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HOME | IN THE MAGAZINE | BACK ISSUES | MARCH/APRIL 2011


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The Beer Hunter

Sergio Ribenboim brings a world of beer to the heart of bourbon country.

 

Story by Paul Clarke

Photo by Terry Manier

 

It’s a hot, dry afternoon, and I could really go for a beer. But as I walk up and down a seemingly deserted block near downtown Louisville, looking for a bar supposedly dedicated to beer, all I find is an unpromising-looking storefront, with flags covering the windows and a decaying sign reading “Fusion Restaurant” posted overhead.

A quick glance inside doesn’t seem much more auspicious: a worn carpet that dates back several tenants, a candy vending machine and a formica-topped bar with mismatched bar stools. But good lord, is there beer to be had: The walls are decorated with a swarm of long plastic tap handles for dozens, perhaps hundreds of different beers, and the bar top is cluttered with empties on display, from a Traquair House Ale from Scotland to a one-and-a-half gallon jug that held Val-Dieu Grand Cru. Behind the bottles are arrayed the working taps, with a global reach ranging from Kentucky Coal Porter from Lexington to La Caracole Nostradamus from Belgium, with detours to Delaware for Dogfish Head Theobroma and to Bavaria for Weihenstephaner Hefe-Weiss.

This is Sergio’s World Beers. While the bottle-filled coolers and the hundreds of assorted beer glasses cluttered on shelves suggest that this is, indeed, a bar, the beer ephemera covering every surface and the packed-warren nature of the place makes it feel more Hoarders than honky-tonk, and it doesn’t so much resemble a cathedral to fine brew as it does a basement apartment of a beer-loving undergrad with a still-evolving sense of restraint.

But Sergio Ribenboim is no college student. A native of Brazil who moved to the U.S. in the early 1980s after living in France, Canada and Norway, Ribenboim personifies the notion of “global citizen”; in addition to his frequent trips to Europe to meet with brewers and lead beer-related tours, he’s a lifelong traveler and has ventured with his 16-year-old son to more than 80 countries. A bar owner and longtime restaurateur, Ribenboim is above all a committed collector of beer. His bar, which moved to Louisville from nearby Shelbyville in mid-2009, has a rotating selection of 45 beers on tap—none of which are basic brews and some fetching $500 a keg. In coolers and on shelves packed into the two-room bar, and in an adjacent house he uses for aging beers, he keeps a bottle inventory topping 1,300 beers from around the world.

With a head of curly, graying hair and a subdued manner leavened with the energy of the chronically curious, Ribenboim also has the wary intensity of a focused collector, eager to exhibit his collection to a visitor, if not always as excited about sharing it. At one point, as he shows me a selection of rare beers shelved in a hallway leading to a back room (near a restroom adorned with advertisements for American macrobrews and with a Budweiser sign propped on the back of a toilet), he reaches behind a row of bottles to fetch a special trappist ale and then returns the bottle to its hiding place. “I don’t want to sell too many of those,” he says.

Sergio’s passion for beer is not only because of simple drinking preference—“Red wine gives me a headache, and I believe beer consumed in moderate quantities is good for you,” he says—but because of the sheer diversity of styles and flavors found in beer, a bibulous web woven from barley and hops that’s only becoming more extensive and elaborate as more brewers start riffing on the possibilities. A passionate observer of the craft, Sergio likes to have a front-row seat as the different types emerge. “There’s such a great variety in styles of beer,” he says. “When you get to know the brewers, you see all these eccentric styles, and it’s really wonderful that they’re willing to experiment.”

Ribenboim says he experienced his beer satori around 1968. He was cycling across Europe as a teenager, and in Bavaria he tasted Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, a smoked beer from Bamberg. “I fell in love with this beer; it’s like bacon in a bottle,” he says. “Having never had beer before, I didn’t realize that it was a very different style that probably didn’t exist in this country. That led me to a lifelong ambition of finding different flavored beers.”

With such a massive collection, Sergio’s World Beers attracts beer enthusiasts from around the globe, including a number of brewers. While Ribenboim installs six kegs that had just arrived from Oregon’s Rogue Brewery, the bartender, Eric, pours me a glass of Haandbryggeriet Hesjeol, a traditional Norwegian harvest ale that’s smoky with flavors of nutmeg and anise. The beer is one of the relative rarities Ribenboim has on tap; the keg he has is among the first to reach the U.S., and one of the brewers, visiting from Norway, had come in the night before to have a glass. “It’s a small brewery, just these four young guys who do it all by hand,” Ribenboim says. “It’s cool to see these guys come in.”

As an avid traveler, Ribenboim repays the visits. Several times a year, he takes small groups of beer fans to Europe to visit breweries—some of which are typically closed to the public—and taste beers they might never otherwise experience. “We’ll go to Westvleteren, a Trappist monastery where the beer isn’t sold commercially, and at Chimay they always show our group something fantastic—maybe a bottle aged since the 1970s, and we’ll drink that and compare it to one of the newer vintages,” he says. Over the years, these visits have demonstrated to brewers Ribenboim’s enduring enthusiasm for beer, and have earned him longtime relationships that benefit his tour groups as well as visitors to his bar. At Cantillon, a family-run brewer of lambic beers in Brussels, “I’ve known the brewer since he was an 11-year-old kid, and now he has an 11-year-old of his own. We usually get a personalized tour,” he says.

Of course, the bar’s rec-room decor and intense atmosphere aren’t to everyone’s taste, and some in Louisville’s burgeoning craft-beer community see Ribenboim’s place as more a church for the converted, rather than a place to educate the curious about the pleasures of good beer. “I think Sergio is more of a collector than a person who sells beer; it’s a personal thing for him,” says Tyler Trotter, co-owner of the Louisville Beer Store and a new European-style beer bar, Holy Grale. Trotter says Ribenboim undeniably has a passion for beer and he has a dedicated core clientele, but the intensity of his enthusiasm can result in a newcomer feeling lost and isolated, which may not be the best thing for Louisville’s beer community. “It’s a collection, not a bar, and that’s reflected in his place,” he says. “It’s Sergio’s World of Beer—it’s nobody else’s.”

Trotter’s assessment may sound like a dig, but Ribenboim freely admits his bar isn’t for everyone—and that’s exactly the way he likes it. “We don’t have a sign that says we sell alcohol so we don’t get the wrong crowd in here,” he says. “I cater to a very eclectic and better-educated crowd that isn’t going out to have six $4 beers; they’re more than happy to have three $8 beers. They’re not here to pound beers and watch a game.” This attitude also extends to the bar’s décor—if it may accurately be called that. “Don’t expect the bar to be totally cleared of bottles. We have this place set up to be interesting, a beer museum with 300 glasses from Belgium, and all the new beers of interest are sitting on the bar to help us make conversation with people.”

It’s not difficult to see how the bar’s massive selection and intensity of focus could be overwhelming for a casual visitor. But while it may take a new guest a little time to warm up to the bar, Ribenboim says he tries to make the ultimate payoff worthwhile. “I take my experience in traveling and my connection with top brewers and my knowledge of beer, and put it all together,” he says. “I try to make it easy for someone to learn a lot.”