IT TOOK FEWER than 30 seconds for someone to hand me a bottle that I’d never heard of before: Evolution Rise Up Stout. “If you like coffee,” the guy said, “this is the stout for you.”
I no sooner had it in my mouth when someone else was handing me another: Portsmouth Winter Hefeweizen. It was dark and smooth, like a sultry Billie Holiday ballad.
The scene would repeat itself again and again over the next hour as strangers greeted me with one treasured bottle after another. I didn’t know their faces, but their nametags were recognizable as their screen names from the popular BeerAdvocate.com beer-rating site.
Welcome to Stone Soup, a unique social gathering where beer – only the finest, thank you – is the universal language of friendship. It’s a can-you-top-this? beer swap where everyone leaves a happy winner.
Gourmet beer swaps are the inevitable result of the explosion of new varieties from mainly American microbreweries. With as many as 20,000 different brands for sale in America, and new one-offs showing up every week, a swap like Stone Soup is an opportunity for beer aficionados to declare, “I’ve tried ’em all.”
Just a sip of a couple ounces is all you get, then you move onto the next great flavor.
“It gives me a chance to drink beers that I could only dream of drinking,” said John “Max” Maxwell, of Marlton, N.J. “When I’m drinking at home, I can only handle about one bottle a night. But here, I can taste one flavor after the next.”
Evidence of the astounding variety could be found atop the 10-foot-long carved wooden mantle at the Wet Whistle Bar & Grill, the Jenkintown tavern that hosted the event.
By the end of the session, attendees were posing for photographs in front of a row of empty bottles from Deschutes, Three Floyds, Captain Lawrence, Goose Island, Port Brewing and others, raising a glass to the valiant, dead soldiers.
“These are their prized possessions, the most cherished beers in their collections,” said event organizer Everett Beebee, who goes by the name “Blithering Idiot” at BeerAdvocate.com. (Disclosure: I write a column for Beer Advocate magazine, but I had no role in the event. I brought along a bottle like everyone else: a corked Scaldis Prestige de Nuit.)
“Everyone wants to bring the best and taste the best,” he added.
Jim Noone, of Mayfair, said, “It’s hard to match these guys. You try to bring something that’s hard to find . . . For example, I could bring a bottle of Black Ops,” a limited-production imperial stout from Brooklyn Brewing. “But I’d look across the table and find someone had brought a Black Ops from 2007!”
Indeed, cellared beers are a unique gem at a beer swap, their labels marked with a Sharpie to indicate the year in which they were brewed. Maxwell, for example, bowled over everyone with six vintages of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot barleywine.
“You can taste the big, bold flavors in the recent years,” he commented. “But as time goes by, the flavors come together.”
Other favorites were those that are not generally available anywhere but in their home states. Sean Mellody had his brother send him a bottle of New Glarus Wisconsin Belgian Red, a tart cherry ale that is rarely sent outside of Wisconsin.
Jay Rautio, who goes by the name Beer Thursday, may have boasted the most impressive score: a bottle of The Bruery Black Tuesday.
The extremely strong (18 percent alcohol by volume), barrel-aged imperial stout is produced in such limited quantities, it can be purchased only in person at the California brewery.
Some enthusiasts join The Bruery’s $195-a-year Reserve Society just to guarantee they can buy a single bottle.
Rautio, who lives in Bear, Del., had to assign an official “trustee” to pick up his treasure and mail it across the country.
A sip was sublime.
That he would share it with a bunch of strangers made it taste even better.
DIY Tip: It’s easier to host a beer swap in your own home than a bar. Just send out invitations via Facebook or Twitter, use clean glassware (not plastic) and supply plenty of drinking water.