Power pair: head judge Russ Wigglesworth and David Keene, who created the Toronado (God bless him).

Finals judges consider their options among the six barley wines chosen in blind judgings by two earlier panels.

Wondering what tasting 50 barley wines in an afternoon might do to seemingly normal people? I submit this as an object lesson.

Indisputably, there were tables even more eye-catching than our own.

Liquid Diet on the road
Day Three: Toronado Barley Wine Festival

THE BREWERY MAY BE GONE, BUT THE BEER LINGERS ON. AND LINGERS QUITE NICELY, THANK YOU. I'm not quite sure why we decided to walk to the Toronado from the hotel, but it was a good idea, given the amount of alcohol we'd be consuming in the next several hours. Mel's Drive-In, which was a central location for the classic George Lucas flick, American Graffitti, was a couple of blocks down Van Ness from the hotel (actually, the original Mel's was torn down right after the film was completed and this one built 13 years later in 1985) and we had breakfast there before continuing down to Market, over to Haight and then up (I say, UP) hill to the bar at 547 Haight.

We got there around 10:30 or so. I had set up a tentative appointment with owner Dave Keene for an interview about the Festival (no freelancer goes anywhere without at least trying to set up a story assignment or two; I'd managed two for this trip and was feeling good) and, although the bar wasn't officially scheduled to open until 11, Matt had come along in hope of worming his way into the official judging (which was being held across the street for the first time in 10 years) along with me, but it turned out the doors had been open since around 9 AM and the bar was about three-quarters full already.

I managed to corner Keene for 15 minutes or so in the back room and when we came out, Matt, proving his worth, was standing there with "Wicked" Pete Slosberg, my second story assignment. Pete was one of the Finals judges for the competition and had a while to wait, so I got that interview (about his new "Cocoa Pete" chocolate enterprise ) out of the way early on as well. By that point, Doc and his crew had shown up and they and Matt had managed to capture a table and were beginning the tasting ritual. I went across the street and watching the judging, which was in its second and penultimate round. I'm not going to say much about it all here because, well, I'm being paid to write about it someplace else, but I can say it's a fascinating thing to watch. Every beer--there were 50--is judged twice in each round, randomly, but two different panels. Twenty of them made it out of the first round and six (the ideal number, eight is what they consider the maximum) made it to the finals.

Everyone took it quite seriously and worked hard at it although the final judging was a bit weird. It was obvious in the first few minutes that one of two beers would be the champion and, a few minutes after that, which one it would be. Yet they still took about 20 minutes to work it out. The winner, as soon would be announced across the street, was Big Head 1996, a beer from Barley & Hopps, a brewery that been out of business since 1998. More astonishingly, this seven-year old beer became the first ever to win twice, having taking the title back in 1997. It also finished third last year. Many people were, shall we say, stunned, and there were several, among the judges and later the crowd, who felt strongly that second place Old Boilermaker 1998 from Full Sail Brewery should have been the winner.

Meanwhile, I tracked down the woman who, according to legend, had dumped a pint of beer on the head of my beloved editor, the aforementioned Dalldorf, a couple of years ago when they disagreed about the winning beer. Her name is Kate Gaisel, a local beer aficionado of note, but the story, as stories often do, turned out to be not quite what it seemed. "It was two years ago," she told me, and we were both judges in the final round. Tom said something sexist and my knee jerk reaction was to throw my drink on him. All I had was a glass of water in hand, maybe two ounces, and oh what the heck, I did it. We're actually pretty good friends now." The sexist remark? When Kate offered to keep count of what was going on in the voting, one of the other judges asked why it was women were always the ones who volunteered to do the dirty work, and Dalldorf said something along the lines of "it must be that secretarial gene they all carry." That bastard.

Back at the Toronado, things were in full swing. I found my team (and a "team" they were, having saved me samples of everything tasted so far) with about 24 glasses in front of them and someone at the bar getting more. The way they'd worked it out, the way most people did, was to order six 3oz sample glasses at a time (only $1.50 each!). Everyone was provided with a list of beers, each identified by number for ordering purposes (imagine being a bartender and dealing with 50(!) beers which had all be put on tap over the past 12 hours or so and trying to remember which was which) and a large placemat style sheet that could be placed on the table which had 50 circles marked so you could keep track of beers as you went.

No fools they, my pals suggested it was more than past time for me to buy a round and off I was sent to the bar. As I struggled in vain to get a bartender's attention, the attractive and well-known beer personality sitting next to where I was standing (who I think I'd best not name) gave me a clue. "You either have to have these," she suggested, pointing to her chest, "or money. Since you don't have these, I'd start flashing some cash." I pulled out a $50 and waved it around and, sure enough... Women got it so easy.

Okay, confession time. I have no idea if I tasted all 50 barley wines and even less which one was which. This thing would be hard enough if you sat down and did it in organized fashion from the start, I figure, but it was a horror show when, as I did, you walk in and there are 20-plus waiting, more on the way, and everybody else is far ahead of you. I sampled this, I sampled that, I sampled a lot. After a while, I didn't even try to keep track. If I liked it, I had another taste. If not, I moved on. Now and again I'd ask what it was that I was drinking and sometimes somebody would be able to tell me.

Things become jumbled now in memory. Beers were being poured across the street where the judging had been held at a "private" party to which I never saw anyone refused admittance. There was a very nice, highly hopped Russian River ale in there somewhere, I think, and the Anderson Valley 15th Anniversary as well. Guyer had faded once again (the boy do talk a good game but he's got a ways to go to be a real professional) and everyone I knew was sort of fumbling about trying to decide what to do next or, for that matter, whether he or she possessed the capability to do it. I decided to all it a night and walk up the hill (wherever I go in San Francisco, wherever I want to go next is always uphill; you'd think I'd reach the crest and start down once in a while) the six or seven blocks (I had been told) to the Magnolia Brewpub, check it out, and head back to the hotel.

Seventeen blocks later it struck me that something was wrong, and not just with my calves and respiratory system. I located one of the free entertainment tabloid boxes and searched through the pages to get the address. There is was, about ten blocks behind me. Had I really managed to miss it entirely? At least the return journey was downhill so what the hell. The problem, I discovered when I finally got there, was that there was a construction "tunnel" over the sidewalk in front of the Magnolia. Coming up the hill as I had, you'd never see it unless you turned around and looked back.

I went in, found a seat at the bar through mere chance, and was impressed to find four cask ales in the lineup. First I had a Tweezer Tripel just to clear the palate (shows you what kind of day it had been, doesn't it?) and then a cask Proving Ground IPA. Both were more than pleasant and I might have stayed for more, but when the yuppie trio sitting to my left began discussing how neat it would be to go to Pennsylvania and have a "really good" beer like Yuengling, I paid up and went out and caught a cab back to the hotel.

Sunday, February 16: Private Tasting & Celebrator Anniversary Party

Return to Liquid Diet February 2003 Page