October 18, 2013
Like so many stories, this one starts with a beer.
And then another, followed by several hundred more pilsners, double bocks, porters and India pale ales.
“It kind of hit me by surprise,” said Stephen Benvenuto of the day he reached the coveted 500-beer mark at the World of Beer bar in the Brewery District.
Before you get the wrong idea, Benvenuto takes part in the “beer tour” at World of Beer, a loyalty program of sorts that is also popular at Winking Lizard and Bob’s Bar.
He’s now sipped his way up to 880 different beers and second place on the beer bar’s “Wall of Fame” list. The leader has sampled more than 1,300 beers but declined to be interviewed.
“I kept thinking I’d never get up there, but I kept chipping away at it,” said Benvenuto, who every Wednesday night heads to the World of Beer after work to meet friends and taste test a few new beers.
He is one of 12 regulars at the bar with 500 or more beers on their to-drink lists, said manager Jim Beatty, adding the reward for hitting the 500-beer mark is a party and complimentary $250 tab.
The World of Beer’s loyalty club has more than 1,700 participants at its Brewery District bar and about 1,800 at its Easton location. Other local bars, inspired by the huge surge in the number of craft breweries and almost limitless number of beers available, have similar programs.
At the 16 Winking Lizard bars in Ohio, including three in central Ohio, about 6,000 patrons signed up this year for the annual World Tour challenge of tasting 100 different beers from January to December. At Bob’s Bar in Clintonville, more than 500 beer lovers have completed the 130-beer World Tour challenge that does not have a time limit.
Loyalty clubs are a way of attracting new and repeat business, and they are fun for the patrons as well as the bar employees, said representatives of the three bars.
“It’s a cool way for people to try new things, and it becomes a camaraderie-type thing and competitive,” Beatty said.
There’s a $10 or $15 initial fee to join the clubs and prizes such as T-shirts and mugs are awarded when members hit certain levels.
“We’ve had this for 27 years,” said John Lane, Winking Lizard’s vice president of operations.
While some view current days as the golden age of beer, it was a lot different when the Winking Lizard’s World Tour started.
“We called it the World Tour because back then all you could get were imports,” Lane said of the limited beer selection available in this country. “And the imports were mostly lagers that didn’t have a whole lot of difference in taste.”
There are now more than 2,500 brewpubs, microbreweries and regional craft breweries in the United States, according to the Brewers Association. More than 400 opened in 2012.
The Winking Lizard tour has a rotating pool of 50 beers on draft and about 500 more in bottles.
Rick Seemueller recently completed his 12th Winking Lizard tour, ending his yearly hops-and-barley mission with an Orval from Belgium while watching a football game.
“John (Lane) was way ahead of everyone else and deserves some credit,” Seemueller said of the World Tour concept.
A retired Anheuser-Busch senior brewer, Seemueller is an ambassador for the Master Brewers Association of Americas and teaches classes across the country. In other words, he knows his beer.
Seemueller enjoys the big, bold flavors of hoppy beers but also appreciates the more-subtle flavors of lighter lagers and pilsners.
“It is very easy to hide every flaw in your beer by hopping it to the extreme,” he said.
He compared this to a chili cook-off competition in which novice chefs “pump their marginal chili full of hot peppers. All you could taste was the heat from the hot peppers, hiding the (almost) nonexistent flavors from the chili.”
When Winking Lizard World Tour participants hit the 100-beer mark, they are awarded a jacket with the bar’s logo on it.
“I have coats, my son and daughter have a coat, my son-in-law has a coat,” Seemueller said, adding he’s not sure who will get this year’s coat.
Unlike Seemueller, Benvenuto was far from a beer expert when he moved to Columbus in early 2011.
“I was a novice,” he said, and then sheepishly admitted he once stocked his refrigerator with Bud Light Lime. “That way, I didn’t need to keep any limes.”
A building manager who lives within walking distance of World of Beer, the ultra-organized Benvenuto keeps a spreadsheet on all the beers he has tasted and rates his beers on a pass, push or fail basis.
“I do prefer the Belgians now,” he said. “I don’t really like the pale ales, and the barley wine (beers) scare me.”
But more than anything, it’s the social aspect of hanging out at the local bar that appeals to the outgoing Benvenuto.
“There certainly is that Cheers effect when you walk in and everyone knows your name,” he said. “Is that worth the $7,000 or $8,000 I’ve spent? I’m not quite sure.”
Then again, he adds, “getting together with friends for a few beers at World of Beer is never a waste of time.”