Great American Beer Festival toasts the best brews and brewers in the land

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DENVER — One of the benefits of vacationing at the nation's largest beer festival is the expectation that you will drink beer. Such expectation allows shaking off politeness, decorum and that ever-nagging "responsibility" to head directly to a bar after depositing your bags at the hotel. I mean, it's why you're there.

So the night before the launch of last year's three-day Great American Beer Festival, that's precisely what I did. After a late Wednesday evening arrival, I ventured directly from my downtown hotel to Falling Rock Tap House, one of the world's great beer bars, where bottles and tap handles line the walls and a crowd of GABF-goers already stood with craft beers in hand. Outside, an army of bike cabs waited.

I began my weekend by ordering what is arguably the king of craft beer: Pliny the Elder. Pliny is a bold, clean India pale ale made by Russian River Brewing in northern California. It's a bucket-list beer for two reasons: It's distributed in only four states (scarcity breeds devotion in beer circles) and it is a nearly perfect mingling of pine, citrus, bitterness and refreshment that is ranked as the third-best beer in the world by users of the Beer Advocate website.

Spilling preciously from the Falling Rock taps, Pliny the Elder was, therefore, an ideal introduction to the weekend while milling about the pre-GABF crowd of (mostly) dudes in (mostly) T-shirts and baseball caps.

I met two guys from the East Coast, in for a "GABF dude weekend," at their third bar of the night. I talked with two Utah home brewers who gleefully explained their entry into the festival's home brew contest. And I chatted with two more East Coasters who drank Chocolate Oak Aged Yeti, a rich stout brewed with cocoa nibs and aged with oak chips, from Denver's Great Divide Brewing.

"The other one I had was an oak-aged oatmeal stout, maybe," one of them said. "I'm losing track."

No such beer exists from Great Divide, and his confusion was enough to remind me to order just one more beer before heading off into the brisk mountain night to rest up and decompress. This was, after all, just a practice lap.

The real show began the next evening, at the first of four GABF sessions in the broad and glassy Colorado Convention Center. Outside, a short woman with icy blue eyes offered hugs to lure business to her nearby strip club employer. Inside, nearly 600 breweries poured more than 2,800 beers for 49,000 festivalgoers. It was quite the leap from when GABF began in 1982: 22 breweries, 40 beers and 800 attendees.

While the growth is a testament to craft beer's rising tide, the trade-off is a convention with all the charm of a hardware convention in an airplane hangar: concrete floors, a light chill in the air and orange lights casting a medicinal pall over the proceedings. At least, it's charmless until you start drinking. Then you realize that you don't need carpeted floors for a beer festival; it's so much harder to clean up spilled beer that way.

And anyway, who needs charm when there is so much beer? There were rows upon rows of breweries. There were aisles upon aisles. They came from all over the nation and were organized geographically. There were breweries I knew well. There were breweries I had heard of and was eager to try. There were breweries whose beer I had sampled only while traveling and couldn't wait to try again. And, in the greatest supply, there were breweries I had never heard of. Diamond Bear Brewing Co. in Little Rock, Ark.? Never heard of you. Can't wait to meet you.

In fact, all 578 breweries held some degree of promise, and all that promise was both humbling and agonizing, for it was quickly clear that there was no way to sample everything, certainly not in one four-hour session and probably not during the entire weekend.

The good news was there was no wrong way to work the room. The breweries you know from home bring their best stuff, including rarities. The breweries with the greatest buzz and longest lines usually back up the hype (even if there is too much good beer in the room to justify spending much time in line). The unfamiliar breweries generally have something worth drinking, or at least a beer nerd working at the table who is fun to talk to.

At last year's Russian River table, for instance, to the delight of a long line of drinkers, brewery founder Vinnie Cilurzo poured his own beer, including Pliny the Elder. Many asked Cilurzo to pose with them for photos.

"It's weird to me," Cilurzo said. "It's definitely humbling. But it's great to be meeting the people who buy and drink our beer."

The funny thing is that, in a room stuffed with happy beer nerds, where every dropped glass got a fierce round of applause, Cilurzo seemed sincere.

"Ninety-nine percent of the people here are totally chill," he said.

About those people: They're mostly men, but with a stronger female presence by the year. They are indeed mostly chill. And, homemade pretzel necklaces dangling (sustenance equals longevity at GABF), they mostly seem thrilled to be buzzing through the endless aisles with their small tasting glasses. This is true even of the people who smell and sip with the intensity of a heart surgeon while scrawling notes, most likely to report their findings on the beer message boards.

All weekend long it was perfectly acceptable, if not encouraged, to ask strangers which beers they found most exciting. Those conversations are how stars are born and discoveries made. It's not uncommon for a previously unknown brewery to emerge as a festival darling and develop, almost literally overnight, a national reputation.

GABF is also the chance to try the unlikeliest of scores: dark chocolate bacon porter from Blue Moon (meh), a Belgian oatmeal IPA from Denver nanobrewery Wit's End (interesting) and Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery's Russian Roulette, an imperial stout aged with Belgian dark chocolate (yum).

"We've already had a few Minnesota people psyched to get this beer," said the man working Town Hall's table. "Here it's just another beer."

The most jarring moment for many GABF attendees comes about an hour in, when looking up to find that this is the rare place where the line for the men's restroom is far longer than the line for the women's. Don't worry, fellows; it moves quickly.

If you go

The festival

This year's Great American Beer Festival (greatamericanbeerfestival.com) is Oct. 10-12 at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. There are evening sessions (5:30-10 p.m.) on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and a daytime session Saturday (12-4 p.m.). Many festival veterans favor the Thursday night session because it is among the calmest, and no beers have run out (which can be an issue later in the weekend). The Saturday evening session is the most raucous and filled with people intent on getting drunk. This year's GABF is expected to be the largest yet.

The 2013 festival sold out in 20 minutes, but the secondary ticket market is robust and can be reasonably priced with patience. Last year, outside the convention center, I found tickets costing only slightly more than the $79.50 online cost (the online secondary market, however, can be double the cost or more). Even if you strike out on GABF tickets, the festival overlaps with the Denver Beer Fest (denverbeerfest.com), which features about 150 non-GABF-related beer events. Also, the Great Divide Brewing Tap Room (2201 Arapahoe St., 303-296-9460, greatdivide.com) and Falling Rock Tap House (1919 Blake St., 303-293-8338, fallingrocktaphouse.com), both a short walk from the festival, are worth visiting.

Where to stay

Accommodations are filling fast. Midpriced hotel options include the Hyatt Regency (650 15th St., 303-436-1234, denverregency.hyatt.com), Hilton Garden Inn (1400 Welton St., 303-603-8000, hgidenverdowntown.com) and Embassy Suites (1420 Stout St., 303-592-1000, tinyurl.com/denverembassy), all of which sit across the street from the festival. Those on a budget should consider Hotel VQ (1975 Mile High Stadium Circle, 303-433-8331, hotelvq.com), where rates start at $79 plus tax for festival attendees. For those not on a budget, the Ritz-Carlton Denver (1881 Curtis St., 303-312-3800, tinyurl.com/denverritz) embraces GABF with two 75-minute beer-related spa services: a "Hops N' Honey" pedicure ($125) that includes samples of three Great Divide beers, and the "Mile High Malt Scrub and Microbrew Massage" ($200), which features massage and exfoliation with beer-made products as well as beer samples. Rooms start at $429.

jbnoel@tribune.com

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