The Great American Beer Fest

Posted October 15, 2009 in

Imagine the funnest, awesomest, most craziest playground ever.  Got it? Now imagine that instead of sand on the ground, there’s concrete.  Not very safe, but probably a lot better than sand because all the stuff to play with in this playground has to do with drinking beer.  As much fun as it would be to see over 10,000 people running around and spilling beer in a giant sandbox, concrete makes the vomit a little easier to clean.  This is good, because having access to unlimited one-ounce samples of over 1,800 beers caused me to stop looking where I was going about 80 minutes into the event.
Welcome to the Great American Beer Festival, or as I like to call it, Mecca.  Held every year in Denver for some reason, the festival serves not only as a competition in 78 categories between almost 500 domestic breweries, but as a three day sample-til-you’re-more-than-ample, ridiculous party. This year, I got a chance to go for the first time. I was over stimulated, simple as that.  You know when you’re eight years old and your parents take you to Toys’R’Us for the first time, and you almost crap yourself in excitement? I got inside right as the session opened the first day and stood in line at the Dogfish Head Brewery booth because I figured they would develop a nasty line.  I got to the front, ready to taste one of their “ancient ales” featured this year, all from recipes over 500 years old, created with the help of archaeology and chemical analysis.  They asked me where my cup was! I realized that the cup I needed had been left down in my bag at the pressroom.  I almost cried right there. Luckily, my desire for beer was stronger, and I just ran the 200 yards there and back in about three minutes.
The nasty line had developed at Dogfish Head, but that didn’t matter at all, because there was more than enough variety to choose from. I wandered, almost aimlessly, taking small samples where inspiration took me. I tried Belgian tripels, pale ales, imperial stouts, rye beers, a whole host of porters (some of my favorites) and a surprising number of sour beers (good ones), all within the first hour.  I decided it was time to check out the Utah brewer’s booths and look for some familiar faces.  Brewers aren’t required to stay at their booths, and most don’t.  It’s all volunteers who receive free entry to the festival for doing the serving.  You could tell from the somewhat drunken smiles on their faces that a few hours pouring beer was worth the exchange.  Finally, I saw someone I knew, Matt Beamer, head brewer for Wasatch Brewing Company in Park City.  Matt was at his booth showing off a brand new beer, his Wheat Wine, like the unholy love child of a barley wine and a hefeweizen.  I can’t wait until he deems this beer aged enough to bottle and share with his fellow Utahns.  Matt showed me and a few friends around for a little while, until we all got distracted by different brewery booths and lost each other.
I ran into plenty of other brewers from Utah that night, which is pretty remarkable considering the size of the convention center and the enormous crowds within. I met Bobby Jackson of the Bohemian, stalwartly manning his booth and serving up delicious glasses of Cherny Bock and the signature Czech Pils.  There were Kevin Templin and Chris Harlin of Redrock handing out glasses of their Zwickelbier, a German-style unfiltered offering, which would end up taking home one of Utah’s four medals this year.  Jason Stock of Squatters brewery, who you might recognize from the new Hop Rising Double IPA label, was on hand at the Squatters booth nearby a whole gang of the boys from Uinta brewing company who would also take a medal for local favorite Cutthroat Pale Ale. It was especially gratifying seeing all these local brewers whose beers we Utahns had exclusive access to, going toe-to-toe with big names from all across the country, and winning a fair amount of the time.  Utah took home four medals this year: Redrock grabbed two for its Organic Zwickelbier as well as its Blonde Ale, Uinta won for the aforementioned Cutthroat, and the Utah Brewer’s Cooperative won for the very popular Winterfest, which we all hope will be back in state liquor stores soon.
Close to the end of that night’s session, I met up with another Wasatch brewer, Ray Madsen. We attempted a marathon run through as many beers as possible in the last five minutes.  The details are fuzzy, but I think we made it to twenty a piece.  I may have learned my lesson. The entire festival was unleashed upon downtown Denver at around 10pm that night. Every bar was packed, the streets were swamped with rowdy drunks still wearing remnants of their pretzel necklaces and the bike rickshaw cabbies were overwhelmed. That was just the first night. Check out the Great American Beer Festival next year if you can. I guarantee it’ll be worth it.