brewed coffee and caramel candy.
Deth’s Tar average score – 9.2. Bingo - I’m now only one tenth of a point out of first place.
Clearly the rest of the contest would be a formality. Pliny would appear and The Hat would be mine. This would be a
Christmas to remember. In fact it would be Christmas all year round since every time I donned my championship
chapeau a constant clamoring of “let me buy you a beer” would be mine at the Libertine. Ho-Ho-Ho winning is so
According to the scorekeeper all I had to average was 4.1 on my last beer to win. A bottle of Bud Light, with or
without lime would be able to do that. As I pulled the Pliny from a simple brown bag a smattering of applause broke
out that was almost as loud as the many gasps of joy I heard. This was the beer of legend. The beer was poured
and everyone lifted their glasses in silent tribute to my inevitable victory.
After my first sip I thought some pieces of cardboard drenched in buttered and left it out in the rain had somehow
gotten into my glass. I carefully checked. It hadn’t; it was the beer. The Pliny tasted as if Pliny himself had brewed it
using water from a Roman public bath via a crumbling aqueduct. As a line quickly developed at the dump bucket I
knew my fate was sealed. The beer’s average score was 2.3 putting me in next to last place. It was penthouse to the
outhouse in one stroke.
I tried to focus on the joys of the season. Somewhere people were caroling, lights were being placed on trees,
children were writing letters to Santa, lovers were dashing on one horse open sleighs, and mistletoe was being hung
in the doorway but somewhere was not here. Here sadness reigned.
My Christmas was ruined by Pliny
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