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I’m standing inside the basement of the Falling Rock Tap House in LoDo, surrounded by silver kegs and dartboards and pool tables and a crowd of beer lovers eating chicken wings from floppy paper plates. They’re all members of a Boulder home-brewing club called Hop Barley and the Alers—”like Bob Marley and the Wailers,” one explains, “get it?”—and they’ve gathered here tonight in anticipation.

Tomorrow, the 26th annual Great American Beer Festival comes to town, and more than 46,000 beer enthusiasts are expected to descend on Denver for the blowout. It’s the Super Bowl of Brew. The Academy Awards of Ale. And because I’ve never been, and I’m not sure what to expect, Bob Kauffman, a 53-year-old home brewer and member of the Hop Barley club, has offered to help me prepare.

He leans in close. “Rule number one,” he says. “Don’t feel you have to drink any beer you don’t like. Rule number two: Drink lots of water. And rule number three: Keep an elbow in front of you at all times in order to push people out of the way.”

Bob Kauffman is the perfect tour guide. At home, Bob has 12 home brews on tap, a choice of more than 15 home brews in cases, and he could easily recite every line in the Guinness Book of Beer if there were such a thing. He’s six-foot-five, thin as a light pole, and really, really nice.

“Beer people are really, really nice,” he says. “You’ll see.”

He leads me to a high-top table, on top of which sits a small keglike thing. “See that?” he asks, pointing to the keg. “It’s an American stout. It’s mine—but don’t tell anyone.” Bob is keeping quiet about the beer because he’s hoping to win an award for it at the festival, and there may be judges around.

He pours me a taste. It’s black, smells like coffee grounds and chocolate, and I don’t like it much. But I don’t tell Bob this because Bob is so earnest and sincere that I don’t want to hurt his feelings. Instead, I ask what winning the contest would mean.

“Oh, it would mean a great deal.”

What are his chances?

“Let’s just say I’m real, real happy with this beer.”

The next night, the 2007 edition of the festival kicks off inside a cavernous concrete hall at the Colorado Convention Center. More than 400 breweries are pouring samples of some 1,800 beers, making the festival the largest single-site collection of tapped beers in the world.

Thirty years ago, an event like this wouldn’t have been possible because there was no such thing as a craft brewing industry. Today, thanks to the entrepreneurial zeal of brewers across the country, the vast majority of Americans live within 10 miles of a microbrewery, and American beer has grown so popular that beer production makes up 1.4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, a number that seems low but is actually worth $193 billion.

Following the sound of bagpipes, which signals the opening of the festival, thousands of beer lovers fast-walk into the festival, their plastic tasting glasses leading the way on outstretched arms. I meet up with Bob and his wife, Caroline, a happy woman with spiky white hair, creamy smooth skin, and a fanny pack filled with pretzels. Caroline has already studied the festival program and made a list in her “Beer Taster’s Journal” of which breweries to visit and in what order. Bob, however, doesn’t want to be so confined. Besides, he needs to size up the competition. Bob has entered his American stout in the festival’s Pro-Am category, where amateurs like him join forces with professional brewers. The Pro side of Bob’s team is Rick Abitbol, brewmaster at Englewood’s Rock Bottom Brewery. Bob modestly calls his creation, “He’s the Pro. I’m the Schmo.”

He leads me to the Pro-Am tasting table, where we sample beers I’ve never heard of and can barely pronounce: Bière de Gardes and Dunkel Weizens and Bamberg-style Bock Rauchbiers. They have clever names like Dr. Cronic’s Red Hop Tonic or Mike’s Rye Not. Bob will be competing against all these beers and more, because the Pro-Am category is a best-in-show contest.

“Well?” I ask, after strolling around the U-shaped table.

Bob makes a squinty face. “There’s none I like way better ‘n mine.”

