Great American Beer Festival
Breweries in attendance: 466
Beers poured: 2,375
People in Attendance: 50,000
Size of Convention Center: 5.2 football fields
By Max Sinsheimer
Associate Editor, Reference
The Oxford Companion to Beer in hand, I took off for three days at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver last week. This beer-lovers Mecca boasts the largest collection of American beer ever served, its popularity growing with each passing year. In 1982, the festival’s first year, there were 800 attendees in a 5,000 square foot festival hall. This year’s festival sold out 50,000 tickets in the first week tickets went on sale. A small pavilion at the back of the convention center recreated the layout of the original 1982 festival for this year’s GABF 30th anniversary, and looking at that modest room against the backdrop of the Denver Convention Center was like looking at a tiny ceramic tile within an extensive mosaic. In 1982 Charlie Papazian, a legend in the beer world, chose a rather audacious name for the festival he founded. But that name has proved visionary in 2011.
So who are these hordes who flock to Denver for GABF each year? Mostly hardcore beer fans, of course, and there are many of them. One gauge might be to look at the number of homebrewers in the country. The American Homebrewers Association estimated that there were around 750,000 active American homebrewers in 2010. I asked a few individuals if they had anything fermenting back home, and heard everything from honey porters to seasonal spiced and pumpkin ales. The strangest answer was from a man brewing a lager using 7Up as a sugar source. He claimed it was a big hit with his friends.
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Not everyone at the GABF was a professional or amateur brewer, but everyone was passionate about beer, and that passion manifested itself inventive ways. At the first session I attended on Thursday, I saw a group of men waiting in line dressed in Where’s Waldo outfits. I entered the floor to find a bevy of costumed attendees. There were lederhosen and kilts, of course, and beer maids in traditional Bavarian attire. But there were also more unusual beer garments. “Hop heads” (people who love very hoppy beers) wore rubber hop cones on their heads, or laurels made from hop vines. Three men wore cut-outs of actual kegs around their waists. There were the sillier costumes that had no discernible connection to beer, but contributed to GABF’s celebratory atmosphere. A group of grown men wore white bathrobes. A convincing Charlie Chaplin tapped his cane and tipped his top hat for photographs. Tigger the Tiger bounced about beside a group of twenty-somethings dressed as monks. Halloween came early for me this year.
But for all there was to see at GABF, it was the beer that took center stage. Try a flight of beers at a good beer bar, or drink a few beers from a well-stocked refrigerator, and you get some variety. It is another thing entirely to walk about the GABF floor armed with a single ounce plastic tasting glass, sipping 30 or 40 beers in a session. It was a bit like the first time I visited the Boston Aquarium as a child. I thought I had a pretty good handle on fish, but when I went to the aquarium and saw luminescent squid, Moray Eels, and colorful reef dwellers, the huge range of these creatures that I thought I had known overwhelmed me. The rows of brewery tables were like those fish tanks, demanding that I pay attention, because beer is more plentiful, more exotic, just more than I knew existed.
The most unusual beer I tried? That would be the Humidor IPA, brewed by Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, FL. Aged on Spanish cedar, the same wood used for cigar boxes, this beer smelled and tasted exactly like a Cuban cigar. It was so odd, but delicious, and proved the endless creative potential inherent in beer. Further proof was everywhere I looked. The Grapefruit Jungle beer brewed by the Sun King Brewing Company in Indianapolis is an IPA that uses three hops with grapefruit-like characteristics. It has a subtle aroma that builds slowly and convincingly – you can really smell, and taste, the grapefruit. Kriek, a sour beer flavored with cherries, is a style that I had heard of but never tried, until I stopped by the Sam Adams booth for their American Kriek. It tasted to me like sour cherry soda, and I while I didn’t love it, I was amazed that beer could taste this way.
Garrett Oliver, Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Companion to Beer and Brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery, told me recently that “beer is the new wine,” and I better understand what he means after attending the Great American Beer Festival. The creativity, quality, and quantity present in the American beer scene today spells a renaissance in craft brewing the likes of which has not been seen since before Prohibition. There are plenty of statistics to support this claim, but I’ll leave you with one of my favorite anecdotes: Garrett was recently asked to curate a serious craft beer menu for a chain of airport bars.