Camp Chug-a-Lug Beer: At Kentucky brew love-in, it isn't the marshmallows but the people getting toasted.

March 13, 1998|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

Fort Mitchell, Ky. Friday, March 6

Dear Mom,

Greetings from Beer Camp! Oh, I can hear you now: "Camp?! Why, you're 46 years old! Is this some new scheme for you and your disgusting friends to get away for the weekend?"

Actually, I flew out here without my disgusting friends, although I have met lots of new disgusting friends, some of whom I will tell you about now.

Yep, that's right, Mom, I'm at Beer Camp! Isn't that cool?! I can imagine you making the sign of the cross, but this camp sure is different from the one you sent me to when I was 12, the one with the tar-pit lake and fat Joey Patane setting his hair on fire every time we roasted marshmallows.

Beer Camp is a beer lover's heaven: three days of discussions, demonstrations and tastings of the world's great beers, with a whole bunch of time devoted to the tasting part, which no one seems to mind too much.

To be honest, we're not exactly roughing it. Our camp is at the sprawling Oldenberg Brewing Co. and the adjacent 500-room Drawbridge Inn in northern Kentucky, just five miles south of downtown Cincinnati.

It's the only camp of its kind in the country, Mom. There are 120 campers here, 114 men and six women representing 20 states. The cost is $369 per person, unless you can write about it for a newspaper and get the paper to pay for it, which, as you see, I've managed to pull off.

(Is this a great country or what, Mom? You think they're doing this in Albania?)

At registration, I met one of our counselors, Scott DeDomenic, 35, a stockbroker from Columbus and a heck of a nice guy. This is Scott's fifth year as a staff volunteer; he knows so much about beer and brewing that you can actually see his forehead expand as he talks on the subject.

I also chatted with Dave Heidrich, the president of Oldenberg Brewing and founder of Beer Camp.

Dave is a big, affable guy who calls himself a "recovering attorney." As he fired up a Marlboro -- this is not the sort of camp where you start the day with 50 push-ups and a two-mile run, Mom -- Dave explained that Beer Camp started back in 1992 as a one-day affair designed to let folks sample various foreign and specialty beers.

"It was 25 people from all over the country," Dave said. "And by the end of the day, we were all blood brothers."

Beer has a way of making people bond like that, Mom. I've seen it myself. If four strangers were trapped in an elevator with a case of beer, by the end of the night they'd have their arms around each other, singing the theme from "Green Acres" and getting all weepy about Vince Lombardi's Packers.

Six years later, the Beer Camp name is trademarked, the twice-a-year camps sell out quickly and Dave has had to raise his prices steadily to keep out the riffraff, such as the Flaming Spiral Hams.

The Flaming Spiral Hams was this alternative rock band that showed up in camp a few years ago, Mom. Their look was this bizarre '70s-lounge-lizards-exposed-to-radiation thing: leisure suits, tattoos, earrings, long, permed, dyed hair.

Scott DeDomenic was their counselor, and when he asked what kind of music they played, they described it as "the Bee Gees meet Parliament Funkadelic."

At which point Scott slowly backed out of the room.

"Boy, these guys could just drink!" Scott recalled.

Instead of taking their little tasting glasses and quietly sampling from the various beer exhibits, the Flaming Spiral Hams would park themselves in front of a particular brew and proceed to drink themselves silly.

"They were not the typical campers," Scott told me, noting that the Hams seemed to appreciate nothing so much as waking up %% behind the drapes each morning.

Anyway, after registration, a group of us toured the Oldenberg Brewery and learned how it makes its beers. Then it was on to the HOPSitality Suite, where the sampling of various Oldenberg beers was taking place with a palpable sense of urgency.

Dave Heidrich translates the mood of the campers at this first tasting thusly: "I paid to come to beer camp, now where the hell's my beer?"

So as we met and mingled with our fellow campers, we tasted Oldenberg's nut brown ale, Pious ale and bock beer. (I had one tiny glass of each, Mom. Honest. No, really.)

From what I've observed, my fellow campers are a smattering of serious beer geeks obsessed with all aspects of brewing and folks who simply enjoy drinking quality beers and want to learn more about them.

There are also a couple dozen veterans of previous Beer Camps, who tell their stories with the intensity of guys who lived through the Tet Offensive.

Harry Hudgins, 52, an electrical utility supervisor from Jacksonville, Fla., was attending his record 10th Beer Camp. His brother Howard, 54, retired from the Coast Guard ("after 30 years, two months, 26 days") was at his fifth.

"I manage 50 people, and Beer Camp is a little stress relief," Harry said.

"Plus, I'm single. I'm looking for an older widow who's quite rich and owns a microbrewery. Maybe I'll take out an ad: 'Send picture of microbrewery.' "

The greatest beverage

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