MAGNUS’S LAST STAND

This is a hard post to write. It’s personal. Very personal. And sometimes hyper-personal posts are challenging because they’re too insular. And sometimes they’re hard because you’re not even sure whether they should be made public. But I think this one’s OK…because, in the end, it’s about beer. And as long as that delicate symphony of barley, water, hops and yeast is involved, it belongs on Aleheads.

The reason this is personal is because this post is about Magnus’s last day on Earth. For those of you that didn’t know him, or knew him just a little, you might be rolling your eyes a bit. We’ve been talking about our fallen friend a lot over the past few weeks. Maybe you think this isn’t the proper forum for grieving and remembrances. You might be right. Or maybe you wish we’d just get back to the beer. That’s probably true also.

But as I said in one of my first posts after Magnus died, Aleheads has become an outlet for us in a lot of ways. It’s a way for us to talk about our favorite hobby (drinking). It’s a way for us to remain connected with far-flung friends. It’s a way for us to keep our creative juices flowing after so many stagnant years in the workaday world. And, in recent days, it’s been a way for us to talk about someone who was very important to us….it’s been a way for us to collectively “remember”.

I wasn’t with Magnus on his last day. I wasn’t even in the country. But some of our friends were with him and they can attest to the fact that he had a wonderful last day, a quintessential “Magnus” day. I won’t go into too many of the details since it is certainly not my place to do so…but I will talk a bit about one huge part of that day: the Battle of the Belgians.

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A few months ago, Magnus asked if I wanted to come up to New York for the December 4th “Battle of the Belgians” at Jimmy’s No. 43 in New York City (a bar on the same block as the legendary McSorley’s Old Ale House). The event pitted 38 of Belgium’s best brews against 26 incredible American-brewed, Belgian-style offerings to see if the upstart Yanks could hold their own against the old-world masters.

Magnus was excited, of course. He was just getting into Belgian brews and loved the idea of such a “taste-off” in his own backyard. He was very proud of anything New York-related and I think he was looking forward to “showing off” such a cool event in his adopted hometown. And, naturally, I was suitably jealous. The beer list looked epic and I would have loved to have spent the day with Magnus, trying to drink our way through all 64 offerings.

Alas, I already had a vacation planned that Wifey and I had been looking forward to for months. I passed on the event assuming I’d get a chance to head to Gotham soon and share a round or ten with Magnus at one of the stellar beer bars he’d been frequenting in recent months. A week after the event, I was in New York for his memorial service.

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I don’t know what the Battle of the Belgians was like. I don’t know how crowded it was or how Magnus approached the event. Knowing him, he took the voting process seriously, but not too seriously. I can picture him wandering the bar, sampling different beers and trying desperately to compare them to every beer he sampled previously. He took his duties as an Alehead seriously and I have no doubt he wasn’t just there to try a bunch of cool beers. I’m sure he wanted to come to a consensus about which beers were the best and report back to the Aleheads either via a Maltercation or lengthy post.

Sadly, he didn’t get that chance. And I assumed whatever his opinion was on the beers he sampled died with him. In the aftermath of his passing, the details of a beer-tasting event weren’t exactly important. But as time passed, I was curious…how could I not be? This was one of the last experiences my friend had on Earth. And while I wasn’t a part of that experience physically, I’d like to think I played a role in his decision to attend the event. He and I were Beer Brothers (so to speak), and we both had major impacts on each other in regards to our mutual passions for the world of craft beer. Sure, it’s just a dumb hobby…but it was “our” dumb hobby…so it was, and remains, important to me.

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As it turns out, Magnus took notes during the Battle of the Belgians. Nothing extensive…just a checklist of the beers he sampled and some highlights. He had this list on his person when he died. It was recovered by one of our friends and a few days ago, a scan of the list ended up in my Inbox. I stared at it for awhile. The grieving part of me looked at the little marker streaks and thought, “my friend made these notes a few hours before he passed away”. The part of me that wants to champion his memory thought, “I need to do something with this.”

There’s not a whole lot I can do, of course. It’s just a checklist with a smattering of colored streaks. Who really takes extensive notes at an amateur beer-tasting event? We aren’t professional judges. The Aleheads might talk a big game, but most of us attend these events to drink cool beer and get a little (or a lot) hammered. Magnus was out with friends on a Saturday night and while I’m sure he wanted to keep a record of the beers he sampled to discuss with his fellow Aleheads after the fact, I know him well enough to know he wasn’t going to let his beer geekery get in the way of a good time.

