Sitting in on a beer tasting and rating session with Dave Prillwitz and Bill Henson is like taking a master class on all things craft beer. They know as much about breweries, bottle shops, bars, the best beer towns and how to budget for beer as nearly anyone alive.
When they size up a beer, they examine its color, take a good, deep whiff to assess the aroma, and then roll it over in their mouths until they lock onto the flavors they’re picking up. Combined, they have done this very thing 21,661 times. During this session, they rated 10 beers, which is a standard amount when they get together.
Prillwitz and Henson are two of the most prolific raters in the world on the popular and influential RateBeer app and website, a virtual gathering spot for connoisseurs who like to keep track of what they’re drinking as well as enthusiasts looking for ideas about what to drink next. In both ways, RateBeer moves the needle in craft beer, and this duo is at the top of the heap.
At last count, Henson had 13,294 rated beers and Prillwitz had 8,367.
In the senior master category on RateBeer, Henson, an attorney who lives in Woodland and goes by “BHensonB,” is No. 1; and Prillwitz, a retired IT executive who lives in Sacramento and is the original “Marcus” on RateBeer, is No. 2 worldwide. Overall, among 300,000-plus raters, “Bill is 29th in the world. I was 98 yesterday and I’m 99 today,” Prillwitz said with a chuckle.
Their prowess means their ratings carry extra weight on the website and rise to the top of most lists. That’s one of the reasons that when they rave about Capitol Beer & Taproom, for instance, the place gets flooded with new customers, many of whom rate beer themselves.
We’re in the sun room at Prillwitz’s home in the Arden-Arcade section of town. The first beer is a delicious and gently complex barrel-aged sour ale called Fortuna by Avery Brewing of Boulder, Colo. Henson liked it and rated it 3.9 out of 5. He’ll write the score and his tasting notes on RateBeer, and those who follow him will take note.
“I start with my nose,” Prillwitz said. “That helps you get a sense of what you’re going to taste. Sometimes it’s a surprise. In this case, it was not a surprise. I could smell the kumquat and a little bit of toffee. I’ll usually take a couple of more sips to make sure I agree with myself.”
They rate mostly top-quality beer. This tasting included Coffee Okie by Prairie Artisan Ales that’s aged in whiskey barrels; a black IPA dubbed Project PAM by Founders Brewing aged in maple syrup bourbon barrels; and a new version of Fred (honoring the late beer writer and brewer Fred Echhardt), a bottle-conditioned golden ale by Portland’s Hair of the Dog that was brewed at Brouwerij de Molen in the Netherlands.
“This is a lot harsher than the original Fred,” said Prillwitz. “It doesn’t have that smooth sweetness.”
“No, it’s got hop in it,” concurred Henson.
Added Prillwitz: “It’s hoppier, it’s more bitter and it’s a little bit on the harsh side. In other words, the alcohol is not really well-concealed for me.”
Henson saw it a little differently. “It’s very mild. There’s not a lot of brown sugar. There’s a little bit of fruit in it. It’s very pleasant, but this is not how I remember Hair of the Dog.”
Despite their prolific beer numbers, they continue to love great beer and thrive on tracking down new beer. Which leads us to the Sacramento region.
“The way it’s going,” Henson said, “with a little luck, we’re going to have a bit of a challenge for Portland. We need something like (Portland’s) Cascade (Brewing) Barrel House. I think San Diego is on such a roll, it’s going to be hard to catch them.”
“Just in the last two or three years, I’ve changed focus from getting my beer elsewhere to getting it here,” Prillwitz said. “My wife even commented on it. She said, ‘You used to always be up in Portland or somewhere and now you’re always home.’ ”
Prillwitz’s neighbor Brian Palmer is now the brewmaster/co-owner of the just-opened Claimstake Brewing in Rancho Cordova. He enjoyed his first craft beer about a decade ago when he walked across the street to help Prillwitz, an avid gardener, shovel a pile of soil.
“He converted me into a beer geek. I converted a lot of my friends. You can see where the obsession has gone,” said Palmer, who became an award-winning home brewer before opening Claimstake. “Dave and Bill are responsible for a large number of people getting into craft beer.”