The Great American Beer Festival is an event of intergalactic proportions. Visualize a science fiction or comic convention, teeming with hoards of costumed fans waiting in line to meet their idols, and then start pouring them beers. That is the sort of dedicated fandom, and community, that craft brewing has inspired over the past three decades. After thousands of years of careful cultivation, we can finally say that we… are a subculture. We are the Trekkies of brewing, and our convergence at the Great American Beer Festival celebrates the achievement of such status, for better or worse. The craft of brewing, not unlike our galaxy, is rapidly expanding to reveal a vast undiscovered country. The only suitable course of action is to sample their beers… BOLDLY.
Captain’s Log, Stardate -311780.1
We have arrived in the constellation of Denver. Species abound, and the notion of engaging them all is quickly abandoned. Our mission is clear: catalog the unknown.
This year at the Great American Beer Festival there were more than 2,700 beers from 578 breweries served in the hangar-like 584,000 square foot exhibit hall of the Colorado Convention Center. Even trying a single beer from each brewery over the course of 5 sessions isn’t logistically, if not medically, possible—so it’s important to develop a plan. Since this was my first time attending the festival, I made the following rules for myself in order to try and sample as many beers from lesser-known breweries as possible without getting drunk:
1) Only sample from breweries I’ve never heard of before
2) Only sample one beer from each brewery
3) Never consume more than the allocated ounce
Several brewers and volunteers took it as a negative sign when I disposed portions of beer into the dump buckets stationed between every booth, and several even criticized my unwillingness to sample multiple beers, but sticking to my rules yielded a number of benefits:
1) I gained exposure to nearly 100 new breweries
2) I didn’t advantage some breweries over others
3) I remember the entire experience
My approach was intended to be more methodical than casual, and in doing so I admit that I may have missed out on some of the joys of public intoxication, but I honestly enjoyed the adventure. Due to travel arrangements, I was unable to attend the Thursday night session of the festival, but it was a great privilege to attend the other four. In doing so, I was able to break my adventure into four parts—synchronizing perfectly with the number of columns that booths are organized in at the festival. Hence, I started on the east side of the convention hall and worked my way west.
I either took a picture of the description of each beer I tried, or took a business card in the absence of such a description. The entire list of beers I sampled is recorded at the end of this article, but there are a few that made a memorable impression on me and left me wishing I hadn’t come up with my third rule.
Of the barrel-aged beers I sampled, Real Ale’s Scots Gone Wild, Karbach’s Hell Fighter, and Blue Mountain Barrel House’s Local Species stood out to me—Real Ale for their successful experiment, Karbach for finding a balance between bourbon and base, and Blue Mountain for crafting an incredibly drinkable beer that certainly deserved the bronze medal they earned the following morning. Similarly, TRVE’s Prehistoric Dog shocked me by developing an addictively drinkable wheat beer made with pounds of salt; Red Lodge impressed me with the drinkability of their doppelbock; Payette’s Wet & Wilder assaulted my palate with hops in the best possible way; and Pagosa’s Peachy Peach as well as Strange’s Cherry Kriek nursed it back to health with fruity sweetness.
As it would happen, I ended up having a number of medal-winning beers during the course of the two sessions simply by asking brewers or volunteers to pour me what they suggested. Certainly, the approach of limiting myself to one serving per brewery as well as the fact that more than 1,500 of the beers entered in the festival’s competition are not served in the convention hall resulted in my missing plenty of medal-winners, but I was beyond impressed by the general level of quality across the board in beers that I sampled. The idea that there were just as many great beers awaiting me on the other side of the exhibition hall for Saturday made me sleep like a child on Christmas Eve.
Captain’s Log, Stardate -311782.8
Our mission continues. Endangered species are quickly becoming extinct. Cataloging those that remain is becoming increasingly competitive as the population begins to hemorrhage and resources rapidly dwindle.
It is important to note that the Great American Beer Festival is both a convention as well as a competition, and the distinction becomes more apparent as the festival progresses. Although they are co-located, it doesn’t necessarily mean that every beer announced at the awards ceremony on Saturday has been, or will be, available in the exhibition hall during the sessions. In turn, a number of breweries that enter their beers in the competition are not necessarily present at the convention. This was almost as surprising to me as the vast number of booths that were only represented by volunteers who only knew a limited amount about the beers they were serving.
Moreover, it seems that the general practice of breweries with booths at the convention is to tap the majority of their beers on Thursday and distribute any promotional materials at the onset of the festival—leaving little for those who attend the final session. In fact, I noted at least three booths that were completely out of beer and had abandoned the convention by the time the final session even started. This practice, to me, needs to be addressed, and was much more visible than any signs of over-consumption en masse. Granted, there were plenty of visibly intoxicated people at the convention, but not nearly to the degree that I have observed at more regional events or had expected. The security presence likely had something to do with such a perception, but I wonder if over-consumption at such an event isn’t partially facilitated by frustrated consumers who are disappointed that many of the beers they’ve come to sample are no longer available by the time the final session begins.
That said, a wealth of lesser-known gems were still being poured during the last hours of the festival, and I was pleased to try as many as I could—whether they won medals or not. While it was fun to see brewers with medals around their neck proudly returning to their booths to share their award-winners, I was particularly impressed by the number of brewers that left the awards ceremony empty-handed, but returned to the exhibition hall to continue their work.
