It’s May, four months before the Great American Beer Festival, but Justin Hamilton is already contemplating which brews to bring.
“I have to really plan ahead, not just what beers I think we could win an award with,” Chama River’s head brewer says. There’s a long list to chew on: Is there enough tank space to make the festival beers in addition to Chama’s regular output? If he enters more Lagers, will he have time to age them properly? This careful planning is observed by brewers around the country, and for good reason. The Great American Beer Festival is the largest and most prestigious fest of its kind, with an astounding 455 breweries pouring more than 2,200 offerings. As the number of taps increases each year, the fest continues to break its own Guinness record for most beers poured in one location. Over three days, 49,000 people will have bought their admission and attended—myself included.
Chama River, along with fellow New Mexico breweries Il Vicino, Turtle Mountain, Blue Corn, Santa Fe and Marble, have all paid the $650 booth fee. They’ll each bring five styles to be poured for the festival and judged for the awards ceremonies.
Ted Rice, brewmaster at Marble Brewery, is a multi-medal winner veteran of the festival, though his approach to the event has mellowed somewhat over the years. “I used to sit down and strategize,” he says. “I would look for the category with the fewest entries, read the style guidelines and focus on making an award-winning beer for that category.” Some styles get a ton of entries—IPA pulls in more than 140, the most of any category. “I’d say half are worthy of a medal, but only three can get recognized.”
He now concentrates on choosing brews that the crowds will remember. “There’s nothing like hearing your brewery called, walking onstage and shaking Charlie’s hand,” he says, referring to Charlie Papazian, the festival’s founder and president of the Brewers Association. “But medals or not, it doesn’t determine who you are as a brewery.” Americans are buying more beer than ever, whether from award-winning breweries or small startups on modified homebrewing equipment. Last year, U.S. beer’s $101 billion in sales actually outnumbered liquor and wine combined.
“Medals or not, it doesn’t determine who you are as a brewery.”
Ted Rice, brewmaster at Marble Brewery
I drive up to Denver early for a chance to catch up with old friends and their new babies. Wednesday evening is the warm-up drinking night before the festival begins on Thursday. Brewers from around the country gather at Wynkoop, Denver’s very first brewpub (founded by Denver mayor and Colorado gubernatorial candidate John Hickenlooper), for an evening of free food and drink. Brewers love a free meal, so the buffet is wisely set up in two areas to keep the lines from resembling an elementary school on Election Day. Unusual and rare beers are poured freely at tables throughout the brewpub.
Blackout curtains keep me from getting up until 11:12 a.m. It’s so dark in the hotel room that I think it’s 11:12 at night. But no; a bang on my door and a jarring “Housekeeping!” herald the morning. I’m thankful the cleaning crew attack came late today. They usually wake me up by 7:30 a.m.
I head down to the 16th Street Mall, 16 blocks of chain stores that encompass downtown Denver. Hours before the first night of the fest begins, I already see what will be a familiar sight over the next three days: people wearing pretzel necklaces. These necklaces usually consist of a string of mini pretzels, but over the years the practice has evolved into an art form. I spot a man with a necklace of what must be every variety of Lance’s crackers, from Nip Chee to Van-O-Lunch. Another man has layers of gold chains holding an impressive amount of pretzels, making him look like a cross between Mr. T and Mr. Salty.
I walk to the Colorado Convention Center, the home of the festival since 2000. Though it is two hours before the doors open, hundreds of people already line a full city block outside the building. It’s a mostly jovial crowd, with singing and chanting, though some steal jealous glances at the sizes of their neighbors’ pretzel necklaces. The crowd waiting at this time may already outnumber the total amount of visitors to the inaugural Great American Beer Festival in 1982, when 800 people sampled 40 offerings from 22 different breweries. By the time 5:30 p.m. comes around, there’ll be more than 16,000 thirsty people entering the festival hall—and this is just the first day.
It’s a mostly jovial crowd, with singing and chanting, though some steal jealous glances at the sizes of their neighbors’ pretzel necklaces.
I get in a half-hour before the madness begins. Volunteers are busily filling up pitchers for the upcoming crush of drinkers. These people, well-versed on what they’re pouring, are sometimes the only brewery representatives in the booth as brewers make the tasting rounds themselves. They do most of the setup work before the patrons enter the fest. One task involves cooling down all those kegs and bottles with ice—and 232,000 pounds have been ordered for the festival. That’s 116 tons, for you metric fans.
I use the early admission to check out the other attractions that are part of the experience. There’s a free massage area, a bookstore with author signings (including New Mexico’s own Stan Hieronymus), even a free beard-trimming service. New this year is a section that encompasses nine different state brewer’s guilds, and I am happy to see New Mexico represented. The N.M. booth will be pouring samples from each of the state’s breweries, showcasing all our fine beers in a one-stop setting.
Once the crush of festival attendees fills the hall, it is on. The crowds gather immediately at the popular booths like Dogfish Head, New Glarus and Samuel Adams. Pouring guidelines are strict in order to keep patrons from overindulging. Everything is served in 1-ounce sample sizes, which can be deceptive to a festival newcomer. You’d think downing 24 samples equates to drinking two 12-ounce bottles—but many craft beers are high in alcohol (the highest I spot here is 18 percent alcohol by volume), so you’ve got to be prudent in your tasting.
