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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 01/24/2011

Beer: 20,000 beers under their look-see

By Greg Kitsock
e&t entre temps tasting copy2_opt.jpg The Tuppers doing their thing. (Photo by

I don’t know for certain if it’s a world record, and there was nobody on hand from the Guinness book to record the momentous event. But on Monday, Jan. 17, Bob and Ellie Tupper sampled their 20,000th beer at a special tasting held in their honor at R.F.D. Washington.

To those scoring at home, that averages to nearly two beers a day (different ones, too; there are no repeats in the Tuppers’ log) spread out over more than three decades. “Maybe we should stage an intervention,” chuckled R.F.D. founder Dave Alexander.

The Tuppers -- he's a high school history teacher, she a senior production editor for the American Society for Microbiology -- are well-known locally for the beers they contract-brew at St. George Brewing Co. in Hampton, Va.: Tuppers’ Hop Pocket Ale and Keller Pils.

About 10 years ago, Ellie had a brainstorm for a third beer: A brew that would be well-hopped, like an IPA, but with the ebony color and roasted grain flavors of a stout. Late last year, the Tuppers finally commissioned Bill Madden of Mad Fox Brewing Co. in Falls Church and his brewer, Charlie Buettner, to make that beer a reality, and thus was born India Ink.

Bob Tupper realizes that this beer would have stood out a lot more in 2001 than it does today. “It’s now a legal requirement that everybody has to make a black IPA,” he quipped of the ubiquitous new style.

But India Ink (great name!) isn’t just a me-too beer; it’s a solid example of a dark-and-hoppy ale, with a flowery bouquet from a dry-hopping with Mt. Hood, the Tuppers’ favorite hop variety, and a lingering, rich fudge-cake aftertaste.

The Tuppers began their beer chronicling in 1979 with a long-vanished brand from Luxembourg called Henri Funk Lager. Some of their initial evaluations were skeletal. “Tastes like beer,” Bob Tupper wrote of one early sample, to which Ellie Tupper added, “Yes, it does.” Now they jot down their impressions on pre-printed pads, noting brewery, brewmaster, malts and hops used, aroma, taste, aftertaste and circumstances under which the beer was quaffed. Bob carries a pen light that he shines into his glass so he can accurately record the beer’s hue even in a dimly lit barroom.

The Tuppers rate beers on a 1 to 5 scale. They’ve never given out a perfect 5. But 4 is a pretty impressive score (“a 4 is a beer we hop on a plane and fly to another country for”). Their highest-scoring beer ever (a 4.75) was a six-year-old bottle of Thomas Hardy’s Ale that they sampled on the night in 1986 when they brought their daughter, Laurie, home from the hospital.

What do you do after you’ve tasted 20,000 beers? You take steps toward 30,000.

The ten other beers served at the tasting included two experimental black IPAs from the Sweetwater Tavern chain in northern Virginia. The first, formulated by head brewer Nick Funnel at the Centreville location, was well-balanced between spicy, mildly citrusy hops and roasted malt, with an unusually clean aftertaste. Funnel admitted he used a lager yeast to ferment the beer and aged it for a lager-like eight weeks. Perhaps we were witnessing the birth of a new style: black pilsner?

The other black IPA, from Sweetwater’s Merrifield brewpub, was the polar opposite, with the huge fruity flavor of citrus and marmalade almost obscuring the highly kilned malts.

If the affair had any bittersweet moment, it was when the Tuppers admitted they might have to yield their record soon. A Danish beer aficionado named Jens Ungstrup, a frequent contributor to the Web site, had posted his 19,640th beer rating the previous day, noted Bob Tupper.

“He started nine years ago, and we started 33 years ago. There could be a changeover in the next few hours,” laughed Tupper.

By Greg Kitsock  | January 24, 2011; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags:  Greg Kitsock  
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I hear that guy Charlie Buettner is an excellent brewer. A real class act. I stopped in for a brewers sampler over the summer and he was gracious enough to give me a tour of the brewing facilities.....quite a setup. And the brisket sammy is one for the ages...try it!!

Posted by: seanpn75 | January 25, 2011 10:28 AM | Report abuse

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