09/17/2010 04:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last Call At The Beer Fest's First Night

It was shortly before 10 p.m., Thursday night, when the overhead lights in the Colorado Convention Center came on full-blast like a concert or sporting event had just ended. Alas, mood lighting killed, the first night of this year's Great American Beer Festival (GABF) had reached its conclusion.

The stars of the show? Beers as Elvis. And the brewers themselves, from far and wide across the country--the Colonel Tom Parkers of the zymurgical world.

Tom Hennessy of Ridgway, Colorado's Colorado Boy Pub & Brewery shows off his medal-winning IPA.

The sign by the exit laid it all out: "No alcohol beyond this point."A couple of veteran police officers looked on stonily, at first, and then with greater amusement, as participants dressed, for example, as the Pope, as the Blues Brothers, as Austrian mountain girls, exited. Others wore silly hats, capes. A sweaty, portly and hirsute young man panted like he'd just run a marathon. One woman sashayed past, bringing attention to a worthy charity: she had a "Pints for Prostates" sticker affixed to the backside of her denim pants.

Just outside the festival's main doors, there were no notes pinned on the Message Board from anyone desperately trying to get in contact with anyone else. A paramedic gripped an empty wheelchair.

GABF founder Charlie Papazian standing next to a cardboard cut-out of GABF founder Charlie Papazian.

By all accounts it was a successful first night for the GABF. At least, that's what I precisely gathered from the two separate interviews with attendees that I conducted after the event. Both men were in their twenties, both would be considered demographically-speaking "minorities" (African-American and Asian, respectively), and both were atypical Americans in that they enjoyed well-made beer with, as one put it, "big flavors" rather than the mass-produced crap which acts as a staple for guzzling for the majority of beer drinkers.

I asked one of them if he'd gotten his money's worth at that night's session and he replied that it had been "definitely worth the investment." Did that mean that he drank as much as he could? No, he countered, it was all about "quality over quantity." He raved about the Sam Adams beer Utopias, one of the strongest beers in the world, wielding flavors which have been compared to a sherry wine. He swore it tasted "like velvet."

The other fellow I interviewed wore a foam hat shaped like an orange pylon with the legend on it, "Caution. Designated Drunk." He said he's been attending the GABF for three years now, and he's discriminating in his tastes. He said that he doesn't like smoked beers, even fine examples like Alaskan Brewing Company's Alaskan Smoked Porter. But, this year, he was glad there were so many more good beers with sour notes in them.

Sweet on sour beers. That sentiment certainly sits well with some industry people. Lauren Salazar is a brewer and sensory analyst for Fort Collins' New Belgium Brewing Company, and she's helped pioneer the brewery's sour beers like La Folie. On a panel on Thursday night dedicated to the very subject of sour beers, she said that you never want to leave people feeling like they've been the victim of a practical joke when you offer them one. As a beer maker, you want to present the public with balanced flavors which they'll enjoy savoring.

I wasn't seeking out any style more than any other last night, but a few sour beers caught my fancy, as well. At the booth spotlighting the work of the Oregon Brewers Guild, I had a sour red ale aged in pinot noir barrels from Cascade Brewing, which hit all the right notes: tangy, woody, refreshing. At the booth for Cigar City Brewing of Tampa, Florida, I tried a sour ale made with guava, one of the more unique fruit beers I've ever had; It tasted even better -- surprise, surprise! -- than the guava pastry I've had at a Caribbean food joint in town. Additionally, Golden City Brewery ("2nd largest brewery in Golden, Colorado") served a flavorful gose, an infrequently-attempted German style.

Additionally, I enjoyed a lighter German-style helles from the New Belgium Brewing Company, a cherry (kriek) beer from Denver's new Strange Brewing Company, and an IPA made with yerba mate from MateVeza of San Francisco. (Ironically, I had some yerba mate tea to wake myself up prior to attending the GABF; then I had some Organic Yerba Mate IPA at the event, in order to mellow myself out.)

With sessions remaining on Friday night, Saturday afternoon, and Saturday night, that leaves only three more "Last Calls" at this year's GABF, left to go.

Beer Captain Syrma Quinones breaks the bad news to attendees.

(All photos by Gregory Daurer)