Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
It's been almost two months since I was in Colorado for my Dad's 60th birthday celebrations but it feels like this was much longer ago. We celebrated for a whole week and part of the celebrations included a trip to the 2013 Great American Beer Festival (GABF) at the Denver Convention Centre. This was a pretty big deal for me, visiting the GABF was very much a 'bucket list' event as far as I was concerned and I was determined not to make a complete hash of it as I did earlier this year at the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF). In order to achieve this I almost religiously avoided beer lists, maps or information of any sort, this had to be a take-it-as-it-comes experience, maximum enjoyment was my primary objective, the beer was secondary to this.
The One Ounce Plastic Beaker in all it's Glory
We started the day early, my Dad had booked a limo which would take our party of ten on the hour long journey from Fort Collins to Denver. Unfortunately on the day the limo was out of action and so we were given a free upgrade to a 'party bus'. The black minibus that pulled up outside the house was decked all in black with nearly opaque windows, it looked like some sort of gangland drug bus. Inside it was all rope lights and mirrored ceilings, it even had a dance floor in the corner which I immediately felt the urge to test out, it was 10.30 in the morning.
As we pulled away we cracked open a couple of bottles of Champagne, mimosas were the starter of choice but we soon ran out of orange juice and had to drink it neat, bummer. As we drove south down interstate 25 I admired the front range of the Rocky Mountains with the majestic Long's Peak jutting out of the horizon , I thought about how I could stare at those majestic peaks for days on end. Soon the party bus dropped us of on Larimer Street and our party bundled into the Market for some really strong coffee, we had a long day ahead of us, we were going to need it.
Not all of our group was here for the beer and so at this point we went our separate ways, I was here for the beer though and my group made our way down towards River North brewery. The crowd that was both inside and spilling outside of this cosy tap room was a selection of brewers and beer geeks, all in town for the festival with their GABF lanyards proudly hanging around their necks. We got a taster of pretty much everything they had on tap, sure it was all well made but nothing here really caught my attention. All the beers were fermented with either Belgian or German yeast strains and the ester rich brews lacked a bit of definition with the Unified Theory Oak Aged Imperial Wit being the highlight of an average bunch.
We then moseyed on towards Breckenridge Brewery on Blake Street, a huge brewpub style affair housed in a converted warehouse in what seemed to be a former industrial district. In a twist of fate they were showing England's 4-1 dismantling of Montenegro and the American crowd smiled with bemusement every time my Dad and I stood up to cheer each England goal as it slid in. A tasty pulled pork roll and fries is washed down with a Breckenridge Lucky U IPA, another decent enough beer but again, nothing to write home about. There's then a moment of mild panic, what wouldn't a day like today be without just a hint of it. Dad is meeting a business associate who has our last couple of tickets, but the queue is already starting to snake around the convention centre. We join the line just after five pm but the throng of people soon grows and starts to lap the building. This is immense, this makes our own British festival look like a meagre village fete, the sheer volume of people being herded into this huge building is incredible, the electric atmosphere is tangible.
I've never had to queue to get in to the GBBF before so having to wait over half an hour to get into the GABF felt unusual. If we hadn't have joined the queue when we did we'd have been waiting well over an hour. There were people in fancy dress, stupid hats, they don't even have hat day here, people just embrace the fun and frivolity for the duration of the festival. I lacked the frivolity of fancy dress but I wasn't going to let this stop me from having a day of top fun. We finally get to the doors, my ticket and ID is checked three, maybe four times but eventually I get wristbanded and get given a small, clear, conical plastic cup with a line marking out the one ounce point about a third of the way up the glass. It seems that due to so many glasses being dropped in previous years that a switch to plastic was what common sense dictated must happen.
My ticket cost $100.00 (about £60.00 at the time) which may seem steep but unlike a British Beer festival you don't pay for a single drop of beer once inside. Your ticket gets you in to a session that lasts around five hours and once you're in it's down to you to make sure you get your monies worth. Some punters instantly make a bee-line for the rare, exciting, well regarded or downright crazy beers, predictably breweries such as Dogfish Head, Cigar City and Russian River have long queues forming at their stands from the outset. I made myself a promise before coming to GABF and that was that I wouldn't queue for any beer as there are plenty of breweries here without a line waiting for new brilliant/terrible/mediocre beer to be discovered. This was all part of my long term plan to have fun, it was a good idea.
