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Knowing Your Limits

I woke up again in Seattle, my second day here. Yesterday I helped to choose the winners of the Hard Liver Barleywine Fest at Brouwer’s Cafe. It’s the eighth year of the festival and it’s really grown into an impressive event in the several years I’ve been coming up for it.

But the weekend has got me thinking, not about barley wines, but tasting in general. At these types of festivals, people often try to taste every offering — in small quantities of course — of some very big beers. You see it at the Toronado Barleywine Festival and you see if at Brouwer’s Hard Liver, where this year 50 barley wines will be judged and something like 62 or 66 will be served, owing to multiple vintages of the same beers.

And as impressive as that is, it’s today that has me worried. Each Sunday, the day after the Hard Liver Fest, Matt Bonney hosts, with his business partner Matt Vandenberghe (a.k.a. Vern) and a cast of characters, the private, invitation-only Keene Tasting, named for Dave Keene, who owns the Toronado in San Francisco. With Dr. Bill now working at Stone and no longer doing as many of his legendary tastings, the Keene Tasting is one of the few that follow the format Dr. Bill (at least as far as I know) pioneered.

It’s a simple, if punishing format, where a new beer is opened roughly every five minutes over a period of several hours. So while you never get a large portion of any single beer, you do ultimately taste a lot of different beers. Still, it adds up. There are snack breaks and a lunch break, and those that stick with it can expect to be there eleven or twelve hours. Like many other types of marathons, very few actually reach the finish line, tasting every single beer.

Last year something like 160 beers were tasted, beginning around 11:00 a.m. and going well into the evening. That year I made it to 110 beers before reaching my limit.

The year before, I only made it half-way, and dropped out at beer 75, owing to getting very, very sick — not from the beer, just a feverish flu — which I detailed then in Pride Goeth Before A Fall. And that brings me to my point. We all have our limits, and it’s not only good to know them, but also pay them heed.

Impressively, one of the improvements Bonney employs over the average Dr. Bill tasting is that a clean glass is used for every beer, a Herculean task if ever there was one.

There are, of course, myriad ways to taste from settling in to drink only one beer, exploring it thoroughly from start to finish, lingering over it as it changes when it warms, really letting it sink in to the very opposite, tasting as many beers as possible, very quickly, and everything in between. Generally, when judging beers in competition, you want no more than nine or ten in a flight and 30 or less for a single session. But that’s just one legitimate way in which beer can be sampled. That may be too many at a time for some people and too few for others.

I know there are people critical of the rapid fire Dr. Bill-style tasting, but I’m not. Is it my favorite way to sample beer? Not necessarily, but it is still quite enjoyable and while you can’t linger over every single beer, you can get a sense of it all the same. There’s a Danish proverb, “better thin beer than an empty jug.” And that’s the rub. I still prefer the opportunity to sample some truly rare beers, even if not under the most ideal circumstances, than not at all. So yes, I’m a relativist when it comes to the marathon tasting but I’m just fine with that. The important thing is to have a good time and know when to walk away. I already know there will be some spectacular beers poured later today and I’m looking forward to giving it another go. Will I make it to the end? Probably not. But that’s okay, there’s no shame in that as far as I’m concerned.

In the words of the immortal Kenny Rogers, equally applicable to drinking as gambling. “You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away and know when to run.” With any luck, I’ll know when to fold and can walk away. Stay tuned for details.

Below is a slideshow of the 2009 Keene Tasting. This Flickr gallery is best viewed in full screen. To view it that way, after clicking on the arrow in the center to start the slideshow, click on the button on the bottom right with the four arrows pointing outward on it, to see the photos in glorious full screen. Once in full screen slideshow mode, click on “Show Info” to identify each photo.

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