Still, there’s enough information available for me to make some educate guesses…so here goes:

The list consists of 15 draft beers, 1 casked beer (which Magnus sampled, naturally), and 48 bottled beers. Magnus seems to have put a purple checkmark next to every beer he tried. As far as I can tell, he quaffed 17 different brews. They were:

  • The Bruery Orchard White (American)
  • Ommegang Zuur (American)
  • Green Flash L’Amite (American)
  • Kelso St. Gowanus w/Thyme (American…the cask offering)
  • Affligem Tripel (Belgian)
  • Cascade Kriek (American)
  • De Dolle Arabier (Belgian)
  • De Dolle Dulle Teve (Belgian)
  • Duvel Triple Hop (Belgian)
  • Goose Island Christmas (American)
  • Goose Island Demolition (American)
  • Hof Ten Dormaal Blonde (Belgian)
  • Leetanau Petoskey (American)
  • Ommegang Adoration (American)
  • Poperings Homel Ale (Belgian)
  • Rodenbach (Belgian)
  • Vapeur de Bises (Belgian)

A few things to note:

  1. That’s just a spectacular line-up. If you were going to pick your “last day on Earth” brews…you could do a hell of a lot worse than that.
  2. While I have no idea if Magnus had a game-plan going into the event, he did a nice job (consciously or not) of trying a bunch of different styles. Darker beers, lighter beers, spiced beers, sour beers, etc. He didn’t focus too much on one thing which is a great way to approach an event like this.
  3. Again, I don’t know if this was his strategy, but he has a perfect mix of Belgian and American beers…9 Americans, and 8 Belgians. Of course, Magnus was a proud New Yorker AND a proud American, so it’s no surprise his “tie-breaker” beer was US-brewed.
  4. I didn’t see this list until a couple of days ago, but two brews jumped out at me for personal reasons. The Ommegang Zuur was one of the first bottles I drank in “tribute” to Magnus. Reeling from his death, I cracked into a few special bottles from my beer closet. The tasty Zuur was one of the first. Then there’s the Rodenbach. Our crew crushed two entire kegs at the Rattle ‘n’ Hum during the weekend of Magnus’s memorial service (yeah, we drink a lot when we mourn…what do you want from us?). One was the Anderson Valley Brother David’s Double (I wrote about this one earlier)…the other was the Rodenbach. I don’t know why, but it all struck us as a fitting beer to keep ordering while we traded our favorite Magnus stories. Maybe it’s because it’s delicious and refreshing…or maybe it’s because it may well have been the last beer he ever drank. We couldn’t have known that, of course…but it’s still something I thought about when I saw this list.

So which beer “won” as far as Magnus was concerned? I can’t say with any certainty…but I have an idea. There are three beers which don’t have a purple checkmark…they have a red one. My assumption is that these were Magnus’s favorites. One I’m throwing out because the check mark is hastily scrawled and not very concrete. It was for the Hof Ten Dormaal Blonde. While I’m sure Magnus liked this hard-to-find Saison, the half-hearted red smudge leads me to believe it was a potential “finalist” in his mind, but not a sure thing.

His checkmark for the De Dolle Dulle Teve is much more resolute…a no question red line. I believe this kick-ass Tripel from one of the best Belgian brewers was Magnus’s “winner” amongst the Belgian brews. The sweet and peppery ale is thoroughly awesome and I take some (admittedly ridiculous) solace in the knowledge that he got to sample such a cool beer on his last day with us.

But I don’t think that was his overall winner. The biggest, fattest, reddest checkmark on the page was reserved for The Bruery’s Orchard White. The Aleheads have talked up the Bruery a lot…and Magnus definitely enjoyed the citrus and spice of a well-made witbier. So I suppose it’s no surprise the Orchard White rose to the top of Magnus’s list. Still, it’s an amazing brew regardless of your personal preferences and I’m sure on draft, with a fluffy white head and golden, sparkling body, it looked, and tasted like ambrosia. I can see how Magnus would have selected it as his American winner. And because Magnus was a patriot (or a homer if you’re being critical), I’m fairly certain he would have picked it over his Belgian champ, the Dulle Teve.

Do I know any of this for sure? Of course not. I’m just guessing based on a pretty sketchy, very grainy, scanned document e-mailed to me a few days ago. And I honestly have no idea why I decided it was so important to interpret Magnus’s hasty marks on a piece of paper when they have so little bearing on anything. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t with him when he died and I wanted a way to relive some of his last moments. Maybe it’s because beer was a common language between us and I was curious what brews he drank on his last day on Earth.

Or maybe I just miss my friend and wanted to reconnect with him in any way I could. I’ve looked at his stupid beer list about 100 times since I got it. It should be meaningless…and yet it means so much to me. A part of me wishes I had been there to sample those beers with him and share our opinions with each other. A bigger part of me is tremendously thankful that I wasn’t there to watch him fall…I’m not sure I could have handled that.

A lot of emotions and thoughts were stirred when I first stared at that fuzzy, wavy, digital document. I didn’t know what to do with it…so I did this.

Was it the right thing to do? I don’t know. Like I said…this was a hard post to write. I guess I’ll just leave it at that.

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3 comments

  1. Yes Brother Barley, an exceptional and fitting tribute !

  2. […] of Aleheads. I wrote up a mythical Top Ten list of his favorite beers. I did an analysis of his “Beer Judging” sheet from a tasting event he went to on the day he left us. And many of us tried to mention him or […]

  3. […] Battle of the Belgians, 2011. Last year’s incarnation was his last official act as an Alehead. […]

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