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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 02/14/2011

Beer: From teetotaler to Beerdrinker of the Year?

By Greg Kitsock
2011-finalist-James-Clark-TN_opt.jpg USAF Lt. Col. James Clark. (Wynkoop Brewing)

James Clark didn’t drink his first beer until he was 31. The Springfield resident grew up in Texas as a “charismatic fundamentalist,” he says. “They were teetotalers.”

But in 1995, while stationed in Germany (he’s a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force), he decided to immerse himself in the local culture. And thus began a love affair with malt and hops that’s culminated with Clark being named one of three finalists for the Beerdrinker of the Year award, a title bestowed by the Wynkoop Brewing Co. in Denver each winter.

During the last weekend of this month, Clark will travel to Denver where a panel of beer experts (including several previous winners), garbed in black robes and powdered wigs, will grill him to determine whether he is beer-savvy enough to serve as a roving ambassador for the craft beer industry.

If he wins, he gets to drink free for life at Wynkoop, plus he receives a $250 bar tab credit at his local watering hole, Ri Ra in Arlington, a shirt proclaiming him Beerdrinker of the Year. The latter is “a great conversation starter at parties and a golden ticket at all beer events,” says Marty Jones, self-proclaimed “cheers leader and idea man” for Wynkoop, which has been holding the contest for the past 15 years.

To qualify, Clark had to submit a curriculum vitae of his elbow-bending experiences. “I had a great year last year,” he says. According to his resume, he visited 17 breweries, attended more than a dozen beer festivals and held beer events at his home that welcomed as many as 160 people. And that was just in 2010.

Among the highlights was a visit to the Abbey of Saint Sixtus in Westvleteren, the most heavily cloistered of Belgium’s six Trappist breweries. The abbey refuses to export its ales, and visitors are welcome by appointment only.

“It took me 45 minutes on the phone to get through,” Clark says, who was on assignment in Stuttgart, Germany, at the time. “It must have rung 25 times before a monk picked up who could speak English.”

The monk assigned him a day and time for his visit and jotted down his make of car and license number. After a 7 1/2 hour drive, Clark came away with two cases of Westvleteren 12 (a strong, dark abbey ale that was named world’s best beer in a RateBeer.com competition), and a six-pack of the slightly less potent Westvleteren 8 that he purchased at a cafe across from the monastery.

Clark recently took an inventory of his refrigerator and basement and tallied 90 different beers in stock. He’s also an avid homebrewer (with a Belgian-style wit percolating in the fermenter as of last week) and a blogger on all things beer related. His latest posting includes a recipe for a “slaw-style salad” that he submitted to Wynkoop along with his beer credentials. It will be served at a Feb. 25 dinner in honor of the Beerdrinker of the Year finalists. His Internet nom de plume, “stumblingpiper,” references another hobby: playing the bagpipes.

Even if Clark doesn’t win, he might get to meet the new governor of Colorado. John Hickenlooper was an unemployed geologist when he founded Wynkoop, the state’s first brewpub, in 1988. He successfully ran for mayor of Denver in 2003, then beat Republican Dan Maes and a third-party contender with 51 percent of the vote in last November’s gubernatorial contest. “I can’t predict he’ll be there, but he’s come by for many of these contests over the years,” says Jones.

And if any readers happen to be in Denver at 2 p.m. on Feb. 26, the Beerdrinker of the Year finals are free and open to the public.

Whether or not you’re anticipating a trip to Denver, drop by R.F.D. Washington on Wednesday for part two of Dave Alexander’s annual Strong Winter Ale Tasting. Part one last week featured 10 winter warmers (Dominion Bock, at 7.5 percent alcohol by volume, was the weak sister of the bunch) along with nine brewers from area brewpubs and microbreweries. This Wednesday will bring an entirely new lineup and, if history repeats itself, might include some barrel-aged rarities salvaged from brewery cellars.

If your calendar is blank for Presidents' Day, Feb. 21, consider a trip to Monticello in Charlottesville, Va., where the curators of Thomas Jefferson's estate will offer over-21 visitors free samples of Monticello Reserve Ale, a new brand based on the wheat-and-corn base ales that Jefferson brewed. Check out Monticello's Web site for more information.

By Greg Kitsock  | February 14, 2011; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags:  Greg Kitsock  
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