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Beerdrinker of the Year: A judge's tale

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It's good to be the judge, and I should know since I spent Saturday afternoon dressed in a black robe and a wig, drinking beer and making history -- beer-drinking history.

The event was the thirteenth annual Beerdrinker of the Year contest at the Wynkoop Brewing Company, and I'd been asked by Colorado beer writer and PR man Marty Jones to be one of seven people choosing would become the next Beerdrinker of the Year.

A stout task indeed.

The Beerdrinker of the Year contest honors "the most passionate, knowledgeable beer lovers and beer ambassadors in the United States." Applicants, who hail from all over the country, submitted their drinking philosophy; details about their passion for the hops, malt and barley; and their 2008 beer experiences (and that doesn't mean puking after drinking 21 PBRs on your birthday).

They also sent resumes that "detail the entrant's understanding of beer and its history and importance to civilization, and the entrant's efforts to educate others to the joys of great beer," according to the contest rules.Last year's winner, Matt Venzke, of Hampton, Virginia, had visited 454 breweries in 69 countries and 39 states over his lifetime, and recorded tasting notes on more than 3,000 beers.

Three finalists were selected and then flown to Denver at considerable expense, according to Jones, the able emcee of the contest, to face a grueling oral exam in front of a live, imbibing audience.

At least they had beers in hand.

Every winner gets free suds for life at the Wynkoop and $250 worth of beer at their local brewpub or beer bar - wherever that may be. They also get the honor of brewing a special beer with Wynkoop head brewer Andy Brown and bragging rights like nothing you've ever seen.

This year's contestants -- J. Mark Angelus, of Nehalem, Oregon; Cody Christman of Denver; and Phil Farrell, of Cummings, Georgia -- were no lightweights. All of them have sampled hundreds, even thousands of beers, toured numerous nations in search of brewpubs, breweries and new flavors, and helped bring beer culture to the forefront. Two have them have published their own manuscripts. Another runs a website.

Together, these three beer enthusiasts probably know more about barley, hops and yeast than the entire population of LoDo on a Saturday night.

But the history-making part of this year's contest involved Cody Christman (pictured, bribing the judges), only the fourth Colorado finalist and the first who calls the Wynkoop his home pub. A Denver software engineer, Christman is an avid home brewer who has been beer-tasting in nineteen countries and teaches a Beer 101 course to hops-loving friends and family members in his basement. And it's not just any basement. It features a fifteen-foot bar, seven taps and three refrigerators.

A cheering story, yes, but also a dramatic one for the Wynkoop because, if he won, Christman would be entitled to free beer at the Wynkoop for life. FOR LIFE! Christman and friends drink at the Wynkoop every Friday, which means that if he were to drink just four beers there every Friday for the next fifty years, the pub would be out 10,400 pints!

The tension in the room was immense.

Each contestant was asked a number of questions by the judges, the audience and the emcee, with everyone swigging liberally from pints of the Wynkoop's Mile HI.P.A., Schwarzbier and a special smoked dunkel weiss brewed just for the event. The queries ranged from thoughts on what the Obama administration could do to help beer, to how beer helps the world, to the best beer for putting hair on the dog and the worst beers to have if you all alone on a desert island. All three handled themselves well.

They handled themselves even more outstandingly during the Bribing of the Judges, however, in which each finalist showered our Honors with gifts, including home brew and rare beers. The audience was into it, too, according us the respect we deserved, cheering us, flirting with us, bowing down in our honor.

Even Hizzoner John Hickenlooper, founder and former owner of the Wynkoop before becoming Denver's mayor, was forced to address us as Your Honor. Hick, who was there for much of the proceedings, enjoyed a beverage of his own, I'm happy to report.

So good were the performances by the three finalists, however, that the judges' chambers became a scene of gruesome violence. Denver Post beer columnist Dick Kreck and I stood toe to toe, exchanging upper cuts, body blows and right hooks while Julia Hertz, craft beer program director at the Brewers Association, and Alan Moen, editor of the Northwest Brewing News, wrestled on the floor, knocking down tables and chairs. And two previous winners, Venzke and 2005 winner Tom Ciccateri, teamed up on Wynkoop head brewer Brown, mercilessly pummeling him.

All aspects of the candidates were considered, from their ability to correctly guess beer styles during a blind taste test, to who finished his growler of beer during the three-hour session, to who wore the most flattering lederhosen. Bribes were certainly NOT considered. One of the biggest issues was whether the judges would be ridiculed for picking the home favorite. But since three of the seven judges hailed from elsewhere and the other four swore on their pint glasses to play fair, we dismissed this thought and faced the music.

In the end and after a few more pints (like I said, it's good to be the judge), we agreed on Christman, a winner who we could all support -- and Colorado got its first-ever Beerdrinker of the Year. Congratulations Cody. I hope you don't drink the Wynkoop out of business.

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