A Conversation With the Beer Drinker of the Year

What makes someone "Beer Drinker of the Year?" In 2016, the requirements are simple, apparently: the person must possess an understanding of beer production, a genuine love of the beverage, a great sense of comic timing, and... some relation to me?

When my cousin Josh found out I'd be attending this year's Great American Beer Fest in Denver, Colorado, he was excited to inform me that his wife, Shawna, would be one of three finalists in Wynkoop Brewing's Beer Drinker of the Year competition the same night that I'd be arriving in town. Little did I know that later that very evening, Shawna — the only female contestant and a recent Denver transplant — would be crowned with a wreath of dried hops, earning the title of 2016 Beer Drinker of the Year and free beer for life.

I also didn't know what to expect of the event — and I'm still not entirely sure what I witnessed. Over the course of three hours, throughout eight unique rounds, the bizarrely meandering — yet undeniably riveting — competition tested each contestant's skills in categories such as brewing knowledge, drinking philosophy, special talents, tasting proficiency, beer whispering, and judge bribing (hint: beer helps).

Even after attending in person, I had as many questions for Shawna, as you likely do now. Below is a transcript of my conversation with her following the event.

Wow. What was that?

That's a very good question. I was figuring it out as I went. I mean, when I was invited to be a finalist, I was like, "Okay, cool. But what exactly is going to happen?" In my mind, I thought it was going to be all fun and games, and then I got an outline, and had homework, and I was like, "Oh, crap, is this serious, or is this fun?" I went with the not-so-serious route, and... I think it paid off?

Well, obviously it did. You won!

Yeah, I read it right. But it was a strange, surreal experience.

I think it was so surreal because, even though the competition started in 1997, Wynkoop took a break from it for the last three years. A lot of local people didn't even know what to expect of the revival.

I think you're right. To be honest, I tried to do some research about it and couldn't really find that much about it.

But if you didn't know what to expect, how did you train or prepare?

I'm preparing to take the Advanced Cicerone exam, so I'm already knee-deep in beer stuff. I just kinda thought, 'Well, how hard could it be? I know what I know, and I know that I love beer, so I'm just gonna go there and be myself. And if that doesn't work out, it doesn't work out.'

And your background in acting surely helped you out tremendously with the speaking and performing aspects.

Oh, yeah. It is kind of a nice leg up, because you're being thrown in front of people to be spontaneous, and have stuff prepared. I kind of take that for granted sometimes, that I already have training in that.

I'll bet you never thought you'd use those degrees for something like this, though.

No! I'm fairly new to the beer world. I mean, I've been into beer for a long time, but now I'm completely immersed in it. And if you told me that ten years ago after I got my BFA, I would have been like, 'What the hell are you talking about? I'm gonna be on Broadway. Duh.'

In the talent round, you pantomimed as a symphonic orchestra conductor performing "Also sprach Zarathustra." How did you come up with that?

The funny thing is, out of all the prep I had to do, ironically, the hardest thing was coming up with my talent. Because it was, like, what — am I going to do a Shakespeare sonnet? No one wants to hear that. So I think [my husband] and I were shooting around ideas, and I was like, 'I think I should do a mime bit.' The opening theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey was the first thing that came to mind. And I was also trying to think of something else that no one else would do.

They specifically requested for the talent to not be beer-related, right?

Yeah, anything you want — just not beer related.

Well… it was certainly out there, I'll tell you that much!

(laughs)

And as you were up there, was it stressful or helpful to have your husband, cousin, father-in-law, and sister there, too?

It was definitely helpful to have loved ones there, because even if you fail they'll still love you. It did add an extra degree of, 'Oh shit....' I mean, you have a background in performance; so does Josh. [Josh's dad] Gary doesn't, but you know, he's like the worst critic of all time. So there was a little bit of that, but in the moment... to be honest, I forgot you were even there.

Gee, thanks. How was the competition different from what you imagined?

These guys knew a lot. Their knowledge of beer was pretty tremendous. I guess I wasn't expecting their beer philosophies to be so detailed. Almost like they wrote essays. Mine was just like, "I like beer. DERP!" They actually had legit philosophies. I was really blown away by that.

And yet, you won. How did it feel to win?

I mean, it was amazing! And to be honest, to be the only woman contestant — and the only woman on stage, because all the judges and the MC were men — it kind of felt even better. In this world, especially in the beer world, which is dominated by dudes, it's kind of cool to be like, "Hey! There's a vagina over here, too."

That was an amazing aspect of the evening. But I mean, clearly the craziest part: FREE BEER FOR LIFE?!

That's nuts! And, like, the card that they gave me, there's no stipulations. It just says 'Free beer for life at Wynkoop.' Just: free beer until I'm dead. I mean, that's insane. I haven't been back yet, because you don't want to be that person who's immediately like, "Hey guys, remember me?" "Yes, we remember you. You're still wearing your fucking crown."

Yeah, you're like, "I deserve my free beer now!" And they're like, "Ugh, here we go..."

I'm gonna use this to be the biggest dick possible.

Good. But aside from the free beer, are there other benefits to winning this?

There are a lot of bragging rights. And it's cool: Black Shirt [Brewing, my employer] broadcasted it on their social media. But a lot of people don't know what the competition is, so there's a lot of explaining — people think I competed against two dudes in chugging beer, and I won. Which actually kinda sounds pretty sweet, the fact that people think I could even do that. Also, I haven't been here that long, so it's like, "Oh, who's this girl? What's she doing?" It's kind of nice, it opened a few doors to be able to meet people. And I get to brew beer at Wynkoop, so that's cool.

That's probably the coolest thing, actually. Man, can you teach me how to drink like you?

Yeah, if you want me to take you on as an apprentice, I'm taking applications. Cover letters are important.

Nah, my side of the family already thinks that, as a beer writer, I'm basically nothing but a lousy drunk. You think yours will think that about you now, too?

They thought that before. This just solidifies it.