It's always fascinating when your expectations meet your actual experience in a dark alley. Experience always wins. Coming into the GABF, I had on my Portland beer goggles, which as we well know completely blur our understanding of the rest of the country. Perhaps you wear the same goggles as I, and will benefit from experience-by-proxy.
1. Huge. I have always chafed with parochial slight at the GABF's claim to be the biggest beer fest in America--when in fact the Oregon Brewers Fest is. I'm prepared to change my opinion. The Colorado Convention Center is the size of four airplane hangars, and it's filled with hundreds of breweries offering thousands of beers. The place is so large that I got lost in the aisles looking for beers. The breweries are helpfully arranged by region, but it took me three hours to find the Northwest. The worst thing is you have to really parse your decisions, not only among which breweries to try, but which of their five beers to sample. One nice thing is that they pour beers in one-ounce increments, so you can sample broadly. There are no tickets, so if you want more than an ounce, you just get another pour. And finding people? Forget about it. I saw Angelo entering the fest, let him get out of eyeshot assuming I'd see him again, and never did. Here he is, in my last sighting of him:
2. They don't covet the beers you covet. There are some badass breweries at the fest, as you would expect. I was delighted to finally get to sample broadly from Jolly Pumpkin's line (flipside of the many-decisions downside is that if you want to really sample a particularly brewery's beer to get a sense of it, you can; with the OBF, you don't know if the beer you're tasting is representative). I scoped out New Holland and dropped by Boulevard for a pour of Brett Saison (and saw Steven Pauwels). Getting these beers was no problem. Some breweries had insanely long lines, but they weren't the ones I expected. New Glarus, which has a totally standard lineup, had a line of 100 people before they even started pouring beer. All their beer was gone by nine. (Great brewery, but it was still bizarre.) A Michigan brewery I'd never heard of called Short's was packed. The Venn diagram overlapped at Cigar City, which I also wanted to check out. Here's that crazy New Glarus line:
3. They give the NW a "meh." Because the fest organizes the breweries by region, I was able to see the relative activity by region. The South seemed to be getting the most attention, and the East Coast in general seemed to be popular. The Northwest was getting surprisingly little attention. Toward the end of my evening, I went over to taste some of the Washington beers I've missed--Chuckanut and Black Raven. In our region, these breweries are getting big attention, but that's just the thing: in our region. I've come to think of the Northwest as a little bubble, mostly sealed off from the rest of the country. This did nothing to disabuse me of the notion. (The Chuckanut, by the way, was seriously fantastic. Regular commenter Jack R is my brother in pilsner, and he would love theirs. The Helles, too, was sublime.)
I'll keep posting on what I see here, which I have no doubt will include more minor epiphanies. I leave you with the obligatory Charlie Papazian shot, which is sadly slightly out of focus (the light was horrible).