There are many milestones in life. Among them are graduating from college, landing a job, drinking 1,000 beers.
Jay Heckman passed the beer landmark in rare style last week at Mahaffey's Pub in Canton. A cheerful crowd toasted the 25-year-old Thursday night as he enjoyed Sierra Nevada Anniversary Ale. The beer, a bottle of a new release from the California brewery, was slightly different from the draft version of the brew he had downed a few days earlier when he officially reached the 1,000-beer mark.
Unlike many rec-room beer drinkers who believe they have easily downed 1,000 beers in their careers, Heckman reached his total by sipping 1,000 different beers over three years. There were no repeats. He paid for the beers, estimating the undertaking cost him at least $6,000.
"It is all about variety ... in beer drinking and in every part of my life" Heckman repeatedly said of his sudsy achievement. "When I go into a restaurant, I order what I haven't had before. I like to have that knowledge, to know what things taste like." Beer drinking, he added, is "a good social hobby."
Heckman commutes to College Park, where he works as a bartender at the Santa Fe Cafe, an establishment that serves only bottled beers. His bosses, he said, have asked him to select a new beer or two for the cafe menu.
There were rules that governed this endeavor. Heckman's two encounters with the Sierra Nevada Anniversary Ale, for instance, added two notches to his tally, one for the bottled version, one for the draft.
Moreover, there was an official scorekeeper. It was Wayne Mahaffey, owner of the Dillon Street pub that prides itself on pouring a frequently changing array of beers. Each time Heckman or any member of the pub's beer club bought a beer, the name of the beer and drinker's club membership number were recorded on sales slips. After the bar closed, Mahaffey would tally the sales slips' data and punch them into a computer. A running tally of who had tasted what was displayed on the pub's Web site. Last week when Heckman was the first to hit the 1,000 mark at Mahaffey's, his closest competitor, Sean Small, was at 820.
During an interview conducted at the bar, Heckman looked over the 21-page listing of his bygone beers and reflected on what he had learned about beer and himself.
His favorites, Heckman told me, are "hoppy beers with good floral aromas," such as Troeg's Nugget Nectar and Victory's HopDevil Ale. He prefers American craft beers over those brewed overseas.
"American brewers are more adventurous," he said. His favorite American breweries include Oregon's Rogue Brewing Co., Delaware's Dogfish Head, Indiana's Three Floyds Brewing Co., Missouri's Boulevard Brewing Co. and the Heavy Seas line of Maryland's Clipper City.
He prefers his beer served a little below room temperature. If it is colder, he said, flavor suffers. He likes cask-conditioned or naturally carbonated beers because they don't have as much carbonation as other styles of beer. He likes beers with an alcohol content of between 5 percent and 8 percent by volume.
His 1,000-beer quest has taught him that there are some beers, like some people, that you wish you had not met. Barley wines, strong, dark malty beers with high alcohol content, leave him cold, he said. Even his beloved Rogue brewery, he said, had a couple of high-alcohol offerings - such as Old Crustacean and Russian Imperial Stout - that he drank only once.
A native of Baltimore who graduated from Gilman School, Heckman said his beer education began when he entered the University of Maryland, College Park. "Ali Kafshi, my college roommate, got me into good beer," he said. Heckman said he got the idea of tasting 1,000 beers when he visited the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis.
It, too, has a beer club, and its members taste 100 of the world's famous beers, he said. Like a mountain climber choosing another peak to conquer, Heckman switched his quest from the Annapolis pub to Mahaffey's in Canton.
It was, he explained, his neighborhood pub. Since graduating from Maryland in 2004, he has lived in three different apartments in Canton, all within walking distance of Mahaffey's.
Much of his life, he says, revolves around beer. When he travels outside of Maryland, he visits craft breweries, sampling and photographing their bottled beers. When he journeyed to Tennessee this summer for the Bonnaroo Music Festival, which allows only canned beers on the grounds, he was packing plenty of Yuengling Lager, Black & Tan and Guinness Stout.
While he tends bar in College Park, he confines his serious beer drinking, he said, to the Canton pub. Thursday night, after treating many well-wishers to a bottle of the Sierra Nevada, Heckman moved onto a glass of cask-conditioned Lancaster Hop Hog ale. One thousand beers were in his past, he said; the goal of 2,000 beers looms on his horizon.