Many of the attendees make the fest a yearly destination and already have their routes mapped out. These experts have developed imaginative sampling strategies through years of trial and error. I talk to an Asheville, N.C. couple attending all four tasting sessions. They’ve decided to taste according to style this year. Tonight they’re concentrating on the darker varieties: Black Lager, Doppelbocks, Porters, Stouts, Imperial Stouts, with several subcategories involved. There are 79 categories judged by the Brewers Association, and two days is not enough time to get technical. Tomorrow, they plan to conquer the Lagers, Ambers, IPAs and Imperial IPAs. Saturday is reserved for Belgian-style brews.
What country do you think is the largest importer of American craft beer? If you guessed Sweden, I’ve got an IKEA toolkit for you.
A Denver native wearing a T-shirt that proclaims “My other husband is a hop vine” tastes by region: The first night, she hits the Pacific, Pacific Northwest, Mideast and Midwest breweries. Festival organizers have made this an easy task, as breweries are grouped on the floor by region. Her Friday visit will be to the Rocky Mountain, New England, Southeast and Southwest (Yeaahh! That’s us!).
The day begins with a media luncheon described by the Brewers Association as a “working lunch.” This being the industry it is, “working” involves seven courses of beer chosen to complement the dishes they are paired with, while their brewers speak about them. Aside from the food, which includes things like wild mushrooms strudel and lavender-ginger sorbet, we also hear Brewers Association data. What country do you think is the largest importer of American craft beer? If you guessed Sweden, I’ve got an IKEA toolkit for you. Thirty-one percent goes to Sweden, with runners-up U.K. and Canada each importing 18 percent. I’m also told that since 2003, American craft beer exports have increased by 246 percent.
After an afternoon that includes a media tour visit to Breckenridge Brewery, Stranahan’s Whiskey distillery and the Pints for Prostates event, it’s time to start drinking again. Much of the Friday evening festival crowd is excitedly trying beers as fast as they can be poured. Adam Galarneau, GM of Turtle Mountain Brewing, is working his booth alone. His once clean shirt is now splotchy with samples of Oaked Hoptimus Prime and Independence IPA. “Yeah, it’s a little nuts right now,” he manages to tell me before returning to the unquenchable crowd.
Beer isn’t the only potable here. Water coolers around the hall keep attendees hydrated. Thirty-six thousand gallons of beer and 2,600 gallons of water mean the three stationary bathrooms in the fest quickly become the most popular lines of the night. (Mercifully, portable toilets are on hand for those who don’t need all the comforts of home.)
Adam Galarneau, GM of Turtle Mountain Brewing, is working his booth alone. His once clean shirt is now splotchy with samples of Oaked Hoptimus Prime and Independence IPA.
The final day of the Great American Beer Festival is broken into two sessions. I don’t plan on sticking around long for the evening half. Many of the breweries have run out of their biggest draws by that time. Popular brews have little chance of lasting all four sessions.
Still, Saturday night does provide the best of the “Silent Disco” dancers. The disco is a sideshow area where people dance to music only they can hear through headphones. It’s entertaining, but there’s nothing to drink at the disco, and I have a tasting event with 100 rare brews to get to. (One cannot live by 2,200 beers alone.)
The first session, held in the afternoon, is reserved for members of the American Homebrew Association and awards ceremonies. Gold, silver and bronze medals are given to breweries that best represent their beer in one of 79 categories. The style guidelines are rigid. If no one can stand up to the criteria of a category, a gold medal isn’t awarded.
The festival is all-American, but the judging is international. Regardless of which of 10 countries the judges hail from, all 151 of them are certified by the Beer Judge Certification Program. There are different levels of professional tasters. Brad Kraus, head brewer at Blue Corn in Santa Fe, has achieved the level of master judge, which I believe means he gets a 20 percent off coupon for Burlington Coat Factory. It also means he scored 90 or better in the rigorous exam and has acquired more than 40 experience points, accumulated at the festivals he’s judged.
The order in which the categories are announced never changes to accommodate the popular styles at the time, so the anticipation is always high. Booths are still serving, but the majority of festival-goers are watching and making notes. (There’s another tasting method: Just try any of the winners.)
Through 38 categories, Colorado and California breweries dominate the medals, though Utah is making a surprising showing. In the 39th category, Baltic-Style Porter, New Mexico strikes gold: Chama River takes top honors with 3 Dog Night! As Justin Hamilton accepts his medal onstage, I celebrate like I did something. I fist-pump, I chicken dance, I put on a bolo tie and chant “Red or green! Red or green!”
The rest of the awards are presented, though the Chama gold is the only New Mexico beer that places. I catch up with our winning brewer. “I couldn’t figure out where to go when they called my name, there were so many people around,” he says. There’s an unmistakable feeling of camaraderie throughout the weekend, and in the craft brewing industry itself. “It’s great that we won,” he adds, “but it would have been great to see other New Mexico breweries win. We have so many that are deserving.”