Fear and Loathing at the Great American Beer Festival

For the majority of the nearly 50,000 people who bought their tickets to one or more of the Great American Beer Festival sessions (which took place in Denver last weekend) when they went on sale last summer, the opportunity to attend this massive beer tasting event is probably the pinnacle of their craft beer-drinking year. After all, there are approximately 2,700 brews to sample from every corner of the country. For these people, there’s no doubt that it’s about the beer. In fact, it’s easy to spot the serious ones. They’re likely wearing a pretzel necklace and special lanyard for holding their glass when they’re not drinking.

But the GABF is filled with all sorts of wackiness that is the result of thousands of people roaming a giant room while drinking constantly for hours. Well, the beer drinking obviously contributes to the wackiness, but plenty of festivalgoers arrive already primed to get their freak on. Dressing up is not discouraged. You get the ladies in revealing dirndls, dudes with foam domes, Zippy the Pinhead, pirates—we even spotted a pedicab driver dressed as Duff Man. For these festers, it’s apparently not enough to attend the session and get their fill of beer, they’ve gotta be part of the whole insanity.

Many of the breweries pouring at the event also contribute to the surreal environment. Over at Sierra Nevada we spotted four people sitting around a tiny bar under a psychedelic canopy drinking beer while they peddled furiously. And, no, we have no idea why. The beer we had consumed previous to this encounter didn’t, surprisingly, help with our comprehension. The festival’s weird orangey fluorescent lighting only made everything that much stranger.

There are also plenty of breweries—despite their notoriety, or perhaps, because of—that do nothing more than hang the generic sign that up that says their name and what they’re pouring. They don’t give out stickers or hang banners or have scantily dressed women pouring their brews, because they just don’t have to. The long lines that form in front of their booths are all the promotion they need. The old maxim that nothing draws a crowd like a crowd couldn’t be more true here.

And speaking of crowds and lines, these will be the biggest impediments you face while trying to navigate through between hundreds of booths. Well, that and whatever level of intoxication you’re operating on. We’re not exactly agoraphobic, but finding a bit of space to actually drink and enjoy the sample we just spent 20 minutes waiting for was an ongoing challenge. We were constantly asked if we were (or mistakenly thought to be) standing in line, even when we were 15 feet from a booth.

You’ve never seen a more bittersweet closing time than when one of the four-plus-hour sessions concludes. The serving pitchers are turned over at all the booths and no matter what sort of sob story you offer, not a drop more will be poured. The well-lubricated beer lovers shuffle toward the doors euphoric from their beer buzz, but also saddened by the inevitable end of this annual event. They’ll no doubt be back next year. Maybe dressed up as tap handle or the members of Devo.