Now standing a little taller, Bob heads toward the long rows of tasting tables, where it becomes his mission to boost my beer sense. Upon sampling a pilsner: “This is one of the hardest to brew because there’s no way to hide the flaws. It’s like walking down the beach in your Speedo.” After tasting a Scottish ale: “These beers have fewer hops, because the Scottish hate the fuckin’ English and they have to buy hops from ’em.” And while sipping a weirdly festive pumpkin ale, Bob explains that brewing involves imagination and there’s seemingly no end to the ingredients that can be used. Coffee. Oatmeal. Cocoa. Pomegranate. Jalapeño.

At each tasting stop, Bob introduces another one of his beer pals—the nice brewer from Alaska who donated smoked salmon for the volunteer party; the nice brewer from Glenwood Springs who drove all the way to Denver to help judge a Hop Barley club competition; the nice brewer from Santa Rosa who makes time for everybody even though his business is booming.

“See, it’s not about the beer,” he says. “It’s about the people.”

“They seem nice,” I say.

“Oh, yes, they’re very nice.”

But as the evening goes on, as my tasting glass fills and empties and grows sticky in my grip, I learn that beer people are more than nice. They are also proud of the enormous growth in craft brewing and deeply desirous of respect. Over and over I’m told that beer is the new wine; that beer lovers are sick and tired of fancy-schmancy restaurants that feature 250 bottles of wine but only eight bottles of beer, and that when it comes right down to it beer has been around so long that it is undoubtedly responsible for the entire growth of human civilization.

On day two, I head to the conference center at the Denver Marriott, where more than 100 volunteer judges have been sipping and swirling and jotting notes about beer for several days now. Inside a windowless seminar room, I listen as judges discuss a round of entries.

“I detect cedar in the hop.”

“Did you get the banana esters?”

“I’m picking up a bit of rubber.”

More than 2,800 beers have been entered in 75 categories, and winning a medal is so important to brewers that organizers practically do back flips to eliminate bias and favoritism. The beers are all blind-tasted, the judges must democratically agree on the first-, second-, and third-place winners, and they must evaluate against a detailed list of judging guidelines.

I flip through the 36-page manual. Some criteria are easy to grasp: “Pumpkin beers are any beers using pumpkins.” But many of the specs sound like notes for a chemistry exam: “Acidic bacterial fermentation characters may be evident;” “diacetyl should not be perceived;” “the character should portray a full yeasty mouthfeel.”

Professional brewers covet the bragging rights an award brings. But the rigorous judging process is the same for amateurs like Bob. In other words, winning a medal is not easy. Not easy at all.

After two nights of pouring and tasting and spilling, the convention center has begun to smell like the world’s largest frat house. As the awards ceremony gets under way Saturday afternoon, klieg lights circle above the black stage and Gregorian chants play over the loudspeakers. Thousands of brewers sit in metal folding chairs, or stand, arms crossed, around the perimeter.

I sit down next to Bob and Caroline. After a few awards, the emcee announces the first major category: the Pro-Am Competition.

Four nights ago, Bob was a stranger with a secret American stout. But he’s since become a pal who’s taught me about delicious cherry beers and refreshing farmhouse ales, and that, despite what I might have previously thought, beer does indeed go with chocolate, and cheese, and salad. If I was ambivalent before about whether or not Bob wins an award, I’ve started to care a great deal.

The emcee calls the name of the bronze medal winner, and it’s for a beer I’ve never heard of. He announces the silver medal. Same story. Then the emcee leans into the microphone and I silently mouth the words “He’s the Pro, I’m the Schmo.” But my words go unheeded, for the winner is a beer called, simply, English-style India pale ale.

Bob says nothing. “I’m sorry,” I tell him.

“I am too,” he says.

Then, without wasting another second, Bob slaps his palms on his blue jeans and stands up. And why not? Bob waited all year for this event, and do you think not winning is going to interfere with a celebration that’s like all the special holidays rolled into one? Not hardly. He weaves his way through a group of young brewers in ball caps and baggy shorts, passes a booth labeled “HE’BREW: The Chosen Beer,” and disappears inside the crowd, finding solace in the ubiquitous suds—and the proud, nice people that are all around him.