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The man who’s tried 33,000 different beers

In a beer celebrity drinking his way around the world, THEO PANAYIDES meets a man who has seen a lot and done a lot, including tasting 67 brews in Cyprus alone

Back in April 2014, when Gene Bonventre still lived in Washington DC, the Washington Post wrote a profile of the man, to mark a momentous occasion: ‘RateBeer’s DC star will soon taste his 10,000th’ went the headline. RateBeer was the world’s top beer-review site (it’s now been joined, or supplanted, by Untappd) where Gene, then 53, was about to taste – and rate – his 10,000th brew, a rare achievement. That was then, this is now. No longer based in DC, 62-year-old Gene Bonventre (aka Travlr on Untappd and RateBeer, @beertravlr on Instagram) has rated 33,694 different beers, and counting.

Some may be surprised to learn that 33,694 beers even exist in the world – and may question the point of sampling so many. Surely one beer tastes much like another, right? Wrong. Whatever the merits of Gene’s quest, it couldn’t have happened before the craft-beer revolution of the past 20 years – a global burst of entrepreneurial creativity that’s produced thousands of microbreweries making not just familiar lagers but also pale ales, IPAs, porters, sours, imperial stouts, and so on. Gene’s own favourite style, as revealed on RateBeer – lambic, and especially gueuze – is a sour brew, using spontaneous fermentation, that old-school drinkers would have trouble even recognising as a beer.

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Nicosia bar Moondogs

We first meet (where else?) in a beer bar – actually Golem in Nicosia, a microbrewery with a handful of tables. Gene is pointed out to me in hushed tones, news of his status in the beer world having already filtered down. He’s here for a couple of days, not just sampling the local scene – his RateBeer page later shows he tasted, rated and reviewed 67 beers while on the island – but marking another momentous occasion: Cyprus is the 100th country where he’s visited (and rated) a brewery or beer bar.

Countries and beers don’t necessarily align, of course. Gene has actually tried beers from 200 different countries (the number comes from RateBeer which employs quite a broad definition, counting the likes of Puerto Rico as a country) – and, conversely, has been to around 120 countries but hasn’t imbibed in all of them, mostly because they didn’t all have breweries.

Somalia, for instance, has no local beer (which admittedly is the least of its problems). Iraq has a brewery now, but didn’t while he was there. “I did get the last beer from South Sudan, just before the brewery was destroyed in a war” – but he drank the beer at home, supplied by a colleague, not in South Sudan itself. Back when he worked for the US government – initially in the Air Force, then in DC as a conflict advisor – he had an arrangement with colleagues, trading them a bottle of whatever they preferred (usually wine) in exchange for beer from wherever they were stationed. His own postings were mainly in Europe, an obvious beer haven – but, for instance, “I spent a lot of time working in Djibouti, and they don’t have any breweries”. Why Djibouti? “I was doing counter-piracy,” he explains airily.

He’s done a lot and seen a lot, and was always a bit of a wanderer. (It helped – and helps – that he’s never been married.) His 10 years in DC, after retiring from the military in 2008, were actually “the longest time I’ve lived anywhere, including in childhood”. Gene was born in New York, the son of a state employee; his mother died when he was young, and his dad remarried. “Things were a bit tumultuous for a while,” he says, without going into details. Money was tight, and indeed he was never too gung-ho for the military: “It was just to get them to pay for school, because I couldn’t afford it”.

Gene was a medic, a general surgeon then a flight surgeon, followed by a stint in humanitarian assistance and disaster response. He was in Pakistan in the aftermath of an earthquake which had left 80,000 dead, and in Sierra Leone after the civil war – “This was the war where they were amputating people’s hands” – with people coming out of the bush with health problems due to botched amputations. “Some of them had a shrivelled, mummified hand still attached.”

His career, as he tells it, went by in a flash. The military paid for four years of medical school and five years of surgery training – the latter an absolutely wild five years of working 140-hour weeks (!) in a military hospital in San Antonio, 36-hour shifts every other day and hardly any sleep in between (“You’d sleep in 15-minute, 20-minute increments”). He then had to spend four years paying back the money – and by then 13 years had elapsed so “I just figured I’d stay”, since you can retire after 20. As he said in the Washington Post interview: “I didn’t start living until I retired from the military”.

Then again, retirement wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. A great deal was promised, he recalls with some bitterness – free healthcare, for instance – and not delivered. I’m a little shocked; I thought the US army would be more generous. “I thought so too,” he replies. “But I retired – and then realised I couldn’t afford my house in Washington DC, which is why I left.”

This, you might say, is when things get interesting – because his life for the past five years has been nomadic (‘No fixed abode’ says his profile on RateBeer), seeing the world and building on his status as a beer celebrity. “In the US, I drive around in a 20-year-old Porsche that I bought when I was stationed in Germany in 2003,” he tells me. “It’s the most impractical car, it fits two little suitcases and that’s all I own. It doesn’t even fit beer – I have to throw away socks if I buy beer!… But it’s a beautiful car. I can’t get rid of it.”

In the past year alone, “just by car, in the States, I’ve gone from the east coast to the west coast and back four times, and from Canada to Mexico three times”. He also spent a month in Uzbekistan and five months in England, staying with friends from the old days – though in the US it’s mostly Airbnbs, spending a couple of weeks before moving on. He doesn’t always stay in cities – because Gene’s main focus is beer, and breweries are often in the middle of nowhere.

