KENAI, Alaska - Bill Howell is this year's Miss America of beer.
Howell, of Sterling, was crowned the 2010 Beerdrinker of the Year by Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver on Feb. 27.
"Personally I hate the title. It sounds like I won a chugging contest," he said.
The Student Services Director at Kenai Peninsula College, home brewer, former Navy officer, beer professor and writer said that "beer lover of the year" would be more appropriate to demonstrate what the contest is really about - quality and not quantity.
Still, Howell said, he was shocked and excited to be honored.
"I was incredibly surprised. I really didn't expect to win," he said. "It really took awhile for it to sink in."
Along with the title and the beery bragging rights, Howell gets free beer for life from the Wynkoop Brewing Company, several Beerdrinker of the Year T-shirts, a special beer drinker card, the opportunity to preside over the contest next year, the chance to design a beer for Wynkoop and a $250 tab at his local pub, St. Elias Brewing Company.
"I feel honored he chose our place," said Zach Henry, president and brewer at Soldotna's St. Elias. "I'm really proud of him. He's pretty instrumental in the brewing scene locally."
Henry said that he has read several articles about Beerdrinker of the Year in brewing magazines over the years.
"I think it's huge really. I never dreamed someone local in little Soldotna would win that," he said. "If he's open to the idea we'd love to have him help design a beer in honor of his winning."
The beerdrinker challenge Marty Jones, the cheers leader/idea man of Wynkoop Brewing Company, said that Howell won in part because he exemplifies someone you would want to sit down and have a beer with.
"He had the perfect balance of knowledge, passion, and beer ambassadorship," Jones said. "In a remote area he's finding good beer and helping to bring it to people."
Jones explained that this is the 14th year of the competition started by Wynkoop, Colorado's oldest brewpub. The competition was started to redefine the concept of a "beerdrinker" and "shed light on people who take craft beer seriously."
Howell was one of the three finalists in the contest, and he was in good company. He said that he felt like fellow beer drinker nominees Phil Farrell of Georgia, a commercial pilot; and Logan Perkins of Denver, a world traveler, had an advantage because of their geographical locations.
Because Howell does not have the recent traveling and beer tasting experience of the other two nominees he tried to play up his strengths. Since 2007 he has taught a community education course on the "Art and history of brewing" each spring at Kenai Peninsula College. Students in his class tour the three local breweries, hear from guest lecturers, sample craft beers, and go to his house to see the home brew process. He also writes a "Drinking on the Last Frontier" blog to convey to the Peninsula what's going on in the beer world and to convey to the world what's going on with Peninsula beer.
"There's no other way I could compete with these guys," he said. "I tried to really emphasize giving back to the beer community. Beer has given me so much pleasure. I wanted to try and do that for other people."
The contest, presided by a panel of six robed and wigged judges, consisted of different rounds including questions, a blind taste test, and a "beer whisperer" contest where the finalists had to drink a beer, talk to it, and explain what it is saying to them.
Howell said the questions ranged from funny ("Can you see Russia from your brewpub?") to factual ("Name seven hop varieties that start with the letter 'C''') and philosophical ("What are three spices you would never use in brewing?")
"Some technical questions he answered the other guys didn't have," Jones said about Howell's beer knowledge, which ultimately helped him win the title.
Drinking locally, thinking nationally With his new award, Howell wants to act as an Alaskan beer ambassador to the country and world.
"I want to try and do as much as possible to use it to the advantage of beer brewery in Alaska," he said.
He wants to raise Alaska's visibility on the national beer stage, especially with the potential start of an Alaska Beer Week as a precursor to the Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival held in Anchorage every January.
"The issue with Alaska beer is not the beer, it's getting people to be able to try it," he said.
Howell said that the local aspect of Alaskan craft beers and breweries is really important to him.
Mentioning St. Elias, Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop and Kenai River Brewing Company, he said that they are local businesses that employ local people and help the community with donations and fundraisers.
Also, while Howell said he enjoys imports, they're "not as good as it is locally."
"Fresh beer is usually the best beer," he said, adding that like bread, there's a difference between a homemade artisan loaf and a bag of Wonderbread.
Howell said he developed his taste for beer as a child when his mother would pour him shot glasses of brews. It was refined -- and his passion ignited -- when he tasted his first craft beer, Anchor Steam, in 1984, and realized that was what was missing in his life.
"I've come to the conclusion life is too short to drink cheap beer," Howell said.