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Olympian Beer Drinking

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The competition was held at the same time as the Winter Olympics, involving an activity in which many spectators and TV viewers of the Olympics indulge in while watching the games: beer drinking.

It was the prestigious (in some quarters, at least), 14th annual "Beerdrinker of the Year" contest.

The 2010 Beerdrinker of the Year, Bill Howell, on February 27th.

However, no beer bongs or quarters were utilized at this match-up; this wasn't supposed to be merely high jinks aimed at "average drinkers," as the event's MC, Marty Jones, explained it. In playful fashion, three competing finalists were asked questions by a panel of robed and wigged judge, in order to scholarly gauge the "depth and scope of their beeriness," this past Saturday.

At stake was the grand prize: free beer for life at the space hosting the event, the Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver (luckily for the Wynkoop's budget, there has only been one Colorado winner in the event's history: Cody Christman of Golden, last year); $250 worth of free beer at the winner's home pub; a recognition consisting of the winner's name on a trophy; and, last but not least, a t-shirt proclaiming the wearer to be the contest's victor.

Naturally, both competitors and audience members sipped a beer or two during the timed match-up.

Beerdrinker of the Year contestants (from left to right): Phil Farrell (with bronzed rubber chicken), Bill Howell, and Denver's Logan Perkins .

I was pulling for the hometown favorite, Logan Perkins of Denver, Colorado. Perkins, an amusing and gregarious chap, is noted for hosting well-stocked beer parties for VIPs and other assorted beer geeks during events like the Great American Beer Festival. He's traveled the world, quaffing beer in a variety of locales: 45 states, 21 European countries, and five Asian nations. Perkins also hands out a special business card of his that can be affixed to a pint glass, informing servers not to take the beer away, because you're simply off peeing.

But Perkins proved a little too weird for the judges, apparently. He got big laughs when he declared, during a question about wine versus beer, "I do go both ways, but wine doesn't quench my thirrrst, and ooowwooowooeeeeee!"

During a segment in which contestants theatrically attempt to bribe the judges, Perkins told them that he'd like to "share with you my balls"--which, it turned out, thankfully, referred to the tasty desserts he'd made using beer.

"Sometimes when I sweat I smell like a hop bomb," Perkins had declared earlier in his swampy-thick, New Orleans-bred accent.

Contestant Phil Farrell of Cumming, GA, has also trotted the globe, quenching his thirst for beer in exotic locales. But, hey, it's pretty exotic for Farrell right at home: It said in the event's program, "His basement beer pub features six taps, two refrigerators, and a 15-gallon brewing system." As part of his shtick, though, Farrell also parades around with a bronzed rubber chicken, which he constantly references jokingly. And Farrell stumbled during his closing statement, experiencing technical difficulties while attempting to play electric guitar using a beer bottle as a slide.

No, for a winner, the judges appeared to be looking for a centrist, a man who will best promote beer to the public in a responsible way--with a modicum less tomfoolery. They clearly saw that in Bill Howell, a retired navy officer from Sterling, Alaska.

Winner Bill Howell with robed and wigged beer judges.

Howell teaches a class on beer at a local college. And he's the kind of guy who likes to eat a nice stinky Blue Stilton cheese while drinking a good hoppy IPA-style beer. (His choice for a UNESCO world heritage spot for beer would be Burton-on-Trent, England, where the India Pale Ale style developed.) Howell said the most exotic locale he's ever had a beer was on Alaska's North Slope, where the wind chill approached minus 60. And he emphasized building a local beer community, proudly announcing the opening of a new Alaskan beer maker the day before.

An audience member asked if Howell could "see Russia" from his local brewpub. He denied it -- although he satirically quipped that he'd more likely be able to see the hindquarters of a certain ex-governor of the state. He regretfully informed people that Alaska has the highest state excise tax on beer.

Asked what beer he'd bring to a beer summit with President Obama, Howell decided a beer from Obama's Illinois would be appropriate. Something not too demanding in the Goose Island brewery's line, though, given the President's tepid choices, already -- especially in beer.

Furthermore, Howell showed good technique when the contestants were asked to pour a beer into a glass -- swirling the bottle before finishing, producing a nice, rocky head that crested the top of the rim. He also spoke lovingly of the Belgian farmhouse ale Saison Dupont, and the importance of using the proper style of glassware for it.

Howell may have stumbled here and there -- opining that white pepper would be a lousy ingredient in beer, which led contestant Perkins to point out that white pepper is nicely employed in some Belgian wit beers. But Howell knew what a "firkin" (an English unit of liquid measurement) is, what the oldest brewery in North America is (Canada's Molson), and -- thanks, he said, to five years of Jesuit schooling -- what the historical significance of Pliny the Elder is (he was the Roman naturalist who first classified hops botanically).

When Howell was asked what beer would go best with the Olympic sport curling, he correctly identified curling as, originally, a Scottish game, deciding that a strong, "wee heavy" Scottish ale would be fitting, to nods of approval in the audience. It was like watching a successful slalom run.

"The one thing I want to say to everybody is: support your local brewery, that's what beer drinking is all about," Howell said during his victory speech. "Introduce new people to beer, and that's how we'll make the world a better place: one person at a time."

Afterward, I conducted an incisive, eleven-second interview with the newly-declared, highly-enthused 2010 winner.

How does it feel to be named "Beerdrinker of the Year," Bill Howell?

"It feels wonderful! Who wouldn't want to be named 'Beerdrinker of the Year'?! It's great!'"

Oh, I don't know. Drinking a roasty black Wynkoop schwarzbier (which finished with a cherry-like malty note), myself, while watching the "Beerdrinker of the Year" contest, I think I had just as much fun being a spectator as I would have as a participant -- or even winner -- at the games.

(All photos by Gregory Daurer)