He’s well known, at least on home soil. RateBeer, especially in the early days, was a real community. “At the height of RateBeer, if I went to a place that was unfamiliar, I could just put a little note in the forum saying ‘I’m gonna be in Phoenix this week, is anyone around?’.” Brewers would invite him to taste their latest creations; a special beer (‘Gene Turns 10k’) was brewed for his 10,000th tasting. In the Caribbean – a hidden-gem sort of place, in that you wouldn’t expect much action but they actually make a good Lichtenhainer, a smoky wheat beer – “a couple of brewers just sort of adopted me,” he smiles. He helped out on brewing and bottling days, “they appreciated that, and they fed me very well because of that. And I’ve done the same in the Netherlands and Belgium, and in Italy. You just help out on brewing day, and – y’know, people draw you in to their local community.”

Community is a very big deal for Gene Bonventre, in fact it’s the whole point: “It’s not so much the beer, it’s the people behind the beer”. One obvious question is what kind of raging alcoholic drinks 33,000 beers, and it’s true his passion isn’t very healthy: “The readers can’t see my belly – but certainly, I have a beer belly”. (Amusingly, his surname – which is Sicilian – presumably comes from ‘buon ventre’, meaning ‘good belly’.) Then again, he stopped drinking happily enough for five months after being diagnosed with gout recently – and in any case, it’s not about boozing it up, it’s about community.

Gene doesn’t drink to get drunk, or to seek oblivion; his hangover cure is not to get one in the first place. (He always tries to drink an equal amount of water with his alcohol.) “Craft beer is about the flavours and aromas of the beer, and then it’s about the people you’re drinking with. So you need to be sober enough to appreciate the flavours, and sober enough to socialise… If you’re drinking just for the effect of the alcohol, then vodka is the way to go.”

Even his thousands of beers should be taken in context: not only were they sampled over 15 years, but a lot of them also came from beer tastings and bottle shares, with a small amount for each person. “It’s not unusual to drink 100 beers in a day – but you’re drinking one ounce per pour… So it adds up to maybe five or six beers over the course of the day. So the numbers are a little deceptive.”

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The Garden Brewery in Croatia

It’s not just numbers, though; his whole concept of craft beer puts the emphasis on human connection, not just beer. (His reviews on RateBeer are succinct, two or three short sentences plus a one-word appraisal like ‘Refreshing’ or ‘Tasty’.) Back in the bad old days, he recalls – for himself too; he only discovered ‘good’ beer in the 90s, when posted to England – there were only the big brands, “essentially factories, and there wasn’t much difference from one beer to another”. That’s why he loves going to breweries, where you “meet the guy who brewed what’s in your glass… You can’t really sit down with the brewer of Budweiser.”

Craft beer is local, it’s small, it’s human-sized. “If you’re drinking commercial lagers,” offers Gene, “it’s like eating at McDonalds. You know exactly what you’re going to get every single time… Craft beer is like a home-cooked meal that maybe your grandmother made. Sometimes she makes good food, every once in a while she’ll burn the roast – so there’s a little variety. But it’s a lot more personal.”

His passion feeds his personality, and vice versa: Gene is a connector, that’s his greatest talent. Even pre-retirement, his strength was always in co-ordination, helping different groups work together – just as he now connects beer geeks, and sometimes even orchestrates collaborations between different brewers.

“One of my jobs was to help the military speak to civilian agencies and non-governmental organisations,” he recalls of his conflict-advisor days. “They don’t always get along, and they don’t like speaking to one another – so I got permission from my bosses to bring beer into work!” Beer breaks the ice, it’s a common language – and craft beer in particular has a certain vibe, it attracts like-minded people. Gene’s Instagram features a quote from US brewer Sam Calagione: “The craft beer world is 99 per cent asshole-free”.

The US itself, on the other hand… “America’s changing a lot – in the last, I’d say, 10 years or so. And I feel less and less comfortable there.” The beer world is almost an escape – a happy bubble where you’re able to talk about beer, not red and blue states. “The politics in the US have divided the nation. And so everything is difficult. It’s difficult to carry on a normal discussion with people sometimes, especially over alcohol”. He himself leans Democratic, but not rigidly (he’s against abortion, for instance); that kind of nuanced politics just won’t fly at the moment. People “get very emotional,” admits Gene sadly. “If you’re not 100 per cent aligned with whatever someone’s truth is, then people get upset… It’s a strange time.”

Simply put, he’s thinking of leaving. He has no immediate family in the US – and Europe seems less crazy, more accessible when it comes to healthcare, more appealing in general. He’d also like somewhere to settle down, as the years pass – not to stop travelling and roaming the world, tasting beers and meeting kindred spirits (perish the thought), but a base, so he can have a beer cellar and a place to park the Porsche while he’s away. He shows me a photo of the car, a 911 in pretty good shape. “She has weathered her 20 years very well,” jokes Gene affectionately. “But she and I are both starting to fall apart, gradually.”

The only problem is a long-term visa. Right now, he can stay for 90 days in the Schengen area, but then has to leave for another 90 days – so the best idea may in fact be two countries, one Schengen (he’s currently looking at Slovenia), the other not. “Cyprus would be a great place to spend winters, I’m thinking.” Wouldn’t he get a little bored? Gene shrugs, taking a tiny sip of beer (a commercial Efes, at Hoi Polloi in the occupied north; beer knows no borders). “Depends on the beer scene,” he replies at last. “We could do interesting things with the brewers here, come up with collaborations…” Collaborations? Beer scene? Get this man a golden passport, stat.

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