Why would 3,000 people choose to spend the first sunny weekend in a month inside a gloomy, cavernous building in downtown Baltimore? In a word, beer.
Made-to-order weather wasn't going to keep serious beer fans away from the Baltimore Convention Center, where they were content to spend the afternoon sipping lagers, stouts, ales and barley wines at the Great American Beer Festival.
For the price of $30, beer enthusiasts received a small glass and the opportunity to taste unlimited 1-ounce samples of the 350 beers being served by 120 breweries from across the country.
Since it was founded 16 years ago by four beer lovers, the Great American Beer Festival has been held in Denver. Known as the "Olympics" of beer festivals, it awards gold, silver and bronze medals on the basis of style and quality. For the first festival "on the road," event organizers chose to come to Baltimore.
"Baltimore has a very good reputation as a beer town," said event coordinator Bob Pease, operations director of the Boulder, Colo.-based Association of Brewers. "D.C., now that's a wine town."
"We really wanted to take it out of our region to showcase the diversity of American beer and bring the renaissance in the beer movement to a different part of the country," said Pease, who is originally from Ellicott City. "When I was growing up, National Bohemian was a big thing."
Yesterday's crowd was tempted by a dizzying selection of handcrafted beers from microbreweries, as well as beers from some of the nation's largest brewers.
"This is probably the largest collection of beer that we've seen at one time," said Phyllis Carleen of Joppatowne, who with her husband, Chris, planned to beer-taste her way through the afternoon.
"We love beer and we love to go to beer tastings," she said. "Plus, it's air-conditioned and there's no horses," a reference to the couple's decision not to attend the weekend's other beer-soaked event, the madness known as the Preakness infield.
"This is not a Budweiser crowd," said Chris Carleen. "They're a little more educated about beer."
A Baltimore police officer working the festival agreed, as he strolled past the brewers' booths, keeping an eye on the well-behaved beer lovers.
"No problems so far; these are beer aficionados," said Officer Keith Blackwell. "They can handle their liquor -- an ounce at a time."
These beer drinkers savored and sniffed; they held their tiny glasses up to the light and admired the amber, golden and dark brown hues. They used words like "fruity," "earthy" and "effervescent" to describe the liquid.
Like many beer drinkers at yesterday's festival, Rachael Wilson and Bob Loper of Washington are passionate about the products of the microbreweries that have revolutionized the beer industry over the past decade.
"I think the beer drinker's palate is becoming more sophisticated," said Wilson. "The American public is throwing off the chains of Budweiser and accepting a wider range of beers."
Home-brewer Craig Mole traveled from Columbia, S.C., to sample beers.
"This event gives you the chance to try the whole range of varieties and styles -- from the lightest of ales to the biggest of barley wines," Mole said. "You're going from one extreme to another."
Organizers of the first Great American Beer Festival on the road said the event went smoothly, though crowds were smaller than expected. Pease estimated that nearly 8,000 attended the festival, which started Friday night and ended yesterday. Organizers had expected as many as 10,000.
Some brewers blamed the smaller-than-hoped-for-crowds on the competition from other big events this weekend -- the Preakness, Orioles baseball and college graduations.
"There's a lot going on," said Tim Morse, director of brewing operations for John Harvard's Brew House in Boston.
"But I think this is a good central location. It's pulled in a lot of breweries down from New England and up from the South that couldn't make it out West."
New Glarus Brewing Co. of New Glarus, Wis., had one of the most popular booths at the festival. People couldn't get enough of the brewery's selections -- Belgian Red, Apple Ale, Upp da Bock and Framboise.
"Oh God, cherry -- strong cherry," exclaimed J. G. Haught of Sterling, Va., after sipping the ruby-colored Framboise. "You want to find the atypical stuff, and this is definitely atypical. Oh, this one is very good."
For Tom Gregory of Gaithersburg, the Belgian Red was worth the price of admission.
"As a home-brewer, you really start to appreciate the ingredients," said Gregory. "It's not just beer anymore. It's the combination of the hops, the malts and how it's fermented."
Pub Date: 5/17/98