One thing that's always baffled me about the GBBF is the haphazard way breweries are strewn around the seemingly randomly arranged festival hall. There is none of this at the GABF, the hall is organised into regions such as the Northwest, East Coast etc and then within these sections breweries are arranged by State and then by a letter and number. If you really wanted to make a dash for a taste of Pliny the Elder then K33 was where the action was. A big fat programme and map is included with your ticket but if paper's not your bag then there's also a free app you can download to give you the down-low. As you walk in you're immediately presented with the Colorado section, the beaming faces of proud Colorado brewers smiling at you, wanting you to come and taste their beer and that's what I did. In fact so desperate was I for a warm arm of familiarity to ease me in to the next five hours of drinking I headed straight to the Odell Brewing stand and had an ounce of their new Fernet Porter, an imperial porter aged, as the name suggests, in Fernet Barrels. It's decent, more than decent, really quite good actually. I look around the gargantuan hall, people everywhere, hundreds of breweries pouring beer for free, this is awesome.
Our group assembled somewhere on the border of the Colorado and Texas sections, it quickly became clear to me that our large group each wanted to take the festival at a different pace and travel to different sections. Before we did anything else we went to see our friends from Verboten Brewery who I had brewed a beer with some six months before that they had entered into the GABF competition. There we met with Joe from Verboten who was himself having a great time drinking in not just great beer but an amazing experience for a fledgling brewery, they didn't win at the GABF but regular readers will know that a gold medal deservedly came their way just a few weeks later.
The GABF is Gargantuan in Scale
We then tried to move towards the Northwest section as my good friends Mike and Laurie who live in Walla Walla, Washington wanted me to try some Ninkasi and Hopworks beers that I missed out on due to suffering from the flu when I was in the actual Northwest earlier this year. Somewhere in between Idaho and Oregon our group got lost and separated and I was left with my old friend and former band mate Dom Green who had travelled with his girlfriend Emmy to help me play some music at my Dads birthday party that week. For me this was incredibly significant because the first time I went to the GBBF, before I started this blog, before beer kind of took over part of my life I was there with Dom. We got hammered that Friday evening at Earls Court and here we were together in Denver, thousands of miles from home, about to do it all again. Despite losing the rest of my group, I had the best possible company and Dom and I set about exploring our surroundings.
The atmosphere was similar to GBBF, with laughter and merriment echoing off the walls, people would cheer when someone dropped their plastic beaker despite it not shattering into a thousand pieces (although later on it turned out that if you dropped them enough times they would eventually shatter which would produce an even bigger cheer.) Despite the epic crowd there was enough space to manoeuvre, until you hit a queue for a trendy brewery that you had to work your way around. There was a wedding chapel for beer geeks to take their vows and get married on the spot should they wish (I'm not convinced it was legally binding), Oskar Blues had taken the liberty of not only providing can medallions for one and all but also sponsoring a silent disco should you feel the urge to get your groove on. There were numerous food stands serving hot dogs, turkey legs, pulled pork and pizzas all for around $8.00 (£5.00) for a massive serving of pretty decent scran.
Eventually Dom and I did give in and join a queue but not for beer, we lined up so we could taste the excellent cheeses presented by the American Cheese Society. While we waited I kept dashing off to get our beakers refilled but eventually we were pushed past the rope and into some kind of cheese pit. The cheese presented by the American Cheese Society was good, really good and the fact each of the seven or eight offerings was paired with a beer was a nice touch. At the end of the tasting a member of the ACS that could see we were clearly thrilled with their produce said 'I bet you've never tasted anything like that' to which I replied 'I'm from Europe and I can buy stuff like this in the supermarket but good effort mate!" I was sure that my response went down well and on we continued towards reaching beer fuelled oblivion.
I could now quite easily descend into a list of every beer I tried that evening, I managed to record almost 40 of the samples that I remembered I drank but I was desperate not to let my beer-geekery ruin my experience so may have missed a few. I could tell you that Fat Head's Head Hunter IPA was a pithy, citrus delight, that Ninkasi Tricerahops was good but not as good as I remembered it being, that Schmaltz He'Brew Funky Jewbilation (sic) was bigged up to be the best blended barrel aged beer since sliced Cantillon but just tasted like balsamic vinegar. I could tell you that Grand Teton Pursuit of Hoppiness was a bitter delight, a true ode to hops, that at one point I craved the familiarity of New Belgium's delicious sweet and sour wonder La Folie so I went and got myself some. That Burton Snatch might be the best Stone beer I've tried by a country mile and that 21st Amendment Hell or High Watermelon might just be THE most refreshing beer, nay BEVERAGE that I've ever tasted. I could even tell you that Bell's Kalamazoo IPA was close to perfection as far as American IPA goes but simply listing beers like that, it's no fun, so I won't bore you with the details, ok?