Some of my favorite samples by brewers on either side of the coin were Redwood’s Hazelnut Coffee Cream Stout as well as Wormtown’s Norm Chocolate Coconut Stout which smelled and tasted like dessert in a glass; The Beer Company’s successful marriage of oak and cherries in their Manhattan Project; the subtlety that bourbon lent to Wichita’s Seal Team 6 Black IPA as well as Sullivan’s Black Forest Pirate Jack Porter; the drinkability of Amicas’ Imperial Honey Brown despite it’s whopping ABV; and the juicy essence of Distihl’s Strawberry Blonde.
Considered together, the collection of beers offered to those attending any session of the festival is overwhelming, and the quality of beers that I sampled from breweries I was previously unfamiliar with indicates an increasing level of parity in brewing. The wealth of liquid riches we not only produce regionally, but have access to nationally, is staggering. Moreover, the ability of our community to annually come together for an event of the quality and scale of the Great American Beer Festival is clear evidence that we are living in a golden age of brewing.
“A toast; to the undiscovered country… the future.” –Commander Gorkon
As the Trekkies of brewing, whether you appreciate the comparison or not, the future of our subculture seems clear: to seek out new beer and share it with civilization.
Our goals are utopian, but our vessel remains tied to enterprise; and with every percentage that brewing’s market share increases the horizon grows wider for the future for our community. I hope in sharing my experience with those who may be hesitant to try something new—especially if it means sacrificing an opportunity to consume what is familiar and delicious—that it will help grow the audience of craft beer drinkers.
Bill Eye, of newly opened Prost Brewing in Denver, said it best this weekend when he noted, “Right now roughly 1 out of 10 beer drinkers are drinking craft beer. Wait ‘til 4 out of 10 people are drinking craft beer. It’s going to happen, and it’s going to be amazing!” We are on the brink of discovering something entirely new as the practitioners and fans of our craft continue to spread across the galaxy. There is much for us yet to explore and share in life, and our love of beer is only at the surface of such a worthwhile journey—so let’s engage.
Friday Sessions (10/12/12)
*Blue Mountain Barrel House Local Species
*Karbach Hell Fighter
*Pagosa Peachy Peach
*Payette Wet & Wilder
*Real Ale Scots Gone Wild
*Red Lodge Resurrection Doppelbock
*Strange Cherry Kriek
*TRVE Prehistoric Dog
American Polska Porter
Barley Brown’s Pallet Jack IPA
Brewer’s Alley Wedding Alt
Deep Ellum Rocktoberfest
Devil’s Backbone Vienna Lager
Diamond Knot Blonde Ale
Fort George Cavatica
Icicle Raspberry Wheat
Lost Rhino Face Plant IPA
No Label Ridgeback
No-Li Silent Treatment Pale
Omission Pale Ale
Pedernales Lobo Negro
Peticolas Velvet Hammer
Quarry Gneiss IPA
Rahr & Sons La Grange Saison
River North Hello, Darkness
Riverport Oatmeal Stout
San Luis Valley Valle Caliente
Shades of Pale 4-Play
Shine Down Dog Red
Sierra Blanca Alien Imperial Stout
Social Kitchen & Brewery SKB Pilsner
Sonoma Springs Uncle Jack’s Kolsch
Sound She Riff Fresh Hop
Southern Star Pine Belt Pale Ale
TableRock Rye Saison
The Commons Urban Farmhouse Ale
Three Creeks Cone Lick’r
Tractor Oxbow Scotch Ale
Uberbrew Double IPA
Upslope Belgian Style Pale Ale
Saturday Sessions (10/13/12)
*Amicas Imperial Honey Brown
*Distihl Strawberry Blonde
*Redwood Hazelnut Coffee Cream Stout
*Sullivan’s Black Forest Pirate Jack Porter
*The Beer Co Manhatten Project
*Wichita Oak Aged Seal Team 6 Black IPA
*Wormtown Norm Chocolate Coconut Stout
4 Hands Divided Sky Rye
47 Imperial Irish Red
AC Golden BA RIS
Auburn Gold Country Pilsner
Big Choice #42 Poblano Stout
Black Diamond The Twelve
Blind Tiger Little Red Corvette
BRU Citrum IPA
Bull & Bush Cask 4.0 GPA
Capital Autumnal Fire
Carter’s Farmhouse Ale
CAUTION: Lao Wang Lager
Cismontane Black Nocturne
Coop Ale Works DNR Belgian Strong
El Toro Negro Chocolate Stout
Feather Falls Blackjack
Flat 12 Bierwerks Half Cycle IPA
Flat Branch Green Chili
Four Horsemen Irish Red
Hollister Hippie Kicker IPA
Jack’s Abbey Helles
Lucky Bucket Certified Evil
Peanut Butter Cup Coffee Porter
Ram Restaurant & Brewery (Northwest) Buttface Amber
River City Ace’s Barrel Reserve
Rolling Meadows Abe’s Ale
Solemn Oath Black
Sullivans Black Forest
The Brewhouse Dr Pepper
Tighthead Comfortably Blonde
Trinity Decadence Imperial IPA
Wagon Box Wheat
Weasel Boy Anastasia RIS
ZwanzigZ Chocolate Beer
Nicholas D. Butler is a doctoral student in Educational Technology at Arizona State University. He received his undergraduate degree in English from the closest version of Starfleet on our planet: the U.S. Air Force Academy.
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