Great American Beer Festival Diary, Day 1: Fresh Beer and Worn Wheels

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MSP airport is a different hell at 4:00 in the morning. Terminal 1, Concourse F looks freshly snapped clean by Thanos when I walk through at this hour. The only signs of life in the airport thus far were tethered to the Caribou Coffee I’d just stopped at. Otherwise, I hear only mechanical hums and the groans of my suitcase wheels as I pull my luggage behind me.

I occupy three seats outside Gate F12, which you can do when half the lights are still off and nobody’s watching. Standing up against one seat is my luggage. I didn’t check any bags for this four-day trip, so everything is crammed into a Duluth Pack deluxe book bag and a carry-on suitcase. A large Campfire Mocha leans against the backrest of another seat. I always get this mocha, and it’s never as good as I think it’ll be – but I always forget about that when I step up to order, and so the wheel turns.

In the middle seat is me. I’m taking over-sized bites of a bacon, egg, and cheese bagel as Bad Company’s “Shooting Star” plays over the speakers. It’s a good enough bagel. I throw the empty Caribou bag at a trash bin 10 feet away, and WOW! do I miss. But this is another thing you can do when half the lights are still off and nobody’s watching.

The flight is set for takeoff at 6:55 a.m. and it’ll be like this for maybe another hour or so before the seats all fill up. My last 15 minutes before boarding will be spent judging two dudes in front of me. They look alike: short, stout, backwards baseball caps, and athletic shorts. I’d welcome these dudes on my bar league softball team, but only as designated hitters. Definitely not center field. My section gets called, and I wheel my luggage in behind me. The song playing on the speakers when I get into line is Katy Perry’s “Roar.” 

A poster at Denver International Airport

I land in Denver with pants sliding off. I’d not worn my belt to the airport in an effort to ease my security passage, but what now? Everywhere I went, I’d have been a weirdo putting a belt on in public – except for the restroom of course, where I’d have been a weirdo rummaging through his belongings in the restroom. I settle for being the guy pulling his pants up all the time, and that’s how I arrive at Denver’s Union Station.

If you walk into Union Station with your eyes looking upward, you’ll see big light pillars and engraved window arches and golden light fixtures. It looks like something you might film a Christmas movie scene in. If your eyes are looking downward, you’ll just see lots of people on cell phones and a queue snaking out of the coffee shop.

My luggage hasn’t had to go far, but it’s lying down on a long bench seat while I bust open second breakfast. I’ve got a vegetarian burrito and a chocolate brownie from Pigtrain Coffee Company. They’re both incredibly boring – like, “How did these recipes get this far?” boring. When was the last time you had boring chocolate? I remember my last time!

Every conversation around me sounds like a job interview. It’s enough to make me Google the nearest Starbucks, walk there, and consider that an improvement.

I wheel my luggage a quarter-mile to the 16th Street Starbucks and balance it against a window. I’m working, sure, but what I’m really doing is waiting for 11:30 a.m. That’s when Euclid Hall opens, when the gates to my personal Heaven within Denver unlock for me. I visited Euclid Hall three times during my last trip, and I was happier to be on my way back to Euclid Hall than I was even the Great American Beer Fest.

When the time comes, I wheel my luggage another three-quarters of a mile and only kind of carry it up Euclid Hall’s front steps.

I could have gone through the inconvenience of dropping my shit off,” I say through labored breaths to the Euclid Hall host as my luggage bump, bump, bumps its way up the front steps, “but I wanted to get here right away.” Truth is, check-in at my Airbnb wasn’t until 3 p.m., so I’m stuck with it for a few more hours. Bump, bump, bumpity-bump.

Euclid Hall is the kind of bar that can hook you with roasted cauliflower and potato chips, the kind of bar you can happily hit twice in one day, the kind of bar that’ll have you leaving cards for the staff that read “I FUCKING LOVE THIS PLACE.” I pull out a counter seat directly in front of the kitchen, stuff my luggage under the counter next to me, and rave about how much I’ve missed this place to anybody who’ll listen. I’m a babbling ghoul for Euclid Hall.

A 57-day vacation from alcohol is ended by a pint of Telluride Brewing’s Face Down Brown ale. Pretty good stuff. Then comes a plate of chips and dip. It’s not a mere pile of chips, but a sculpture: chips, goat cheese, dill, duck confit, and smoked duck meat. I can’t talk about these without moaning. Then come duck wings. I like the wings, but $9.50 for two is a little bit much. A lamb merguez sausage and four house-made mustards follow all that. Delicious.

