News From the Front

I wasn’t ten feet inside the Great American Beer Festival before it dawned on me exactly why their marketing director had refused to give the Drunkard press credentials.

They’d told us “the content and nature” of MDM conflicted with their philosophy as a brewers association, which is akin to turning away Hustler magazine from a public orgy because they publish dirty pictures. I’d sensed there was a darker, more sinister motive to keep us away and I quickly found out what it was—the GABF is how we Americans, as a conquered people, would have been forced to drink beer had the Third Reich won the war.

The level of control was intense. I’d just passed through security and arrived on the convention floor when a wild-eyed GABF staffer who’d spotted my armful of contraband publications pounced. He personally marched me to the media table where their distribution could be properly monitored and controlled. To his credit, he didn’t click his heels before walking away.

The selection and quality of beer was spectacular, but the means of getting ahold of any was less so. The $40 entry fee earned you a plastic cup and the right to stand in line to receive a one ounce ration of beer at a time. Not that anyone seemed to care. The crowd was dominated by frat boys looking for a good time, with a few bespectacled mead swillers creeping amongst their gangs like goats among so many braying sheep. A few rogue drunkards rushed from table to table, desperately trying to get their money’s worth, but most of our clan appeared sprinkled among the army of unpaid volunteers manning the beer tables. Amidst the Aunt Beas and the suburban sports were disheveled Bukowskis who, by the amount of beers they snuck, were not there in obeisance to some sense of corporate duty.

And I do mean corporate. While the festival started as a Boulder-based showcase for small craft brewers that would otherwise be ignored by the beer-drinking masses, it is now fully in the grips of the big brewers. The festival moved to Denver in 1984 and it wasn’t long before the big boys were allowed to participate and, more importantly to the festival, I’m sure, allowed to sponsor. Which turns out to be a pretty good deal, since whoever backs the festival any particular year tends to take home a lot of medals. This year the fattest backer was Anheuser-Busch and they dominated nearly every category they felt like entering, not to mention taking home the gratuitous awards for Large Brewery and Brewmaster of the Year. In the American Style Lager category, for instance, Busch and Bud muscled the Gold and Silver respectively from a field of 28 entries.

There were other peculiarities. Brewers boldly walked around with judge badges and medals around their necks, which is akin to letting Mike Shanahan officiate Bronco games. When I inquired about the possibility of conflicting interests, one wearer smiled and said, “Don’t worry, it’s all done very professionally.”

I didn’t doubt it a bit. Busch beer, after all, is the best lager in America.