Every February, a small group of seasoned beer industry experts file into Wynkoop Brewery and don replica 18th-century white wigs and long black robes. Over the course of an afternoon, these judges assess and cross-examine three national finalists, all of whom are vying for the weighty title of Beerdrinker of the Year. While the costumes are funny, the prizes are serious: Aside from unequivocal bragging rights among fellow beer geeks, the champion wins free beer for life at Wynkoop (yes, you read that right) and a $250 bar tab at his or her hometown brewpub.
It has long been one of my goals (I’m a beer writer and hobbyist homebrewer) to sit at the judges’ table. This year, that dream became a reality.
After the excitement of being tapped to wear the ceremonial white wig wore off, I began to feel intimidated—these are the top beer geeks in the country; did I have enough brew knowledge to be in the same room as them? Determining the three finalists alone means reviewing a pile of wildly detailed beer resumés. Event organizer Marty Jones sent me past examples to demonstrate the level of expertise, and as I read through the stack, Cody Christman’s caught my attention. He’s visited 20 countries purely to experience beer history and culture. He’s modeled his basement after a beer hall in Austria, complete with German-made hand pumps for traditional drafts alongside an English hand pump, which pours his cask-conditioned ale. He has three refrigerators at his home used solely for brewing and beer storage.
In contrast, the extent of my “beer hall” is a bubbling, burping carboy of fresh stout in the corner of my kitchen. I decided to call on Christman’s expertise to help with my impending judging duties. We met at the Wynkoop, where he drinks nearly every Friday (for free, for life!) at a table near a framed photograph of him shortly after winning the Beerdrinker title in 2009.
Pint in hand, Christman calmed my nerves by admitting he was intimidated just to enter the competition. Knowing how qualified the other candidates would be, he rehearsed his speeches in his basement and brainstormed with friends about potential questions. For the Beer Listening round, in which finalists are presented with an unmarked beer and must identify it, he hosted a dinner party with a blind tasting. He also gave up spicy foods the week before the competition so as not to mute his palate.
Judges ask eight rounds of questions, which can range from serious (When Christman was a judge, he asked finalists to identify the size of a firkin, which is nine imperial gallons) to the humorous (2001 winner Cornelia Corey was asked, “What is your favorite superhero, and what beer would they drink?”). So what is the “it” factor that separates the champ from the deserving finalists? Christman says the winners aren’t just people who’ve tasted the most beers in the world; more important, he or she is the person you want to have a beer with. So all I need to do is relax into my white, curly wig; take a sip from my pint; and approach it just like I do my own homebrewing—start with the facts and then focus on the fun.
BOTTOMS UP No true suds fan would dare miss the Beerdrinker of the Year Competition. This year’s event takes place February 26 at 2 p.m., at the Wynkoop Brewing Company (1634 18th St., wynkoop.com). The festivities are free and open to the public.