Vince Capano is a two time winner of the prestigious Quill and Tankard writing award for humor from the North American Guild of Beer Writers.
Vince's column is now a regular feature of beernexus.com
Yesterday my good friend and colleague Dan Hodge held his annual beer tasting event for a small group of invited brewers, writers, and just plain old drinkers. The tasting featured 71 different brews. Yes, seventy-one. It’s as if the Great American Beer Festival had relocated to the Hodge living room. The beers went from A (Abbott) to Z (Zapec) though in the spirit of accurate reporting, I have to reveal there were no representatives of those great beer letters Q,X,E, K, I, and U. Good thing they don’t hold a grudge; if they ever wanted to get even with Dan by going on strike he’d be hard pressed to write his next BeerNexus column.
The lucky guests quickly gathered around Dan’s magnificent “tasting table” - you mean you too don’t have a hand carved, majestic oak table just for beer drinking? We took our places, each on his own personal journey in search of great beer. Our mission this winter’s night was clear - savor the good and identify the unpalatable with only one tool - an adventurous palate.
“Let the beer flow”, Dan regally intoned in his best Mean Gene Orerlund voice . With that he poured the first sample. As the beer hit the glass it seemed to glow with an inner light and life as it sparkled with dancing trails of bubbles. Dan majestically waved his arms and caressed each bottle. Then, with studied precision he held it at just the perfect angle to allow the beer to gently tumble into the small, thin walled glasses he had carefully laid out in front of us. Each glass was distinctively embossed with a brewery’s logo on its side and a rim of gold at its top.
Dan is a firm believer that the right vessel is an integral part of enjoying beer. Glass boots, giant mugs, and even Flintstone Jelly jars are definitely out. Out too are straws, slippers, and most assuredly, drinking directly from the bottle. As for me, I’m going to include on that exclude list those giant liter glasses of Oktoberfest fame, the Maßkrug. No mas, please. It holds too much beer. After all, if the point of it all is simply imbibing then one might as well take it intravenously or via gravity fed enema.
Yes, I understand that many consider the Maßkrug to be an authentic (perhaps) part of Oktoberfest/Munich and thus of the beer drinking culture. I also concede that it is a functional item. With the Maß a single Fraulein can handle many more customers who themselves won’t have to wait for their next pint since it’s already in the glass. But clearly by the time one gets to the bottom of the Maß the beer loses most of its fresh flavor. It screams stale and dull. If your answer to this problem is to drink the beer quickly, well, ah…… tough to argue with that.
The overwhelming majority of the beers Dan served came from the USA with a goodly number from England, Belgium, Germany, and the Czech Republic. It’s hard not to love the Czechs– they have highest per capita beer consumption in the world. While a few of the German beers in the tasting adhered to the 1516 Bavarian Reinbeitsgebot purity laws (beer can only be made from barley malt, hops, and water) most, thankfully, did not. Note to the people at Webster’s – if you need a picture to illustrate the word ‘bland’ just put in one of any Reinbeitsgebot beer. The brews from Belgium proved to be an idiosyncratic boasting of spices and sugars. The American ones were complex, hugely flavorful, and wonderfully in love with hops.
Needless to say, this was an all craft beer evening; there was none of the stuff that many Americans call beer but the rest of the world calls water. Furthermore, there wasn’t one “light” beer in sight. You know those wonders of modern chemistry. They use bacteria derived artificial enzymes, corn, and hop extracts (three times, I guess, in “tripled hopped”Coors”). By the way, those light beers really aren’t so light. Coors Light has 104 calories in a 12 ounce can while regular Coors beer has 120 calories per can for a meager 16 calorie difference. You’ve just burned that up while reading this article. Admittedly, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, one of my favorite barley wines, has 330 calories but isn’t that the point of drinking craft beer – drink better but drink less. My beer math says one Bigfoot is better than three Coors Lights anytime.
Conventional wisdom says that beer should be tasted in order from the lightest style in flavor and alcohol and then progress to the darkest and highest in alcohol. Maybe, but it was much more fun to have Dan randomly select the order of beers from his back porch where he had stashed them. Why the porch? According to Dan, it was the “green” thing to do; why waste more of his refrigerator’s electricity when the winter’s night chill would do just fine. Who would have thought there was such a thing as a beer environmentalist?
Dan carefully hid the each bottle’s name from each of us to insure an independent evaluation. He also held his hand over each label’s artwork. That was a judicious move since, just coincidently of course, the bottles with logos of hot blondes in a state of semi-undress won the tasting competition the last three years straight. Dan knew his guests very well.
One after another, the beers came out. The serving pace, which included Dan’s rinsing of every glass after every beer, was Olympic sprint quality. It’s amazing how he still found the time to drink along with us. Actually, no one there was really surprised; after all, as well as he knew us, we knew him.
We tried beers with names like Festive, Rosey Nosey, Wreck the Halls, Pick Axe, Butt Head, Prickly, and Ornery . We saw colors ranging from thin yellow to opaque black. We saw bottles in a myriad of sizes and shapes including one with “open other end” written on the bottom.
Pulling out every stop, Dan had even selected just the right music to play in the background. If expected ditties like “Under the Scotsman’s Kilt”, “Friends in Low Places”, “I Like Beer” or other such ones then you don’t know Dan. With him it's first class all the way. He started with songs from Sinatra and finished with Mario Lanza singing The Student Prince. I defy anyone not to join in as Mario belts out "Drink! Drink! Drink!” in the chorus from the appropriately titled “The Drinking Song”. Dan explained that “The Drinking Song” was especially popular with theatergoers when it was first written in 1924 while the US was in the midst of -Prohibition! They probably were singing it in the speakeasy next door too.
We scribbled tasting notes and came up with a numerical rating for each beer. It was serious business now, well, as serious as people who are tasting 71 beers could make it. After the final sample was served it was time to tabulate all the ratings and pick the top beers.
To cut the tension I told several sure fire, laugh out loud beer jokes. “Hey, did you see the skeleton that walked into the bar yesterday? He ordered a beer …. and a mop.” I followed that with the classic, “what did the termite say when he went into the bar? Is the bar tender here?” Since the laughter was, shall we say, muted, I could only assume that some of the guests had lost their sense of humor due to over-imbibing. That wasn’t the only thing that was lost. The result sheet was also lost, probably for the same reason. Temporarily lost, that is. Dan discovered it neatly folded under his bagpipes. I’m sure you’ve done that a few times yourself. What, you don’t have bagpipes near your beer drinking table?
The two highest rated beers were huge surprises - Saranac Big Moose Ale and Tommy Knocker Pick Axe Pale. Most so called beer experts don’t think too highly of either. On hearing the news, many in our group, they of Serious Beer Geek persuasion, demanded a recount. Dan verified every hanging bottle cap and chad. The results were unchanged. The upset was now officially official.
Knowing I was going to write a story about the event, several tasters cajoled me into signing a duly notarized document promising not to reveal their names. They were petrified that if the beer community knew they had helped crown Moose and Axe as champions their credibility rating would be zero. Can you believe such self absorbed snobbery? Such beer pretentious? Don’t worry, I was not one of those low lifes. To prove my point, the next day I proudly and most publicly purchased a six pack each of Big Moose and Pick Axe!
I knew my Groucho nose and glasses disguise would eventually come in handy.