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Bar, spelling bee: Who says beer, words don't mix?

Two things you might never think of together — spelling bees and beer — are hitting it off big on Wednesday evenings at Louie's Bar & Grill on the Ashland Plaza.

After a lot of laughs, pints of beer and a fierce, two-woman, game-ending duel during the first bee on Sept. 16, Jennifer Clarke correctly spelled "Mozambique" and walked away with $26.

"That was way fun! It was exhilarating — and don't ask me to spell that!" exclaimed Clarke, who said she picked up her uncanny knack for spelling from her love of books, especially Ann Rule's crime novels.

Spelling contests in bars have been blossoming all over the country, giving beer drinkers something to laugh about and talk about besides TV and chatting, says Ben Benjamin, who heard about the phenomenon in a National Public Radio story and decided to make it happen in Ashland.

"It's for fun, pure and simple — and I love spelling," Benjamin said. "I can spell 98 percent of words. It just came to me that we could do it here. People seem to have liked it a lot."

Benjamin and his partner, Melissa Jones, created challenging spelling lists of foods, beers, nations, state capitals, fruits and flowers.

Of the 13 contestants in the rear half of the bar at 41 N. Main St., most were quickly culled by such humdingers as poinsettia, cormorant, murrelet, vinaigrette, whippoorwill, Liechtenstein (a tiny nation between Austria and Switzerland) and Djibouti (an African nation).

While the spelling bee didn't seem to incite any excessive consumption of beer, it did bring rousing rounds of cheers or groans, depending on whether moderators blew a whistle for correct answers or a duck call for mistakes.

Kate Giles, a teacher at Medford Opportunity High School, was brought down by the word "kestrel."

"I was hasty," she lamented. "I read a lot, both fiction and nonfiction. I should have had that one."

Although she nailed "raspberry" with its tricky "p," poet Jill Iles stumbled on "maraschino" and, enjoying a hearty laugh about it, said, "I feel terrible. I really wanted to win."

A host of food words — minestrone, kohlrabi, fricassee, bouillon, meringue, soufflé — provided a minefield that separated the wannabes from two masters: Clarke and a woman named Bailey, who declined to give her last name.

To mounting tension, the two locked in cerebral combat, each seeking to spell two consecutive words that her opponent failed to spell — a feat that took a good 10 minutes.

When Clarke, an Ashland homemaker, scored with Cameroon and Mozambique, the crowd went wild, surrounding her and shaking her hand — with Jensen handing over a check for $13 to match the pot created by $1 entry fees.

"It's not just for kids anymore, although kids are welcome till 10 at night," said Jensen, who said she plans to continue the event at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and hopes it will promote Louie's $3 pints and the $3.99 "recession burger."

All contestants agreed that spelling isn't learned by studying spelling, but rather by years of reading books and seeing the words over and over. However, most objected to the use of proper nouns, particularly people or places with unique names, and said they would prefer common nouns, adjectives and adverbs in the future.

Hyphens, capital letters and spaces were disregarded in spelling. Contestants had 20 seconds to think and begin spelling the word.

Evan Douthit of Ashland, after blowing the spelling of caterpillar, said, "I completely wiped out. I am stunned like someone hit by Mike Tyson. Well, maybe not that bad."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Melissa Jensen, owner of Louie's Bar & Grill, enjoys the spelling bee with contestant Evan Douthit, who was knocked out of the competition when he misspelled “caterpillar.” - Kayla Young