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Would you pay $65 to stand in line for a cucumber beer?

I commented, on Twitter, about the length of lines to get into the Great American Beer Festival last week, in front of a few brewery booths at the festival, and outside of Falling Rock Taphouse.1 Most responses, both in public and via privates messages, suggested they were “suckers” (that one is a direct quote).

And I didn’t even mention the lines for cheese (that’s the zigzagging one below, just minutes after the Friday session began, and before it got much longer), that people stood in to get their pictures taken, or for the restrooms.

So I typed the headline for this post Saturday afternoon and started thinking about answering the question. As a matter of fact, I did stand in line for a Cigar City beer, a line that was more than 50 deep when we stepped to the rear (I never saw it shorter during three sessions). And I had the Cucumber Saison, which happens to be extraordinary. I was in goof off mode toward the end of the Thursday session, shooting the breeze with a friend who has a crush on the Cigar City beers.

We still had maybe 20 people in front of us — the line moved quickly — when brewmaster Wayne Wambles strolled by, pouring everybody in line a proper ounce of Oktoberfest. That made things go even quicker. We talked. Wayne said to get the saison. I did.

Sometimes standing in line works out rather well.

Great American Beer Festival

It certainly seemed to suit plenty of people in Denver. That’s a complete thought, but should you want to venture on please take a few minutes to read A 10 Point Plan To Improve The GABF or A Few Thoughts On GABF 2012 from Andy Crouch. He raises reasonable concerns and makes solid suggestions, although if you read through the comments, including mine, you’ll see not everybody had the same experiences.

His headline might lead readers to believe that the GABF is somehow “broken.” In fact, commenter Bill writes, “I believe the GABF has outlived its usefulness.” That simply is not true. An important word to notice in the name of the event is festival. The first time we attended the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1990 we fell into conversations with regulars in which they lamented how much more crowded it had become in the last five years. He nodded knowingly, at the same time thinking, “This is great. What is there to complain about?” And five years later we were the ones telling newcomers how much it had changed since 1990.

Prost Brewing Denver ColoradoWere I to visit a beer psychologist she’d likely diagnose me as a beer schizophrenic. I’m perfectly happy to sit on a bench at a long table at Prost, Denver’s rather new brewery/beer hall, paying just a bit of attention to what’s in my maß and catching up with a friend I haven’t seen in 10 years (that was Thursday afternoon, and the photo is one of several I shot geeking about in the beautiful brewhouse). But I also take joy in learning rather specifically about some beers, their ingredients, the way they are made.

I was quite pleased that the program for the Hood River Hops Festival reported what hops were in the beers, and further delighted when laminated sheets on the tables provided still more information. But I would like know even more, like when the hops were picked in relationship to the ideal2 harvest date — a day or two before, right on the date, a week later? There’s every chance I’m not normal.

So, yes, I like it when there is somebody around who can answer a question or two about the beer I’m drinking. I’ll settle for laminated sheets on the table, particularly when a brewer is painfully busy. I’ll declare the GABF phone app finally useful when that’s included.

That would improve my personal GABF experience. I type this while admitting that I don’t stand in that many lines. A media pass allows me to step behind the tables and talk with brewers (if they are there, of course).

Meanwhile, I don’t give a hoot about karaoke or the silent disco or learning to be a beer judge or a variety of other things that interrupt tasting and talking about beer. But, know what? I ran into lots of people who do. It’s a festival, a mini-vacation for those who set aside the date on a regular basis and travel from some distance. They stand in long lines and track down the most esoteric beers. They visit breweries in the surrounding region and stay out late at night drinking with friends they don’t see all that often. They go Estes Park to see the elk. And they love the silent disco.

What I saw at GABF were a lot of happy customers. Most were with friends. Most were feeling festive. A few perhaps a bit too festive.

So to return to the question at the top. It’s a silly question, whimsical if you will.

But there are worse things than standing in line and having Wayne Wambles show up with a pitcher of beer. Even if he does pour you only an ounce.


1 Falling Rock seemed to have a line no matter what time of day. On Thursday evening, the crew from Sun King Brewing showed up about 10:30 to pour beer at a special event. The guy at the door stopped them, and not until Falling Rock owner Chris Black came out to assist them were they allowed in.

2 Farmers measure dry matter to determine the optimal date for harvest, but recently both growers and brewers have begun to question just what is “optimal.”

Brewing with corn and potatos

Thank goodness for Google books. Otherwise if you wanted to read The theory and practice of brewing, from malted and unmalted corn, and from potatos it would cost you $602.75 plus shipping.

But you can read this argument for brewing with potatoes, apparently spelled “potatos” in 1829, for the price of your Internet connection. Author John Ham (not that John Hamm) makes an elegant case for the spud.

