Sunday, October 14, 2012

Our Thoughts on the 2012 Great American Beer Festival

photo by popculturegeek.comvia PhotoRee

It was when we saw two grown men dressed up as Super Mario and Luigi of Nintendo fame that it dawned on us that all beer festivals are somewhat alike in nature. Sure, the Great American Beer Festival held in Denver this weekend is larger than the rest -- it featured an astounding 650+ breweries and more than 2,000 beers -- but it still struck us as somewhat similar in nature to the other beers events we've attended over the past couple of years, gatherings in Columbia, South Carolina, Charlotte, North Carolina and Jupiter, Florida: craft beer lovers in their element, having a good time while walking around and sampling the various offerings from some of the country's top brewers.

The attendees represented a broad swath of middle America. While many were Denver locals, there were also a huge number of visitors from out of town who journeyed to the festival. Some patrons were normal looking, others not so much. Some were of the beer geek variety ("What kind of barrels was this beer aged in?"), and others more firmly in the novice camp ("I'll try some of that yellow one, please."). But while there may have been profound differences amongst the gatherers in terms of knowledge and attire, there were also some baisc commonalities: a true love of good beer, and for most of the participants -- at least of the male variety, anyway -- a healthy amount of respect for facial hair and hats. And the weirder, the better, as far as that last point goes.

And so it was that we came to see men dressed as cowboys roaming the dusty plains (okay, actually the convention center floor) in search of their next watering hole, and women dressed as pirate wenches and German fräuleins standing in line for the buffet sponsored by the American Cheese Society. This disparate group -- men in Top Gun flight suits and Olympic track suits among them -- all descended on Denver this past week in search of good beer.  And that's exactly what they got.

As we noted yesterday, farlieonfootie dispatched a team of our top correspondents to the festival to give you their impressions: the sights, sounds and smells of Denver, if you will. But a funny thing happened on our way to that report: although we fully intended to cover the event from all angles, after one too many two ounce beer samples all hell broke loose and that plan went completely awry. By the break of dawn Saturday, after almost 48 hours in the arena, most of our team could hardly remember that they attended the festival, never mind recall what they actually did there.

But as is typical of this blog, we have somehow managed to snatch a narrow victory from the gaping jaws of defeat, and piece together some of our staff's semi-intelligible notes and photo streams to make up the following report:

o Judging by line length, the hottest craft breweries in the country right now are as follows: Russian River (California), Dogfish Head (Delaware), Cigar City (Florida), Bear Republic (California) and Firestone Walker (California). While there may be bigger names out there (think Sierra Nevada and New Belgium) the buzz of the aforementioned breweries, combined with their relative scarcity in the Colorado market, meant long waits for the beers of those hot names.

o Sour beers are definitely in. Like Pavlov's bell, anything made with Brettanomyces is guaranteed to cause a beer geek's mouth to begin salivating.

o We were shocked at how many breweries there actually are in this country; it's not until they're lined up side-by-side that one can truly appreciate the sheer number of small market brewers whose businesses have come to life over the past several years. With roughly 25-30% of all breweries in the country attending GABF, it boggles even our beer-educated minds as to how many of them we'd never heard of. Which prompts the following existential question in our minds: If a brewery makes beer that no one has ever heard of, does it really exist...?

o farlieonfootie is handing out props to several of the "big name" brewers who stood for long hours at their booths and dutifully served beer to the faithful. Hats off to Vinnie Cilurzo (Russian River), Bill Covaleski (Victory), Dave Engbers (Founders), Garrett Oliver (Brooklyn), and Sam Calagione (Dogfish Head) for not being too big to work with the hired help. "I love my job," answered Sam when asked why he remained at his booth for hours on end handing out beer after beer.

o Some of the coolest parts of the entire event happened not at the brewery's booths, but in the nearby speaker panels that were open to any festival attendees who happened to wander in: the New Belgium food and beer pairing panel was especially informative (not to mention delicious), and the Three Floyd's 15th Anniversary Celebration another highlight (at least we think so. Correspondent Ed's notes began to get seriously illegible after a couple samples of the 13% Baller Stout). It was also nice spending some time with Greg Koch, the young visionary behind Stone Brewing, and Jack McAuliffe, the older visionary behind the very beginnings of the craft beer movement at the New Albion Brewery, in the on-site festival book store.

o We enjoyed the GABF, especially the sheer scale of it, and appreciated that the brewers were segmented by geography, making it easier to locate specific breweries in a room that could seem overwhelmingly large at times. While the covention center food choices could have been better, and the two ounce tasting glasses unreasonably cheap, overall we give this event a huge thumbs up.

Check back soon for our thoughts on which beers we found most notable at the event. Until then, this is farlieonfootie for October 14.

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