A couple of school chums and I gathered at Lola’s Trailer Park recently to hash over old times, and I told them I was pretty much alcohol-free these days. My two pals still favor the sudsy stuff. One in particular, James Schaefer, might even be considered a beer connoisseur.
In 1997, Schaefer began a quest to find, sample, and rate as many different kinds of beer as he could. His computer spreadsheet is closing in on the 4,000 mark.
“I decided to score everything on a one-to-five scale, with five being the best and one, don’t go near it,” Schaefer said. “I put those into a database, and it’s grown to what I have today – 3,970 beers.”
His most recent entry was an Asmara Lager from Eritrea on the western coast of Africa. The six-pack was a gift from a friend who knew of Schaefer’s fondness for the foam.
Shaefer’s love of libations can be traced to the early 1980s, when he would visit J.R. Bentley’s pub in Arlington.
“They had six or seven international beers,” he recalled. “I’d be there with somebody, and I’d say, ‘We should drink ourselves around the world.’ We’d have the Heineken from Holland, the Amstel Light, the Becks, or whatever it was. We’d get about three into the six, and that was all we could handle, but that’s where my interest started.”
That mild curiosity blossomed into a passion in 1997 after Schaefer attended the Great American Beer Festival, a three-day event held in Denver every October.
“There were 300 different beers there and probably 60 or 80 breweries,” he said. “I remember tasting about 200 beers over that three-day weekend.”
He sampled so many different brands that he began taking notes to remember the ones he liked best. That marked the beginning of his list, which grew even more after Schaefer returned to the festival in 1999 and sampled another couple hundred beers. In the coming years, he would attend many festivals and travel around the country visiting small breweries.
When he was home, he scoured places in North Texas to find new brews to sample and log.
“If there was something new, I would try it,” he said. “I remember going into [a now-defunct bar] and had a German wheat beer and thought, ‘This is delicious and so much better than anything I’d ever had before.’ I started paying more attention and looking for different beers.”
Schaefer was way smarter than I was. While attending college, I drank many different imported beers and displayed the bottles on shelves in my apartment. After college, I boxed up and hauled those heavy, dusty bottles around during several moves before finally throwing them away.
The only thing Schaefer collects is information. Each beer he samples is listed alphabetically by brewery. He’s given four stars or better to only 530 beers. A few beers were so intolerable they received no stars.
“I’ve never had any beers that made me sick, but I’ve had some I could barely swallow and one or two I’ve had to spit out for being too sour or bitter,” he said.
He has visited 20 countries since 1997 and sampled various brands and has tasted and ranked beers from about 75 different countries. His methodology isn’t failsafe. On a recent trip to Rome, Schaefer tried six new beers he’d never seen, took notes, and ranked each one. But he lost his phone during the trip and never recovered it. He couldn’t recall the names of the beers, so they never made it on his list.
“Everybody has a desire to have a collection,” he said. “Some people collect Hummels or penguins or butterflies. I like collecting my list because it’s electronic and doesn’t take up any mantel space. I don’t have to have a curio cabinet for it.”
The home in Keller where Schaefer lives with his wife, Melissa, is void of any beer-related decorations or mementos. The only sign of beer is in the refrigerator.
Schaefer doesn’t expect to ever drink all the beers ever made. Several thousand breweries exist in the United States alone, and the brewers keep cranking out new recipes.
“I don’t know that I could ever catch up,” he said. “Brewmeisters are like artists. They are always experimenting with something new and different.”
So what’s Schaefer’s endgame? What is he trying to accomplish by creating a database of beers that nobody sees except for him?
“I don’t have a goal other than to keep after it and maybe put it in my epitaph,” he said.
That sounds like reason enough to keep drinking beer.