“This root contains, intermixed with its fibrous part, a juice which is not pleasant to taste, (although a great detergent or substitute for soap) and also a large quantity of fecula, or starchy matter, a great part of it to no degree inferior to the finest arrow-root. It is this fecula alone that constitutes the value of the potato in brewing . . .”

Time to add another category at the Great American Beer Festival?

Pucker up for the Great American Beer Festival

Beer judgeThe Great American Beer Festival has added two more categories – actually one category and one sub-category – for sour beers in the 2007 competition.

American-Style Sour Ales will compete with German-Style Sour Ale (Berliner Weisse) in Category 13. Wood- and Barrel-Aged Sour Beer (Category 16) “is aged with the intention of imparting the particularly unique character of the wood, the micro flora present in the wood and/or what has previously been in the barrel.”

Would you call that beer terroir?

Changes and additions for the competition at listed at the GABF website (scroll down to “Letter from the Competition Director”). They include both “small” and “big” beers. A category was added for Other Low Strength Ale or Lager, basically balancing Other Strong Ale or Lager. And the Imperial Stout category now includes a sub-category for American-style Imperial Stout.

Director Chris Swersey’s letter detailing the changes is interesting for another reason.

As long as I’ve been going to the GABF (only 14 years) there’s always been sniping about brewers making special batches for the competition, with added pop (more alcohol, more hops) to stand out in the blind judging. That’s the background. Here’s the message.

During the past four years, the style descriptions for the American-style pale ale family of beer styles have evolved to the point that the essential differences reflect alcoholic strength more than any other single quality. We have received numerous comments from brewers, judges, and consumers, which indicate that there is confusion regarding the alcoholic strength of beers entered in particular categories, with respect to the brand name of the beers themselves. For example, a brewery could intentionally under-enter a strong pale ale in the pale ale category, with the idea that the beer might outclass the competition.

The GABF has no intention of policing entries for compliance by alcoholic strength. Analyzing entries is impractical and expensive, and more importantly, this role would subvert the function of the judge panel. Over the years, the judge panel has told us what makes great beer, and we plan to continue to let them. With this in mind, the judge orientation this year will include a taste calibration session that focuses on alcoholic strength, along with a reiteration of the comments that we have received regarding alcoholic strength. Please be sure to enter your beers in the appropriate category based on alcoholic strength as well as other factors.

That pretty much speaks for itself.

Blogging GABF

I didn’t.

(But I’ve got a story or two after I explain.)

I thought about it going in, even took my notebook computer and connections to move photos from my camera to the computer. Didn’t happen. When you spend all your time a) sampling, b) socializing and c) collecting information for stories or that will somehow improve the quality of what appears here or elsewhere then connecting at 2 o’clock in the morning doesn’t seem like such a great idea.

And no way I would have done as complete as job as Rick Lyke or Jay Brooks.

To read Lyke’s work, start with GABF After Thoughts and work your way backwards. Lots of pictures and lots of interviews/commentary.

Brooks has even more pictures. Start with GABF 2006: The Awards and work your way backwards. There are so many photos that you’ll have to click on the gallery links to see them all.

I also recommend Lew Bryson’s commentary on judging. I’m always a little worried when people call for balance – yes, they are correct there is nothing pleasant about overhopped and out-of-balance high alcohol beers – because I’d rather accept some occasional missteps in the name of innovation than discourage it altogether. But Lew finds the right, uhmm, balance.

Now back to the story I promised. If you check out Jay’s gallery from the awards ceremony and scroll about 80 percent of the way down you’ll see a big brewer in checked pants carrying another brewer on his shoulders.

No, Jeff Bagby (the big guy and lead brewer for Pizza Port Carlsbad) and Noah Regnery (his assistant) weren’t just giddy because they’d won their fourth medal of the day.

While they were bottling the beer they call Sticky Stout to send it to the competitition Regnery was so excited about how it tasted he predicted it would win a gold medal.

“I told him that he’d never been here, he didn’t understand what it was like, how hard it is,” said Bagby.

Regnery insisted Sticky Stout would win.

“I said, ‘If we win I will carry you to the stage on my shoulders,'” Bagby said.

They did, and he did.

GABF has come a long way, baby

GABF then

The Brewers Association provided the picture above from the Hilton Harvest House in Boulder, Colo., where 20 breweries offered about 35 beers at the first Great American Beer Festival in 1982.

The photo below is opening night line at the at the Colorado Convention Center (half an hour before the doors opened), where 383 breweries offered festival goers a choice of 1,668 beers Thursday through Saturday.

GABF now

The festival sold out the Friday evening session (two hours before the doors were to open), the Saturday afternoon session and the Saturday evening session. Although some breweries started rationing beer on Thursday they still ran out of many choices before the Saturday afternoon session ended.

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