9:06 p.m. Denver time, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014
First, thanks to all those who expressed condolences about the germs that attacked me during my flight to Denver. Some good meds and some excellent beer proved therapeutic. But anything I say about how a beer tastes must be taken with a grain of malt, for I was wrapped in a cloud of sensory deprivation throughout the first night of the Great American Beer Festival.
Painting this scene is challenging. The spectacle of people by the thousands, most in a party mood, flocking to stations where more than 700 breweries pour 3,500-plus beers in a cavernous hall creates a bit of a carnival atmosphere. Guys dressed as airline pilots, women wearing Viking horns, dudes in Amish beards and hats, damsels in sheep outfits — all contribute to the festive air.
The real attractions are the brews, of course. I started the night with Neil Burton, owner of Strangeways Brewing in Richmond, pouring me the first-ever sample of Soledad. Inspired by the late Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez (barrels arrived the day Marquez died), the brew uses a variety of ingredients, from bananas to mangoes, aged in rum barrels. It was a most excellent way to start the 33rd annual GABF. Not far away, Sean and Lisa Pumphrey were pouring Lickinghole Creek beers, volunteers were dispensing Hardywood Park samples and other Virginia breweries — O’Connor, Devils Backbone, Starr Hill, Lost Rhino, Port City and Three Notch’d — were serving as well.
The hunt quickly turned to finding what beers were drawing the most attention.
“Funky Buddha. Go to Funky Buddha,” I overheard one fellow urge his buddy.
Ok. I joined a line of about 35 people heading toward the Florida brewery’s table. “You’ve got to try the Nikolai Vorlauf,” said Mike Roberts, a Boston man standing in front of me. “I think it’s my favorite beer.”
He was referring to the barrel-aged Nikolai Vorlauf Imperial Stout, and I was glad I’d heeded his recommendation. Big, creamy, complex — all the things you want from an imperial stout. And that’s just in a one-ounce taste.
Another brewery creating a big buzz was Toppling Goliath, from Decorah, Iowa. The line stretched even farther here. Was the attention surprising for the brewers?
“I want to say yes, but not really,” said Scott Johnson, the brewery’s office manager. “It’s been a really amazing last couple of years. Especially the stout — people have been going crazy for it.”
That would be Assassin, another imperial stout. A double imperial stout, for that matter. Extreme. Extremely good. So good that Johnson had little trouble talking me into getting back in line for another Toppling Goliath brew, Intergalatic Warrior IPA (the names comes from Warrior and Galaxy hops used in the brew. I was afraid to ask where they got the name for Assassin).
The evening passed one ounce at a time, one brewery at a time, with me bouncing from spot to spot on a transcontinental treasure hunt. Lines moved quickly (my longest wait was six minutes). People shared insights about favorites freely. The hall bubbled with chatter, except when a beer glass mishap prompted a cheering roar.
It’s been a few years since I’ve been to the GABF. The one observation I’ll risk is that interest is not dominated by or limited to breweries in the traditional meccas — Oregon, Washington, California, Colorado.
The all-America theme was best expressed in my favorite exchange of the night. I’d been talking with a couple of bleary-eyed Colorado guys in line for beers from Jolly Pumpkin, a brewery out of Dexter, Michigan. I asked one of the two which of the brews he liked best.
“They’re all good,” he said. “We’re not starving for craft beer in this country.”
“I’m starving for craft beer in my pants,” his buddy said.
His friend paused. “That’s a really weird thing to say.”