The Great American Beer Festival

The hall of beer in 2009
The hall of beer in 2009

Much of what we consider domestic beer is not entirely domestic anymore. Nearly all beer sales in the US course through either newborn conglomerate MillerCoors (partly Canadian and South African) or Anheuser-Busch (owned by a trading company based in Leuven, Belgium). But an alternative has arisen from the cesspool.

What has come to be known as craft brewing struck a seemingly unquenchable pitch last weekend as thousands filled the Denver Convention Center for the Great American Beer Festival.

This year the festival’s organizers commissioned a hall one-third larger than the previous year. It was a necessary accommodation for the giant crowd of attendants, giant despite tight travel budgets. But everyone knows alcohol profits float over a recession. Hell, had fiscal fear not driven me to snag a ticket ahead of time, uncertain the money I had then would stick around, come fest time I would have been unable to find anything but scalpings.

A friend, who was too late for a regular ticket, got lucky on two fronts. He found a ticket at the door for the regular price ($60), and it was not a fake, or worse, a Designated Drivers admissions pass, entitling the holder to a wristband for all-you-can-drink soda.

Fifty-one newcomers. Four hundred and fifty-seven brewers in total. More than 3,000 beers. That's more breeds of brew than any other commercial beer competition in the world. Most conversations that established coherence amid the onsetting din of mass-slurring hung reverently on these figures. "You can't even taste all the beers, even if you went all three days!" Staggering.

The Tantalus effect, here, at an event some look forward to all year, is a bonus, only torture in the sense that you get extra thirsty. But the samples come in one ounce pours and seem like an insult, at first. By the end you’re trying to space out your visits to the pitcher tables, get one last draught of that smoked porter, try that pumpkin ale you heard about. To taste every brew would mean a daily ration of 1,000 oz of beer, strong beer. One beer, Utopias, from Samuel Adams, is too alcoholic for carbonation. A single bottle is priced around another founding father, Benjamin Franklin. This burgundy draft tasted stout enough to run a wooden steamship and the sailors within.

The event’s organizers have to be stoked over the numerical success; as late as July, the expected turnout of showcased beers was about a thousand less.

Beyond attendance totals and alcohol levels, though, the mission statement of GABF rests upon quality and craft. With a members-only Saturday Afternoon Connoisseur Session, the festival is also a chance for some to talk shop and gain inspiration. “My entire skull went, ‘Duh!’” says Seattle resident and homebrewer Kyle Jungck, describing an epiphany he had while talking with the developer of a sampling technique of variably weighted brewballs that sink at different stages of the brewing process. This reveals alcohol levels without prematurely exposing the product to outside air.

For those who meant to make it or who plan to in 2010, you might follow the instructions from the admissions voucher and secure time off work Sept. 16-18 for next year’s GABF. Too far off? Sight your buds for this Friday, Oct. 16, for Albuquerque Hopfest at downtown NY Pizza Dept. Live music and beer tasting. For those interested in homebrewing, check out the magazine Zymurgy.