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At The Great American Beer Festival, Big Tastes Come In Small Packages

The soaring drone of a full bagpipe and drum corps greeted thousands of people who marched into a Denver arena for the this past weekend. The martial music seemed a fitting way to prepare the crowd to test their palates, and their fortitude, against 2,700 different beers made by some of the best breweries in the United States.

Nearly 580 breweries brought 36,000 gallons of beer to Denver — and just about all of it was served in one-ounce portions, into cups that patrons picked up at the door after they braved a line that snaked around the massive convention center. The festival set a record with 49,000 attendees this year; the public allotment of tickets sold out in around 45 minutes.

The offerings ranged from benchmark-quality pilsners and robust porters to hoppy pale ales, unique "herb and spice" beers and elaborately structured Belgian-style sour beers. The festival, which has been an annual event since 1989, relies on volunteers — who are also excellent sources for tips.

"Some of the jalapeno beers have got a good bite to them," said Brian Hall of Colorado. "We tried Wynkoop Rocky Mountain Oyster beer," he added, citing the brewery that gained notoriety for making a beer that at first was only an April Fool's prank: a stout that includes bull testicles. "Definitely interesting," he said.

His fellow volunteer, Katrina Hall, favored a beer that offered a bit more comfort: the Peanut Butter Cup Coffee Porter by Ohio's Willoughby Brewing Co. "It's fantastic, it's peanut butter mixed with a little bit of coffee," she said. "And it is probably one of the best beers I've had at the festival this year."

If the Great American Beer Festival is where beer fans go to taste new and unique beers, it's where brewers go to compare notes, show off their best achievements — and possibly win an award that will boost their business. At this year's festival, medals were awarded in 84 beer categories, including gluten-free beer, a relatively new field.

The most contested category was the American-Style India Pale Ale, which drew 203 entries. The gold medal went to , of San Luis Obispo, Calif., for a beer that started out as an attempt to lure more people into trying pale ale.

"We love India Pale Ales, we love hoppy beers," said Tap It's Westin Joy. "But every time we tried to introduce our friends to it, they would complain that it was bitter. The whole point of this was to create a beer that was very hoppy in flavor and aroma, but still wasn't too bitter."

The goal, he said, was to create a beer that had hops' floral and fruity overtones, along with the balancing sweetness of malt. The brewers succeeded — but that doesn't meant Tap It felt like the favorites in their category.

"We didn't expect it at all, we're just fans of beer," said Joy, who added that he and his partners have been homebrewing together for three years, and started Tap It a little over a year and a half ago. At the festival, long-established brewers stopped by to give their congratulations.

"It's amazing to have them come up and say, 'Good beer,'" Joy said. "When your idols say that, it's a big deal."

At the rear of the convention hall, a Food to Table exhibition features collaborations between brewers and restaurants. Here's a sample of the pairings:

  • Alaskan White Ale paired with a grilled shrimp cocktail of charred tomato, cilantro and mint, by Monterrey Fish Company.
  • paired with butternut squash mousse, sesame beer brittle, and toasted celery marshmallow, by chef Daniel Asher of Root Down/Linger.
  • Jester King Weasel Rodeo paired with sticky chocolate cake, malt cremeux, chocolate bark, and candied bacon, by chef Kyle Mendenhall of The Kitchen.
  • Back in the cavernous hall, the air buzzes with voices that have been boosted by ales that sometimes run at well over 10 percent alcohol. The din peaks periodically, into the yells that are customary whenever a patron drops their tasting glass. The distinct tinkling sound of a slippery glass striking concrete barely has a chance to ring out before everyone nearby takes up a roaring "Ohhh!!"

    For that reason, nearly all of the tasting glasses handed out at the festival's doorway are plastic.

    Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.