Thursday, October 02, 2014

A Heady Brew

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When brain cancer attacked his craft-brew-loving wife, Louis Dolgoff devised a charity just for her.

On August 29, 2009, Laurie Dolgoff was near the end of a long, agonizing journey. The cancer in her brain – a glioblastoma multiforme, the most common and malignant of brain tumors – would not be stopped, and the 55-year-old Peoria fashion associate had only meager possession of her faculties. She couldn’t speak and could barely move.

Still, Louis Dolgoff knew what his ailing wife wanted. From the side of the hospital bed that he installed in their bedroom so Laurie could spend her last days surrounded by her beloved art collection and the warmth of a fireplace, he poured a glass of her favorite beer: Dogfish Head Fort, a robust Belgian fruit-bomb ale brewed with raspberries. He poured a bit into her mouth, and turned to put the glass on the nightstand. Then Laurie did something that surprised Louis and still awes him to this day: The near-comatose woman grabbed his arm in protest. He gave her another sip.

That sip would be the last conscious action that Laurie took in this life. A short while later she slipped into a nine-day coma and died.

The last-sip story goes a long way toward explaining Beer for Brains, the charitable foundation conceived by Louis that – in a charmingly unlikely marriage of ends and means – uses craft beer appreciation to fund brain cancer research. “I wouldn’t know what else to do,” Louis says, explaining the foundation’s origins. “I’m not a doctor, so I couldn’t help people with cancer that way; I’m not rich, so I couldn’t just give money. I needed to do something, and beer is what I know.”

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It might initially strike some as a fanciful or dubious pairing, beers and brains, but it makes perfect sense when one considers the depth of the Dolgoffs’ commitment to quality brew. The fastidious consumption of fine craft beers was ritual and religion for the couple, who bonded over the aromatic delights of Trappist-style Belgian ales in the late 1970s and never looked back. Louis, a one-time semi-pro tennis player, was so enthused by the emerging craft brew phenomenon in the early ’90s that he went to work for Delaware-based Dogfish Head as a sales manager.

Even before Laurie’s death, Louis was raising money to fight the cancer that plagued his wife, kicking off the nonprofit foundation with a modest launch in March of 2008 at Papago Brewing in Scottsdale. Louis’ charitable model is simple: Use his contacts in the beer world to score kegs of exotic and hard-to-find styles, charge people money to drink it, and donate the proceeds to the Barrow Brain Tumor Research Center in Phoenix, where Laurie received her care.

The National Cancer Institute estimates more than 60,000 people in America will be diagnosed with a brain tumor this year. Around 23,000 tumor patients will find out their tumor is malignant (or cancerous), with cancerous tumors taking the lives of 13,700 people in 2012. The prospects of such patients are dire. The average post-diagnostic life expectancy is less than two years.

“Brain cancer can’t be prevented; it can’t be checked for like prostate cancer or breast cancer,” Louis notes, adding that the federal government has cut funding for brain cancer research by 40 percent in recent years, largely because breakthroughs are few and far between. “There are only two medicines that even work, giving you a few weeks or months, if you’re lucky.” He predicts that Beer for Brains will meet its $1 million goal for the Barrow Brain Tumor Research Center by the end of 2012.

“At Barrow, they think that there could be a real breakthrough in brain cancer research in the next five years,” Louis says. “I didn’t start this to do one event and raise one or two thousand dollars. People with brain cancer don’t have that time. Someday we’ll go out of business because brain cancer has been cured. Until then, we need people to come to the events.”

The beers offered at most Beer for Brains events would impress even the most jaded aficionado. To stock the events, Louis calls in favors from local and national brewers, who provide kegs of beer styles that can’t be purchased at Arizona retailers, if at all. While the craft beer crowd will always be a part of the foundation’s core market, Louis is also taking special care to appeal to the wine crowd. “They understand why you pay more for something. They understand pairings with food,” Louis says of wine drinkers. “It’s an educational process, getting people to understand why craft beer is so special, but chefs get it right away when they find out that it pairs better than a lot of the wines they work with.”

In order to keep people interested, Louis focuses on events that are both unique and offer an exceptional level of entertainment. “The idea is that we have events where you come and when you leave you say, ‘I’m going to come back to this next year.’” He also works within a simple formula: If you build a philanthropic field-of-dreams with beer, food and music, they will come.
 
The foundation puts on a number of beer-centered tasting dinners at top Valley restaurants each year, but its blue-chip calendar events are the four signature beer-tastings held annually in Phoenix: The RareAffair, a rare beer party last held in November at Talking Stick; the Epicuriad, a showdown (complete with medals) between beer and wine, with chefs preparing dishes to pair with both; a weekend-long bocce tournament; and what Louis describes as a “couch potato Olympics.”

Although Louis’ philanthropic efforts give him access to lavish events, great chefs and some of the world’s best beers, his perspective never shifts far from the cause. Louis – who says he worked for eighteen months on Beer for Brains without receiving a paycheck – is currently looking for new backers to join the foundation’s board of directors, allowing the charity to open chapters across the county, organizing and putting on signature events on a regional basis. Still, even as money is raised for hospitals and research centers fighting the disease, Louis says some funds will always come back to Barrow. “We’re headquartered here, and they treated my wife so well during a horrible time.”

— Dan Gibson

 

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