“Without the Internet, I couldn’t remember anything,” says Gene Bonventre, reaching for his iPad. We are in the living room of his Shaw rowhouse and about to share a five-year-old bottle of Dolii Raptor, a wine-barrel-aged ale brewed by Italy’s Birrificio Montegioco. Bonventre, 53, logs into his account on RateBeer, a crowd-sourced beer review site, and searches his long list of conquests. “Yes, I had it in May 2010,” he says. “I liked it.” He smiles and takes a sip.
With the handle “Travlr,” Bonventre joined RateBeer in November 2008 shortly after his retirement from the U.S. Air Force. Soon he had written brief descriptions of several hundred beers, scoring each on a five-point scale. He drew the notice of D.C. attorney Aaron Goldschmidt, at the time the most active American RateBeer reviewer, who invited Bonventre to a tasting with other local RateBeer enthusiasts. The newcomer’s response: “What’s a tasting?”
Nearly 51 / 2 years and hundreds of group tasting sessions later, Bonventre soon will rate his 10,000th beer, a feat only 30 people in the world, six of them Americans, have accomplished. He is not the site’s top user — a Danish man has more than 33,000 ratings — but Bonventre is among the elite.
“I’d call him a 1-percenter of RateBeerians,” says Goldschmidt, who joined the site in 2002, just two years after it was founded. “He rates like a madman, at a faster pace than I ever have, and travels for beer more than any other American rater.” In fact, Bonventre’s current rank among the site’s 333,000 members puts him in the top one-hundredth of 1 percent.
Bonventre became interested in beer in 1993 while stationed in England. The variety of colors and flavors of the stouts, India pale ales and cask bitters in British pubs showed him there was more to beer than Bud Light and other American pale lagers. Soon he was incorporating beer into occasional weekend trips throughout Europe, which naturally led him to Belgium.
Bonventre estimates he’s been there more than 30 times, often enough to befriend brewers such as De Struise’s Urbain Cotteau and to develop a love for gueuze, the dry, vinous Belgian style whose intense sourness challenges most palates. “It’s more interesting to drink beer on its home territory,” he explains. “Particularly the lambics and gueuze from the Senne River valley.”
Luckily for me, that didn’t stop him from popping the cork on a nine-year-old bottle of 3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze, which he drew from a converted wine refrigerator packed with a hundred other dusty bottles. He uses a special oversize suitcase with an embedded GPS tracker chip for these souvenirs from trips overseas.
Since joining RateBeer, which the analytics firm Similar Web ranks as one of the top beverage sites on the Internet, Bonventre has logged beers from six continents and 145 countries. “I didn’t start living until I retired from the military,” he says. During his time in the Air Force, Bonventre spent 15 years working 100-hour weeks as a flight surgeon and then another five years traveling in Europe and Africa, doing humanitarian work. “There was no free time but a lot of alcohol,” he chuckles.
Kidding aside, Bonventre is skilled at using beer as a social lubricant, a tactic he saw deployed with great success with delegations at international conferences while in the military. It remains useful in his current position as a senior conflict adviser in USAID’s Bureau for Africa, where beer helps him break the ice when working on projects with members of disparate organizations. “People will talk to one another about beer all day,” he says. “Even if they come in with preconceived notions of the other agency, after a while they realize, ‘Hey, that other guy actually is human just like me, and we could work together.’”
Drinking on the job helps, of course, but Bonventre has rated most of his 10,000 beers during his off-hours, at a rate of 150 to 200 per month. Most of those he sampled on weekends, at tastings or on organized trips with his local RateBeer group. A typical tasting is a marathon affair, with each member drinking a few ounces of up to 30 beers over as many as 12 hours. At RateBeer’s Winter Gathering in February in Asheville, N.C., Bonventre visited 12 breweries in three days and attended two “bottle share” events, during which hundreds of RateBeer users from around the world offered each other samples from their personal collections.
