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Brewers Gather in the 'Napa Valley of Beer'

Thousands of craft beer makers, distributors and just plain beer fans are in Denver through tomorrow night for the 30th annual Great American Beer Festival.  The event’s 40,000 public tickets sold out in just a few days; an indication of how well this industry is doing even in the bad economy.

A Family Affair

Nearly 150 small craft breweries have opened their doors around the country this year; including Pateros Creek Brewing Company in the craft-beer mecca of Fort Collins.

Owner and head brewer Steve Jones mashes up grains in a small mill for a fresh batch of ale.  Jones, along with his father and his wife, opened up this tiny brewery and adjoining tap room just three months ago.  They’re the only employees, not counting the volunteers.

"We have my mother, we have my sister, my brother in law, we have a friend Jeff, we have a friend Rick and we have a friend Franklin," says Jones.

All of whom will be manning the taps here while he spends the weekend in Denver at a booth at the Great American Beer Festival.  Even though his fledgling business has only been open for three months, he didn’t think twice about forking over the $600 to enter his beers into the competition.

"The crazy thing is this is one of those industries that at least right now that people are accepting as, hey, you know, I will spend my extra dollar here, versus my extra dollar somewhere else," says Jones.

Recession Proof

Indeed, sales of craft beer have risen by 15%just this year, even as sales of large, mass-produced beers like Coors and Bud have dipped.

Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, the Boulder-based trade group that puts on the beer festival,  says many states – Colorado included - have made it easier for small breweries to open up.

"It doesn’t cost much to get licensed, what it takes is skill and expertise at the brewing process," Gatza says. "Right now craft beers are very popular and it’s a pretty good environment for a new brewery to open."

More than four hundred small breweries young and old will be represented at the festival. It’s considered the venue for new breweries to get noticed and distinguish themselves in a market that’s getting more and more crowded. 

New York-based F.W. Matt Brewing, which makes a popular beer called Saranac Pale, has been to nearly every one since the GABF's humble beginnings thirty years ago. 

"I wouldn’t do another IPA probably, I’d do a twist on something," says President Fred Matt, offering advice for the new guys coming for the first time.

"Even if I didn’t win a medal, get some good exposure for something that’s going to create some talk value and not just be another me too," Matt says.

Unlike the old days, Matt says brewers have to be even more creative to win over the judges, and fans.

Beer 'Mecca'

All the innovation going on is exciting for beer aficionados like Paul Bestafka. 

“Frankly, we’re here in the mecca, we’re in the Napa Valley of the brewing industry here in Denver, Colorado,” says Bestafka.

He’s just finished up a Mexican amber lager spiced with poblano peppers at the new Renegade Brewery in Denver.

"It’s following the same lines of the culinary movement that the United States has followed over the past ten to fifteen years," Bestafka says.  "The future’s really bright for craft brewing, thank God."

The brewery’s co-owner, brew-master, and well, business manager, bartender and everything else you can think of is Brian O’Connell. 

He quit his job as a statistician at the University of Colorado because he wanted to turn his love of home brewing into a career.

"Busy doesn’t quite describe it, it’s non-stop work basically, seven days a week, 12-14 hours a day," O'Connell says, while taking a break in the brew house behind the tap room. 

Like Pateros Creek Brewing, Renegade has only been open for three months. But O’Connell says sales have been strong, led by the early customer favorite, a rye India pale ale.  It’s one of five beers he’ll enter in this week's competition.

"Our brewery is five blocks from the festival, so we can stand at our booth at the festival and say ‘hey,  go check out the brewery, you can walk there from here," O'Connell says.

Even if he doesn’t win, O’Connell figures just being at the event will lead to a further boost in business. 

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.
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