DENVER — Stoutmeister here from the aftermath of day two (day one for us) of the GABF, a.k.a. VALHALLA. The good news is we are alive. The other good news is that at no point did we get a collective “ooooooh!” from the crowd (which happens to anybody that drops his/her glass inside the convention center).
Anyway, we got inside some time after 5:30 and spent nearly four hours amid the sensory overload of beer. That is what VALHALLA truly is, a massive overdose of beer-flavored awesomeness. It is fairly amazing the 16,000-plus people per day can make it through without A) puking and/or B) fighting somebody for no reason. Indeed, much like the far smaller beer festivals in New Mexico, a good time was had by all.
We lined up at 4:30 at the Denver Convention Center. The line was long, crazy long, but as the clock ticked closer to the 5:30 opening we began to move forward at a fairly good pace. Hey, getting an estimated 16,000 people in would seem like no easy task, but it honestly went pretty smoothly as we had our IDs check, our tickets scanned, and wrist bands applied. From there you go up a big staircase to the second floor and then enter into the massive convention hall.
Right from the start you almost endure a massive sensory overload. This place is big, about 10 times (or more) the size of Hopfest at the Hard Rock or Blues & Brews at Sandia Casino. There are lots of handy signs for you to find the areas of beer, which are grouped geographically in rows. They are even color-coded to a degree (there was a yellow trim around the Mid-Atlantic breweries, which is where we started). There are plenty of water stations, not to clean your glass (almost every brewery site has pitchers or water and buckets to dump out the refuse in) but to keep you hydrated. Following the advice of ABQ Beer Geek, we made sure to stop by these water stations often, and as a result we never slipped into “look at all the pretty colors of beer” mode.
Our first stop was by the Pro-Am booth, where professional brewers and amateurs showcased their wares. This included the Koa Coconut Porter that has been available at Il Vicino, though we looked for other NM-based brewers or amateurs, but none were present on Friday (there were different ones present Thursday; we were told 90-plus Pro-Am entries were available between the first two sessions). After the Pro-Am stop, we went around the corner to Mid-Atlantic booths and moved quickly, as most of the crowd seemed to go elsewhere (thanks to the guys at Il Vicino, who told us this was the case; they said for whatever reason the masses stay to the left when they enter the hall, sending them to the Midwest, Southeast, New England, and beyond them to the Pacific and Mountain booths).
Beyond just the beer, there is also food available. Lots of people came in wearing those pretzel necklaces you may have seen at NM beer festivals. Those were allowed, nothing else was supposed to get past the check-in stand. Inside there were snack-type foods all over the place, particularly in the Brewpub Pavilion in the center of the hall. There was also the popular American Cheese Society booth (somewhere somebody has a good joke about this). We did find an Old Chicago pizza stand (college flashback alert) so we kept our bellies full of things besides beer.
Much like the beer festivals in Albuquerque, the staff here was friendly and helpful. The crowd was also pretty darned awesome. There were a ton of people, and even in the waning minutes they were staying friendly toward each other. There were a lot of folks dressed up in costume (the Super Mario Bros. cast was a hoot), with plenty of folks sporting beer shirts from across the country. I received my fair share of compliments for my Il Vicino Sasquatch Scotch shirt, even from one of the security personnel.
Now comes the hard part, remembering all the beers we tried. I forgot my trusty digital recorder, so instead I took photos of as many of the beers as I could (well, not just the beer in my glass, but the writing on the tables under the beer or the wall signs). Not counting Pro-Am beers, I tried one style apiece (they were served in one-ounce pours) from 37 different breweries. Yowza.
I stuck mainly to my favorites, stouts and porters, with a few other styles mixed in, particularly Oktoberfest varieties. The top German-style beers were Dogtoberfest Marzen from Flying Dog (Frederick, Md.), Festbier from Victory (Downington, Pa.), and Staghorn Octoberfest from New Glarus (Wisc.). Other standouts from the “random pile” included the Midnight Rider Ale, a black IPA from Great American (Centreville, Va.), the Flying Bison Aviator Red from Saranac (Utica, N.Y.), the burly Wee Willy Scotch Ale from McCoy’s Public House (Kansas City), the Nosferatu Red Ale from Great Lakes (Cleveland), the Kashmir Godzilla, an IPA from Bluegrass (Louisville), the Collaboration #3 Stingo, an English ale from Boulevard (Kansas City), the ferocious Samhain Pumpkin Porter from DESTIHL (Normal, Ill.), and the Eleven, an American black ale from Old Forge (Danville, Pa.).
Topping the list of porters were the Black Duck Porter from Greenport (N.Y.) Harbor, the Penn Quarter Porter from D.C. Brau (Washington), the Paradise Porter from Diamond Bear (Little Rock), and the Battle Axe Baltic Porter from Fat Head’s (Middleburg Heights, Ohio).
There were almost too many standout stouts to name, but my favorites included the Whiteface Black Diamond Stout from Great Adirondack (Lake Placid, N.Y.), the Milk Stout from Lancaster (Pa.), the Coal City Stout from Morgantown (W.V.), the Black Rock Milk Stout from Devil’s Backbone (Roseland, Va.), the Black Hole XXX Stout from Chelsea (New York City), the World Wide Stout from Dogfish Head (Milton, Del.), the Three Hour Tour, a British milk stout from Minneapolis Town Hall, the Mad Cow Milk Stout from Revolution (Chicago), and the Chocolate Oak-Aged Yeti, an Imperial Stout from Great Divide (Denver).
Now, E-Rock and I did not try all the same beers, so here were some of his favorites: “If I had to pick one beer as my favorite, it would be the American Love Ale by Victory. Victory also had a tasty Belgian style beer called the Golden Monkey. Upon ordering it, a gentleman nearby said, “Oh, so you know the Monkey?” Other great beers include Brooklyn Brewery’s Sorachi Ace (a tasty saison), Evil Genius’ Good ‘n Evil (kolsch), Dogfish Head’s Positive Contact (a spiced ale), Troegs’ The Mad Elf (a bock), Perennial Artisan Ales’ Fantastic Voyage (an imperial coconut milk stout), Alaskan’s Winter Ale, and Boston Beer Company’s New Albion Porter (a 30-year-old recipe from Sam Adams).”
It was truly an epic night, the kind of night every beer lover should enjoy once in his/her lifetime. Of course, it also made us really, really want to go back, which we will in about an hour or so. And yes, we would love to return in the future as well, maybe even with one of those nifty press passes they hand out. For this year, however, we were happy to just be two faces in the humongous crowd.
Until we regale you with more tales of beer …