Soaking up the suds one ounce at a time

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER – I always knew my Cousin Ed was a legendary beer drinker. I learned at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver this month that he’s into quality as well as quantity.

I attended the 29th annual fest because I thought it would be a hoot to mix it up with the belly boys, beer snobs and regular Joe Six Packs that I imagined were attracted to such a happening. You truly met all kinds: the organizers said 49,000 people attended the four tasting sessions Sept. 16-18 at the Colorado Convention Center.

It’s little wonder the festival attracts such a mob. This is an event that would make Homer Simpson think he died and went to heaven. You walk into an airport hangar-sized hall to find rows and rows of brewers with either their own representatives or good-natured volunteers eager to pour you a brew.

Organizers said there were 455 breweries serving 2,200 brews.

At first I was a bit bummed to discover the pourers religiously stuck to serving just 1 ounce. A line etched on the special GABF drinking glass showed them exactly where to stop, and they abide. It wasn’t long after we started imbibing at 12:30 Saturday afternoon that I was thankful for the small portion. So many brews to sample, so little room in your tummy.

Left on my own, I would have probably stuck to my favorite styles – ales and pale ales. That’s where Cousin Ed came in handy. He made me try a sour mash ale once the bell rung and beer started flowing. I couldn’t quite handle that. Tasted like an angry barmaid drained a towel of dregs into my glass. Cousin Ed said it’s an acquired taste.

Soon he had me tasting a smoky porter, one of his favorites. That was better, but still not exactly what I was looking for. I like beers with a little heft but nothing heavy.

To a GABF virgin such as myself, the spectacle in the hall was fascinating. I only went to the Saturday afternoon connoisseur session, open to professional brewers of the Brewers Association or members of the American Homebrewers Association. That meant there were only a few thousand drinkers rather than several thousand that shelled out $55 for Saturday night’s public session.

Even with the smaller crowd, the buzz in the hall is incredible. Imagine thousands of drinkers buzzing around to the different brewers’ booths like bees sampling a meadow of wildflowers in August.

Every now and then, with increasing frequency as the afternoon wore on, there was a crash of broken glass and an instant roar of the crowd. It’s a tradition, I was told, for attendees to embarrass anyone that drops their glass with a loud cheer.

Some brewers’ stands attracted unusually long lines. Up to 50 people deep waited for an ounce of special grog. I asked a guy standing in one line where the Dogfish Brewery was from, thinking he would know since he was standing in line. He gave a good-natured shrug saying he didn’t know.

Word gets out about some rare brew and people flock to a booth determined to get a taste before it runs out. We didn’t see the point. Instead we veered to any open stall.

Cousin Ed shared some secrets of brewers’ alchemy with me. He patiently explained why different beers we sampled had distinctive tastes. He knows his stuff. Cousin Ed belongs to a homebrewers’ club in Houston. The Southern Star Brewery there held a competition for best homebrew and Ed won with his smoky porter. He and his wife Merry were awarded with a trip to the fest – complete with coveted brewers’ passes – and the brewery served some of his creation.

By the time our session ended at 4:30 p.m., I estimated we sampled three dozen or so brews. Cousin Ed shot me a disgusted look. We walked around for four hours rarely with an empty glass, he noted. He guessed we sampled 100 brews.

He’s probably right. At some point, the beer bliss overcame me and I got more interested in watching the crowd and looking for the most clever beer names than learning about brews. Before that happened, I crowned the Liberation Ale from Live Oak Brewing Co. in Austin, Texas, as my personal favorite. Good name, great taste.

The Saint Arnold Brewing Co. of Houston had its Fancy Lawnmower Beer. Other cool names of winners in the beer contests winners were Rye Not, Head Hunter IPA and Skidmark Brown.

Colorado breweries were big at the fest. Western Colorado represented well with the Rifle Brewing Co. and the Glenwood Canyon Brewing Co.

As good as the beers were, it’s the people that make the event. Some of the crowd came in costume, like the Barrel Brothers, who had kegs around their midsections and taps on their heads. There was a knock-out blonde chick dressed as a beer server at Oktoberfest.

And the beer fest was a showcase for awesome beer T-shirts, naturally. My favorite: “Beer is the lubricant for social intercourse.”