I will tell you this though, I randomly walked up to a stand occupied by a brewery called Boneyard who are based in Bend, Oregon and I tasted their Notorious Triple IPA. Words could not describe the pine and citrus flavour bomb that this beer packed, it was Pliny the Younger by any other name but here there was no queue, no line, no fevered beer geeks clamouring for a taste. The poor folks at Boneyard were not currently the brewery du jour so despite Russian River selling out of Pliny within an hour these guys still didn't manage to sell out of this intricately constructed hop led beauty of a beer by the end of the session. I didn't mind, I went back to have some more on three more occasions, I could have tried their other beers but I didn't, I wanted more of this one. I told them how good I thought it was and they smiled back red faced and gleeful. They didn't care that they didn't sell out because they knew that those that did knew they were on to something good.
I'll also tell you that being a British dude at an American Beer festival does on occasion have its advantages. More than once I'd order my beer and the server would respond by yelling, BRITISH GUY DOUBLE POUR and I would respond by hamming up and saying 'that's awfully nice of you, thank you so kindly' which they seemed to appreciate. It's not easy to get drunk by drinking one ounce pours but I like to feel I had a really good crack at it. In the latter stages of the evening I even decided, somewhat foolishly, to let my British sense of humour run riot. I recall walking up to the Flying Dog stand and barking 'I DEMAND TO HAVE THE TRUTH' and then when all I got in response was a glazed over stare I politely asked 'erm, can I please try some of your new double IPA, the truth?' Later still I was standing in a frustratingly long line for the restroom (the toilet to you and me, I didn't want a rest, I wanted to take a piss but there I was waiting for a rest) and I murmured to the guys around me, who appeared to be a part of some kind of college fraternity 'So, umm, what beer are we queueing for here? It must be a pretty special beer with a line this long!"
My gag received no laughter, just dumbstruck stares from these American jocks that flanked us in every direction. I attempted in vain to salvage the situation 'hey I guess this is the queue for Coors Light, right?' It didn't work, Dom looked at me with embarrassment in his eyes and shook his head slowly from side to side. The funny thing was that all of the major, corporate breweries had stands too, Miller, Coors, Bud, they were all here and they were happily giving away as many ounces of free beer as any other brewery. The only thing that wasn't there was beer from outside the USA, there was no 'Bieres Sans Frontieres' to be discovered here, this was all American and proud of it. This made me sad, there's so much great beer to be discovered from all over the globe but I guess this is the Great AMERICAN Beer festival, so why should there be any beer from other countries? In my opinion, this is where CAMRA (despite not allowing kegged beer from any breweries other than German and Czech ones) are doing a much better job but on the other hand, would us British beer lovers spend more time discovering European beer if there was no American produce at the GBBF?
My Dad and I at the GABF
As the night drew to a close I was getting pretty sick of beer, my palate was jaded and I didn't know what to try next. Our group reconvened at the Munton's Maltings homebrew stand where my Dad's associate who works for Munton's was busy chatting away. This chap had thought ahead, he approaches me and whispers in my ear 'Islay or Speyside' to which I reply 'Islay of course' and he disappears under a table with my beaker and returns having filled it nearly to the brim with Laphroaig. He then whispered 'don't tell anyone I gave you this, if this gets out, we're fucked.' His secret was safe with me and that glass of uber-peaty Scotch strengthened my resolve, there was still time to try more beer and try more beer I did. The last beer I had was a Chocolate Oak Aged Yeti from Great Divide whose brewhouse is just down the road from the convention centre and ending the night with that complex, delicious beer just felt right. Only I didn't finish the night on that beer, I marched back to the Boneyard stand and had some more Notorious, that was the best beer I tried at the festival after all.
As we made our way to the exit we bumped into a very merry Josh, the other half of Verboten Brewery and my friend Michelle, formerly of the Mayor of Old Town who had been pouring beer at one of the stands. Hugs and well wishes were exchanged but sadly it was time to leave, it had been a truly wonderful experience but damn, it's difficult to get drunk on one ounce pours. Despite this I left my first GABF knowing that I had given it everything I had and I most definitely had a lot of fun.