Bonventre also travels on his own for beer, often to festivals, where he might taste 100 beers in a single weekend. Consider last year’s month-long vacation to New Zealand, where he sampled 200 brews, many at Wellington’s Beervana festival, which featured 70 breweries. Bonventre’s flexible work schedule allows for long-weekend trips to beer destinations as distant as Amsterdam or Brussels. About a dozen times since retirement, he has flown overnight on Friday, hit a beer festival on Saturday, explored beer spots in the city on Sunday and flown back on Monday. “You’re not there long enough to adjust to the local time,” he says. “Three-day weekend in Europe? Why not?”
To be sure, Bonventre is more than a casual drinker, but he insists that the quest for a new beer never feels like a chore. It could be one if he aspired to break into RateBeer’s top 10, dominated by Scandinavians averaging around 25,000 ratings each. “I hope I never get to 25,000,” he says wryly. “That would be spending too much time on this hobby.”
Nevertheless, he has other beer-related goals, many of them driven by Ratebeer’s statistical features. He is the site’s leading “place” reviewer, with more than 1,300 bars, stores and breweries logged. His next objective, to help fill in the blank spots on a world map showing where beers he has rated are produced, is to review a beer and place in every European country.
But Bonventre’s primary interest in RateBeer — and in beer in general — is social. He could skip the plane tickets and trade beers by mail, as many RateBeer users do, but he’d prefer to meet people other than the post office clerk. When traveling, he always posts a message to the local RateBeer forum. Without fail, he says, someone enthusiastically responds. Consider the man in Moldova who picked him up from the airport and took him on a tour of Chisinau bars and breweries. “We drove to a castle in Transnistria and had to bribe the Russian army to re-enter Moldova safely,” he remembers. “They would only take cold, hard cash — not beer.”
As someone who also logs beers (the old-fashioned way, in notebooks), I wondered how Bonventre balances documenting his discoveries with his desire to engage with others. “The social aspect always wins,” he answers, “even if I miss recording some rare beer I’ll likely never see again.”
His approach is not necessarily the norm. “A person who is new to RateBeer might be going for the most beers, or looking for the strongest or rarest beer they can find,” he says, “but at some point hopefully it dawns on them that it’s the search for those things that is the interesting part, and that people are more important than numbers.”
It should come as no surprise, then, how Bonventre plans to celebrate reaching his milestone. Technically, he tasted his 10,000th beer in January, but he’s keeping a backlog of ratings until three other RateBeer users — in Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark — who are poised to reach the 10,000 mark this spring can catch up. Each rater is working with a hometown brewery on a commemorative beer to be tapped simultaneously at a trans-Atlantic party sometime in late June.
Bonventre’s local celebration will be a public event at Bluejacket, where his beer, tentatively dubbed “Gene Turns 10K,” was brewed in early February. He invited Terry Hawbaker, head brewer of Pizza Boy Brewing in Enola, Pa. — whose beers impressed him when Hawbaker worked at the now-defunct Farmers’ Cabinet in Alexandria — to brew with Bluejacket’s Bobby Bump, Josh Chapman and Greg Engert. “Gene’s a fantastic example of what real craft beer connoisseurship and enjoyment is all about,” says Engert, adding that he hopes to set up a video link to the parties in Europe and procure the other raters’ brews for the event.
The beer they created reflects Bonventre’s appreciation for low-alcohol, farmhouse-style saisons and sour ales. Just 4.9 percent alcohol by volume, it was brewed with two souring agents: lactobacillus bacteria and brettanomyces yeast. Flaked oats and rye were added to a base of Pilsener and pale malts to provide body and complexity to an otherwise simple beer. Three types of hops — French Aramis, Chinook and Citra — impart fruit, earth and spice characters. The resulting dry, acidic beer should be the perfect summer thirst-quencher.
Some is now in wine barrels that once held chardonnay from Grgich Hills Estate and cabernet franc from Larkin Wines. Both of those barrel-aged versions, and the original beer, will continue to condition for two more months.
Now Bonventre’s only challenge is choosing which of the three to drink for his official 10,000th rating. But the other two will be in good company. Within a few days of that event, when he catches up on the backlog of his tastings since January, he’ll already have passed another milestone: 11,000.
Gene Bonventre will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.