Cigar Aficionado

A Celebration of Taste

I was standing at the bar at Villa Cortina, my father-in-law's Italian restaurant in Tenafly, New Jersey. I was about a half-hour away from tucking away a late dinner of proscuitto and osso bucco, and I was having a drink with one of the restaurant's regulars, Bob Kricheff. I was sipping Scotch, he was having some wine.

"You should come to Beerfest," said Bob.

"Beerfest?" I asked. "What's that?"

One week later I'm sitting at a long, wooden table at Casa Kricheff in New Jersey, with Bob's parents, siblings and assorted friends taking up the remainder of the chairs. Notebooks and pencils lie at the ready, pretzels, cheese and crackers await at the table's center. We've each had a starchy, hearty dinner to prepare our gullets for the coming test. That's when Bob walks in from the kitchen, a tray of foamy beer steins in his hands.

Welcome to Beerfest No. 21.

Every year, Bob and his clan gather in a celebration of taste and beer. The process is remarkably similar to a Cigar Aficionado cigar tasting: a brewmeister (we call it a tasting coordinator) assembles a collection of beers (cigars) and presents them to the gathered throng (the tasting panel). The throng (panel) rates each beer (cigar) and describes the flavor. At the end, the panelists retire to the lounge, where they sip more beer or Scotch as the results are tallied.

What a concept. How did this ever so wise family embark on such a noble idea? It all revolves around peanut butter. Many years ago, Bob's father, Irvin, was horrified to discover that their pantry was brimming with three types of peanut butter. He gathered his family together, and suggested a blind tasting. He presented samples of each product, the family members not knowing which brand they were tasting, and each voted on his or her favorite. The winning peanut butter claimed the space in the cupboard. (For the record, the generic brand took the crown.)

Now I smoke cigars for a living. More specifically, I taste cigars for a living. And one of the persistent questions posed to me and other cigar tasters working for Cigar Aficionado magazine is: "How do you taste chocolate, nuts, etc. in a cigar?"

The short answer is practice and concentration. If you smoke enough cigars, and think about all those flavors swimming around in your head, you should be able to compare them to similar flavors generated by foods that you've tasted (nuts, chocolate) or aromas that you've smelled (leather, tar). Judging the strength of a cigar, by comparison, is easy.

This is what the participants of Beerfest do. There's a wonderful humor that's inherent to the event. And a strong sense of tradition. Those who have been on the panel for years, for example, have their regular seats. "Guest panelists will sit where they're told, and be grateful to have a seat," warns the official documents, emblazoned with the Beerfest logo. Discussion of each beer is encouraged. Tasters try to sway others' opinions. And as the beers flow copiously through the evening, the debate gets increasingly intense.

Creativity is rewarded. The 21 years of Beerfest have created a cornucopia of descriptions, and the best are harsh. From 1986: "The smell doesn't scare you away, but the taste won't make you stay." 1988: "If Elizabeth, New Jersey, was beer, it would taste like this." 1989: "The black lagoon overflow, replete with dismembered corpse flavor. " 1980: "Grows on you like slime mold."

Not that some beers aren't appreciated. "This might be boring after ten of them," said a beer judge in 1985. "Large consumption may improve your health," said one in 1981. "Makes the Budweiser horse look like a donkey."

The Kricheffs love data, and there are pages of Beerfest statistics handed out in the early, sober hours of the event. The highest score ever went to New Amsterdam, rated 86.7 points out of 100. Pilsner Urquell has appeared four times without a top-three finish, which is a record, and Hacker Pschoor Oktoberfest finished seven times in the top three. It holds the record for most appearances by a beer.

No fewer than 10 beers have been judged in one evening, no more than 13. The fests average eight judges.

On this crisp evening not long after September 11, Bob chose an appropriate theme: American beer. This theme, like the 10 beers poured, remained a mystery until the unveiling in his father's den, over single-malt Scotch.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale won this evening, besting a group that included Sam Adams Octoberfest, Anchor Steam and good old Budweiser, among others. The Sierra Nevada was hedonistic, with a creamy, heady, flavor and a chewy complexity perfect for a cool evening.

But this wasn't about winning and losing. It was camaraderie at its finest, and a good-natured experiment that encouraged people to open their minds and think with their taste buds. Take the same format and substitute cigars for the beers, and you have an evening fit for an aficionado. It would also work with Scotch, Bourbon or wine.

If you decide to follow in the footsteps of the wise Kricheffs, and I hope you do, make sure you mirror their final move. At evening's end, a lineup of taxis were waiting outside to get everyone home safe and sound -- in hopes that they will return for next year's Beerfest.