Ahh, the Great American Beer Festival. Words spoken with reverence by the commercial and homebrewing communities, and by beer enthusiasts everywhere. I was drawn to Denver one weekend in late September a couple of years ago for this three-day Mecca of beer lovers. I expected to savor a wide variety of excellent beers, shoot the shit with fellow homebrewers, and go home equipped with a mental inventory of new beers and breweries to explore, and to which I could introduce my friends.
I was utterly, horribly and woefully disappointed.
I had a couple friends in Boulder at the time, who met me at my hotel room prior to the event. We walked, I would estimate, about two or three miles through downtown Denver to reach Currigan hall, where the Festival was to take place, before the doors opened at 5:30pm. Tickets were, if I recall, $20 in advance and $25 at the door. Nothing to sniff at, but we were sure the experience would be well worth it.
Upon entering the hall, we each obtained our complimentary souvenir GABF tasting glass. It looked like it could hold about five or six ounces of beer. I thought this was a great idea. By making the glass six ounces instead of twelve, you could taste twice as many beers. Besides, six ounces was still enough to savor and enjoy, and if you got a really nasty brew it wouldn't be too much to choke down. Glass in hand, I marched stridently up to a promising-looking booth and asked the gentleman there to tap me his weiss beer. He then proceeded to pour a quantity of beer into my glass that could only be charitably described as "a shot".
Mildly puzzled, I peered suspiciously at my rather stingy new acquaintance, in an effort to determine if this was some sort of joke, a well-intentioned prank played on the Festival's newbies. There was neither guile nor amusement in his face, and I looked down again to my glass. It was at this point that I noticed a small blue line on the glass, about where the beer stopped and my incredulity began. Atop this scandalous blue line were words that read, "Fill Line". Beneath it, mocking, sneering, lay the words, "1 oz".
My body overcome with the numbness of shock, I dumbly drained the glass, thanked its dispenser and returned to my friends. Their countenances bore similar signs of agony, betrayal and disbelief. We all just shook our heads, at a collective loss for words. We plodded along mutely, stopping at random booths for the teasing half-taste of a beer we might have enjoyed if we could only have had one full sip. At one point, I discreetly inquired at a certain booth if a certain person might not perhaps be inclined to give me just a bit more than regulation. A subtle jerk of his head directed my gaze to a member of that most hated and feared brotherhood, the Pour Police.
Yes, the hall was monitored at all times by very large men in yellow "SECURITY" shirts, their sharp eyes constantly alert, scanning the area for any leftist radical who might dare attempt to tap an extra ounce or two of beer. More than once as the night wore on, I saw them catch someone in the act, giving stern warnings to any tapper who might try to show some mercy to a pitiable attendee. I even saw them stop people who had full glasses of beer, demanding to know where they obtained such contraband. It was truly martial.
Even more disturbing came the revelation later in the evening that almost none of the people dispensing the beer even worked for the breweries that made it. Many were simply convention hall staff, or maybe temps for all I know, who knew nothing about the beverages they passed out. This was made painfully clear to me when I asked three girls working in a particular booth to pour a weiss beer for me. They giggled amongst themselves and one ventured, "You're a brave one." To my arched eyebrow, she responded, "Yeah, that one's got bananas and cloves in it." Aghast that anyone would commit such an act against a noble beverage, I repeated, "Bananas and cloves?" She nodded. "Yup, says so right here in this thing they gave us. 'This beer is marked by hints of bananas and cloves..'" I sighed with the weight of my realization, and tried to explain to her that those flavors were simply characteristic of the style, by-products of the yeast acting on the malted wheat. They didn't use actual bananas or cloves. She nodded tentatively, the way people did when Galileo talked about how the Earth wasn't the center of the universe while they frantically gestured to their friends to get Torquemada on the phone, quick. "Oh. Okay, well, whatever. Did you still want one?"
The rest of the night was a blur of frustrating sobriety, ounce after ounce of anonymous beer. It wasn't that I was going to the Festival to get drunk. After all, for the $20 I spent on admission, I could have picked up three or four cases of Coors Light, or even a single case of good beer, which would have been quite enough to send me on my way. No, but I wanted enough beer to fill my mouth, and maybe even have a second or third sip if it was especially good. As it was, I had to go to sixteen different booths just to get a single pint of stout. I suppose I could have stood there at one booth and had them constantly refill my glass, but how tacky would that have been?
Thankfully, the night was not a total disaster. I ended up wandering into the press room at one point, and sat on a couch noshing with the correspondent from High Times magazine, discussing what styles of beer were most and least enjoyable when one had been indulging in a bit of smoke. This insightful conversation was cut short when yet another Festival Nazi evicted me from the press room for, of all things, not having a press pass.
And towards the end of the evening, I fell to chatting with one tapper who actually did brew what he was pouring. Like me, he was Irish, and appalled by the prevalent oppression of the beer-drinking masses. After all, even prisoners of war are entitled to the occasional full glass of beer under the Geneva Convention, are they not? With a wink, he drew five glorious ounces of creamy black stout into my glass, then quickly shooed me away lest his rebellion be discovered. I immediately turned a corner, then swaggered down the aisle as the envious eyes of other Festival-goers lingered upon my treasure. I half-hoped the Pour Police would confront me. I had resolved to tell them it was given to me by the three girls who thought weiss beer was made with bananas. No such luck.
Shortly before the Festival closed its doors at 10pm (yes, really), I was amazed to see security personnel forcefully ejecting a gentleman who was visibly quite drunk. My friends and I raised our glasses to him, a man whose persistence and dedication far outweighed our own. After we left the hall that night, we walked to a pizza joint for a bite to eat. When the waitress came to our table and asked if we'd like to start with something to drink, I asked for a beer. When she asked me what kind, I simply replied, "I couldn't care less. I just want one full fucking glass of beer, please." Everyone laughed, and said Amen.
Yes, this is a colorful anecdote and all, but lest you think for a moment that it's all in jest, let me just assure you that it is not. At the GABF, you really are only allowed one ounce of beer at a time, and the security personnel really do maintain a strong presence to prevent this rule from being violated. For me, the major problem that this presented was that everything tended to run together. Yes, I got to taste a wide variety of beers - I estimate that I tasted about sixty that night - but I couldn't remember a single one of them when I left. I didn't have enough of any given beer to allow it to leave a lasting impression that would distinguish it from all of the others.
That being said, the Festival does have things to offer. With about 1,500 beers on hand from 300 breweries all across the country, you can certainly get exposed to brews you would never heard of otherwise. And you can obtain full (5-6 ounce) glasses of beer at the Festival, provided that you're willing to pay for them. Given that I had already paid a fairly handsome sum to be admitted so that I could drink beer, I wasn't about to go and pay more money so that I could, well, drink beer.
There may also be a lot at the GABF which appeals to people in the brewing industry, owners and operators of breweries, brewpubs and the like, or to the more dedicated, technical homebrewer. But to me, a very casual homebrewer and true lover of the beverage, there was very little to justify the price of admission. My recommendation to the average person is, if you're in the Denver area, go for it. The Festival may have changed in the last two or three years, or I may just be an old poop and you'll find plenty there to enjoy. However, unless you're involved in the industry or have some similar stake, I'd say don't bother laying out the money for a plane ticket. It's just not worth it for a hundred shots of beer.