In my teens and twenties, I drank beer like I was trying to put out a forest fire inside me. I’d have beer—lots of it—with everything. Movies at the cineplex, video games at home, five-mile walks in the evening; nothing was complete without beer.
I remember sitting at the foot of my girlfriend’s bed one morning and realizing that I’d only had sober sex three times in my life. The night before, I’d actually thrown up a bit of beer foam on her belly in the midst of it (she mistook it for sweat). Beer was the crucial lubricant of a narrow and slightly sad existence.
My taste for beer has waned only slightly in my thirties, but my endurance for it has tipped over completely. Two beers these days and I’m ready for a pillow. This has been a very good thing. I no longer scrape change out of piggy banks to buy two forties per night. Instead, I buy one six-pack of local craft beer and it lasts me 10 days.
Thus, The Great American Beer Fest is always a bittersweet event for me. I’ve made some beer and admire the craft immensely, so being in an exhibition hall jammed with every serious brewer in the nation resonates. But the crowd at GABF is less endearing—mostly because they remind me of younger me.
For three days every September, inside the Colorado Convention Center, I join the beer media, slinking from table to table, locating the oyster stouts and Cascadian dark ales we’ve been reading about all year. Our brows are furrowed and our noses buried in the miniature plastic pint glasses handed out at the doors. We hide-out in the media room between sampling bursts: eating nachos and jotting down notes that are all but impossible to take in the tightly packed hall.
We are joined in spirit by the connoisseurs and studied homebrewers who are also there to find a handful of beers they’ve read about but can’t find in their respective markets, and to hopefully stumble upon a few surprises. They too, slip through keyholes in the crowd, as do the mild-mannered beer enthusiasts wandering about sipping responsible amounts of brew.
Then there are the beer drunks; the great id of humanity, dressed in stupid kilts and slutty maiden outfits. They lurch from table to table, chugging one-ounce pours of whatever has the highest gravity, belching and laughing as they go. When a plastic cup tumbles to the floor, they rise up in a collective groan. They wait in long lines to sample Michelob Shocktop Wheat. They do everything in their power to ensure that their appearance and deeds scream “beer.”
They succeed beyond expectation.
My scorn for them is a scorn for my former self. They are here to get as drunk as possible on hundreds of consecutive small sips crammed into a four hour window—an apt parable for my own misspent youth. This was me a decade and a half ago, minus the dumb costumes.
These beer drunks also male me wonder—what is quintessentially American about the GABF? Is it American because it’s a celebration of an industry that is as bootstraps and communal as any you’ll find—an industry that continues to grow in the face of recession while hewing tight to its artisanal methodology? Or is it American because it wears the slobbery sheen of excess—too many people, too much drinking … too much?