But the true nourishment comes in just being there: my right foot hooked behind a crossbar on my chair, left foot swinging like a metronome needle, the clanging, hissing, piles of pans, open flames, and stained steel surfaces. This is all I need.

Did I seriously wheel my luggage from Euclid Hall to Park Burger RINO, where the Jameson media party was set to begin at 2:30 p.m.? I most certainly did! Add another 1.2 miles to those wheels, and through a Denver downtown that’s very much under construction. That luggage rumbles over steep sidewalk cracks, gets swung out of the way of passing skateboarders, momentarily stops when my laptop bag flops off the top of the suitcase, and – in time – comes to rest beside a Jameson barrel at Park Burger RINO.

Jameson Irish Whiskey Head Cooper Ger Buckley

My baggage plays it cooler than I do at the Jameson party. It blends in, doesn’t get in anyone’s way, doesn’t bother the bartender for an open plug-in for its phone charger. I catch the end of a presentation by Jameson head cooper Ger Buckley, drink an IPA shandy cocktail (one is enough), and catch up with the guys from Fulton Brewing. I spend a good half-hour talking to those guys. Urban South Brewery is there, too. I don’t talk to them yet (that’s tomorrow). Mostly, I stand around by myself and I’m always where somebody is trying to walk.

My phone charges just enough for me to summon a Lyft. My driver pulls up, I believe he pops his trunk, and then another car pulls onto the street and hits him. My driver cancels my ride, walks off with the other driver to exchange insurance information, and then my phone dies again. For some reason, this whole thing reminds me of the burrito and brownie I had back at Union Station.

10 Barrel Brewing is across the street. Say what you want about their standing room under the AB-InBev umbrella, but I’ve encountered a number of 10 Barrel Brewing people and those people have all been very kind. If their brewery is right there, my phone is dead, and I just need a drink, yeah: I’m heading in.

Now my luggage stands watch against the wall behind a six-person table I’m hogging myself. I order a pint of Prinz Pils, and hate it. I swap that for an H-E-Double Hockey Sticks helles lager and that’s fine, I guess. I drink it. I find Easy Tiger, a session IPA, much more agreeable. I settle into that and a bowl of Brussels sprouts for the next couple of hours. Here’s another good thing I’ll say about 10 Barrel Brewing: I left my luggage, phone, and charging cord at the table when I went to the restroom, and didn’t worry about anyone messing with it. 

When my phone is fully charged, I have a stupid idea: Mockery Brewing is only a mile away. This particular brewery was at the top of my list, for two reasons: great beer (duh), and my favorite-ever brewery cap. It’s a black trucker hat with a flowery brim, and Mockery has a great logo. I’d lost my Mockery hat a couple of years ago at a Minnesota Rollergirls bout. I’m only 1.1 miles from securing a new one. I can’t get this close and turn around, right?

Chips and dip at Euclid Hall

So I wheel my luggage past curiously-shaped upscale apartments, up gravelly sections of sidewalk, through a not-yet-finished skywalk overpassing a train track (including a short trip up an elevator I wasn’t entirely sure would be functional), and then I see Mockery Brewing. My luggage lurks in the dark by the tanks as I sit down with a salted scotch ale. This is what I missed through 57 days without drinking – not just beer, beer like this.

They still carry the hat, and now I carry the hat. I snap the DAY WALKING cap I had been wearing to the belt loop of my jeans, and I would tell someone later that night, “You never want to be a one-hat man on a two-hat day.” It gets laughs.

I meet a representative from Pryes Brewing, who’s there with a group of friends. One friend works for a hop company in Washington’s Yakima Valley. There are two others with them, but I don’t catch their backgrounds. They insist I join them in a walk to Great Divide Brewing’s barrel room.

It moves fast after that. We have a round at Great Divide (we all try each other’s, and agree I picked the best beer); we mill around a food hall that was still open, despite all of its vendors having closed down; we get a ride back downtown, and – get this! – we end up back at Euclid Hall. That means more chips and dip, more sausages, two bowls of poutine, and lots of pointing out the front window and laughing. Wedged between our booth and the wall, my luggage is showing no signs of fatigue. Again, it’s doing better than I am.

We part, and I walk back to Union Station. It’s lonely there, and I later find out that’s because the train I wanted to take wasn’t running anymore that night. Have you ever had two Lyft drivers get into car accidents in the same night? Thankfully, I haven’t either.  

I unlock my Airbnb and finally, after nearly four miles of urban-all-terrain wheeling and long periods of time in uncomfortable positions, my bags can rest peacefully on a bedroom floor and unload some pajamas.

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