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Celebrating excellence at the Great American Beer Festival

glass of beer with head, image
Photo caption
At the Great American Beer Festival, brewers and drinkers raise a glass in a toast to hops.


Beer drinkers—like blondes—have more fun. While the gussied-up wine-and-cheese crowd can often be found toasting the legacy of past harvests to soft sounds of Mozart, beer lovers tend to mass together in convention halls, clad in T-shirts bearing the logo of their favorite brewery, to savor the latest seasonal offerings with the jangling guitars of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers echoing in the background.

Without doubt, this fun reaches its height each October at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), the oldest and largest event of its kind in the country. For three days, thousands of laid-back suds suckers descend on downtown Denver to find out which brews will earn the year's top honors as they sample their way through the more than 1,700 beers on tap for public appraisal.

"I've had people come through on tours of our brewery and tell me that the first time they tried our beer was in Denver," says Vinnie Cilurzo of the Russian River Brewing Company in Guerneville, Calif.

So just what can your inner Norm Peterson expect to find here in Beervana? How about the chance to taste a tap house full of quirkily named brews you're not likely to find at the local Gas 'N' Sip—Kilt Lifter, Fatty Rice, Cabin Fever, Liquid Sunshine, Chocolate Thunder, A Beer Named Bob.

Even the most adventurous beer drinker must be properly prepared before setting out on an odyssey through the nation's ambers, lagers, and pilsners. That's why upon entering Currigan Hall, the festival's longtime venue, devoted connoisseurs and curious beginners alike are greeted by helpful volunteers who make sure that everyone is equipped with three important items—a tasting glass, a program telling you who's where, and a ticket for one 6-ounce pour in the beer garden. With a friendly smile and an "Enjoy the festival," you're sent on your way.

Meandering along the seemingly endless rows of tables, you'll find brewery folk at the ready to pour you an ounce of whatever "ales" you—a rich, dark stout flavored with a touch of vanilla; a crispy wheat beer; or a slightly more unconventional concoction such as a cherry beer. As you test-dive into your glass, you're bound to overhear some newcomer to home brewing trying to pry tips from one of the pros, or a frequent traveler asking directions to a distant brewpub.

For the last 19 years, the Colorado-based Association of Brewers has overseen the GABF and its effort "to educate the consumer about the quality and diversity in beer styles and breweries that exist across the United States." It seems to have been working. When the first GABF was held at a Boulder hotel back in 1982, it featured only 30 breweries. Thanks in no small part to the microbrewery boom of the late '80s and early '90s, the festival has grown immensely. The 1999 GABF saw a record 38,000 thirsty patrons pass through its doors for a taste of what 400 breweries had on tap.

With so many brewers and breweries in attendance, GABF organizers have seen fit to arrange them by geographic region so you can compare, say, the pale ales of Arizona and Nevada with those of Maryland and Delaware. The arrangement also makes it clear that the microbrew revolution has a distinctly Western flavor, with a disproportionate numbers of beers from Colorado, Washington, Ore-gon, and California.

"In general, consumers in the West are looking for fresh, flavorful, and locally made products," says David Edgar, director of the Institute for Brewing Studies (IBS) in Boulder, Colo. "This goes hand in hand with their greater acceptance of specialty coffees, domestic wines, and organic foods."

And though patrons may sample as many refreshing 1-ounce pours as they like, this is certainly no out-of-control frat party. That's not to say that the atmosphere isn't festive. Cheers ring out whenever someone accidentally drops a glass and it makes contact with the floor. After a moment of slight embarrassment, the fumbler heads off to get reequipped. Cheers are also raised every hour as a Scottish pipe-and-drum corps marches through the hall, often followed by a parade of revelers.

Veteran tasters and the recently converted will find a plethora of caps, shirts, glassware, and other beeraphernalia for sale. Most people, however, are just as content to load up on the free tchotchkes many breweries hand out at their tables—coasters, key chains, matchbooks, bottle openers.

"They're giving away keg coasters," one woman said to no one in particular as she stepped back from Broadway Brewing Company's table and described her prize—a large cardboard circle graced with a Ralph Steadman illustration of a dog on a bicycle.

The more serious side of GABF can be found at the Professional Panel Blind Tasting (PPBT). The judges—brewers, writers, and other industry consultants—spend three days behind closed doors evaluating nearly 2,000 entries in 55 separate categories. Each entry is subjected to several sensory tests assessing such criteria as aroma, taste, and appearance. Besides earning bragging rights, the winners are awarded gold, silver, or bronze medals.

"The blind tasting really shows who's making good beer on a consistent basis," says Tom Young, one of the brewers at Great Basin Brewing Company in Sparks, Nev. Since its first PPBT entry in 1993, Great Basin has gone only one year without receiving a medal. Last year its Cerveza Chilibeso, which uses chili peppers to create a sassy flavor, beat out 32 other competitors to capture the gold in the herb-and-spice beer category.

"It's also great to have your efforts recognized," Young says. "Of course, a little luck helps when going up against so much competition."

"Once the awards are announced, the tables tend to get a little busier with people wanting to taste a winner," says Russian River's Cilurzo, who over the past three years has taken home gold, silver, and bronze medals. At the 1999 GABF, he was awarded the title of Small Brewing Company Brewmaster of the Year.

For all of its success, however, the GABF is not immune to change. Recently, a bond issue was passed to tear down Currigan Hall to make room for the expanding Colorado Convention Center. Though the festival will be held at the convention center this year, space constraints will limit the public tasting to 250 breweries. What effect the move will have on the festival remains to be seen, but it certainly won't undercut the reason folks like Cilurzo make the trek.

"Most brewers bring their favorite beers to Denver," Cilurzo says. "It's a chance to show off a bit to the beer enthusiasts. We also get to catch up with our friends at other breweries, some of whom you may only see once a year in Denver. You run into them on the street, in restaurants, at the hotel. It's really a great time."

Now that's the way to tap the Rockies.

Mug Shots
With hundreds of beers competing each year in the Professional Panel Blind Tasting, it takes a lot to get to the head of the class. Here are some of the 1999 GABF beers that took home the gold in their respective categories.

American-style Amber/Red Ale: Red Nectar, Humboldt Brewing Co.—Arcata, Calif.

Brown Porter: Puget Sound Porter, Harmon Brewery—Tacoma, Wash.

German-style Pilsner: Smooth Talker Pilsner, Local Color Brewing Co.—Novi, Minn.

India Pale Ale (IPA): Racer 5 India Pale Ale, Bear Republic Brewing Co.—Healdsburg, Calif.

Oatmeal Stout: Blast Furnace Stout, Church Brew Works—Pittsburgh, Penn.

Raspberry Beer: Widmer Widberry, Widmer Brothers Brewing Co.—Portland, Ore.

Specialty Honey Lager or Ale: Nayati's Honey Ale, Wolf Canyon Brewing Co.—Santa Fe, N.M.

Photography by Maren Caruso


This article was first published in September 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.