DENVER -- Slogans were big at this year's Great American Beer Festival. One brewer's T-shirt posed the question, "If You Can't Taste It, Why Bother?" Another admonished, "Life's Too Short to Drink Cheap Beer."
It was certainly too short to drink all the beer here. At this, the 10th anniversary of the festival, about 7,000 people spent two nights sampling more than 500 beers from 159 breweries ranging from Anheuser-Busch to New Belgium (a tart, yeasty Trappist ale hand-bottled in a young man's Fort Collins, Colo., basement).
The crowd consisted of home brewers, their palates already seasoned by strange concoctions of their own, and the curious, who had come to expand their idea of what makes beer beer.
Despite the presence of national breweries, the event, run by the Association of Brewers, based in Boulder, Colo., is best known for fraternal atmosphere among "microbrewers," "craft brewers" or (the word makes most of them wince) "boutique" brewers. Whatever you call them, they are all individual, independent small makers of beer.
Charlie Papazian, president of the American Homebrewers Association, who weaned many microbrewers with his 1982 manual, "The Complete Joy of Homebrewing," extended his hand toward hundreds of besieged tap handles.
"Go to Germany, Belgium, anywhere," he said, a copy of his book tucked into the back of his trousers. "I don't think there's a country in the world with this kind of selection. That's what this festival is about -- education. You can't get any closer to a beer than having it poured by someone from the brewery and asking them nitty-gritty questions."
Ask any one of the brewers serving beer about the movement to brew traditional, unadulterated beer and you will be told that a century ago there were more than 4,000 regional breweries in the United States.
Prohibition killed off half of them; superhighways and advertising made national brands -- in the form of light, watery lagers -- both feasible and fashionable.
The legalization of home brewing in 1978 helped to inspire a new beer culture. At the last count taken by the Institute for Brewing Studies, based in Boulder, there were 238 microbreweries in the United States, most of them in the West, where laws are less restrictive.
The Great American Beer Festival is where the home brewers-turned-microbrewers come to taste, trade notes, party and proselytize, to bask in their accomplishments of the last 10 years.
And if all this fervor is on behalf of an estimated 0.1 percent of the American market that buys the microbrews, who was counting?
On Oct. 2 and 3, 26 experts gathered at 9 a.m. to judge 31 different styles in blind tastings -- from fruit and herb beers to full-bodied stouts. The process was not as ebullient as one might imagine.
The experts swirled the beer and scrutinized the color, head and carbonation. They pondered in silence, scribbled, sniffed and finally tasted. (Unlike wine tasters, they did not spit -- how a beer goes down is of paramount importance.)
They worked on a kind of negative trajectory, in which beers were cast off one by one for taste defects or for not conforming to a standard style.
"I really want to say it smells like my work boots," said Phil %J Moeller of the Rubicon Brewing Co. of Sacramento as he sniffed a light lager. Perhaps he was slightly peeved that its brewery would sell more beer in a day than he would in a lifetime.
Down the hall, 33 stouts had judges sweating out fine points. "Did you get any bacon fat on 98?" one asked.
"There's nothing wrong with a little smoke in this category," said another.
"Maybe if you served it with eggs."
"There's nice roast but a touch of rubber. Are you getting rubber?"
"Ninety-six, I got warm milk, clean malt, no bitterness."
The winners weren't announced until Oct. 5, when the brewers left their tasting tables to gather around the lectern. As soon as she heard the words "From Eugene . . . " Teri Fahrendorf of the Steelhead Brewery in Eugene, Ore., tapped her cousin and whispered, "That's me!"
She mounted the stage with the tipsy dignity of Lucille Ball to collect a gold medal for her Scotch ale.
She had hardly returned to the crowd before her name was announced again as the winner of the richly competitive stout category, and while she was telling an admirer that yes, there are other female brewmasters, Carol Stoudt from Stoudt's Brewery in Adamstown, Pa., won a medal for her Doppelbock, a heavy, malt-accented lager.
Ms. Fahrendorf was asked why so few women were brewers. "Society still doesn't encourage little girls to be what they want to be," she said. She added that she hadn't ever been much of a beer drinker, but had a peculiar gift for handling yeast.