In the late ’80s, when the Great American Beer Festival had outgrown its Boulder location but was still small enough to fit into a hotel ballroom in Denver, the festival’s founder, Charlie Papazian, sat down on a table on the last night of the festival, after everyone else had cleared out.

“You could still hear the excitement, even though there was nobody in that room. It was kind of spiritual — you could still hear the good vibes and the fun people had, and the excitement about beer and brewing, not only the attendees but the brewers who were uplifted by those early Great American Beer Festival experiences.”

At this point, Papazian was perhaps 10 years into his career in beer. He’d written a popular homebrewing book, launched a homebrewing magazine, founded the Association of Brewers (which later merged with another organization to become the Brewers Association) and the festival itself, which started in 1982.

Back then, he said, the festival helped energize brewers, “not only the passion, but the will to be persistent: ‘yeah, we can do it, we can do it,’ even though no one was paying attention.”

“And most people weren’t paying attention to this stuff. They had to be introduced, one beer at a time, one craft brewery at a time.”

People are paying attention now. Organizers of the 2015 Great American Beer Festival, which opened Thursday, expect 60,000 people to attend, and more than 750 breweries will be pouring somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,500 beers.

In the middle of the melee, you might spot a man with a salt-and-pepper beard and an easy smile posing for yet another selfie with a fan.

“He’s a rock star,” Randy Mosher said of Papazian. Mosher, author of “Radical Brewing,” is at GABF with two Chicago breweries he’s involved with, 5 Rabbit Cervecería and Forbidden Root. “You follow him around at GABF or the homebrew festival — Charlie is always mobbed, and people are really, deeply appreciative of him, and he is really revered.”

“Have a homebrew”

Papazian grew up in New Jersey and went to college at University of Virginia, where a neighbor introduced him to homebrewing. Papazian and his friends brewed their first batches of beer in the basement of a Charlottesville day care center, after hours.

During summers, he worked at a camp in Maine. At the end of the summer after his graduation, in 1972, a fellow counselor at the camp said to him, ” ‘I’m going to Colorado, do you want to come along?’ Two days later, I was driving to Colorado.”

Though his schooling was in nuclear engineering, he wanted to teach and landed a job at Boulder’s Bixby School. He kept homebrewing and started teaching homebrewing classes, as well as writing a how-to guide that later became his bestselling “The Complete Joy of Homebrewing.” (He still homebrews; he has six beers on tap right now, plus two in fermenters.)

During this time, Charlie Matzen, a fellow teacher in Boulder, took one of Papazian’s homebrewing classes. They became friends, traveling Colorado’s back roads and farther afield, and founded the American Homebrewers Association together.

Papazian’s catchphrase — “Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew.” — came from adventures (and mishaps) on the road with Matzen. For example:

“We took a canoe trip on the Boundary Waters, and we took a keg of beer with us … on the canoe,” Matzen said. “The first night we ran into some really rough weather and water, and the water was nearly up to the top of the canoe because of the weight of this keg …”

“We spent the night drinking down most of the keg so we could make it back.”

Papazian still likes to go down roads less traveled. He recently spent three days on the road in Maine exploring out-of-the-way breweries. “Some of them were farmhouses, some of them were bigger … but they all had the spirit, this is what they want to do, this is what they love.”

Confidence and vision

Papazian’s desire to travel helped kick off the very first GABF.

“It was a conversation three or four of us had. I had just come back from England, the Great British Beer Festival, and I said, ‘that was a cool thing, maybe we could do something like that.’ ” One problem: Where would they get the beer? In the early ’80s, there were only about 40 breweries in the U.S., Papazian said. “So we kind of groveled around for resources and what was out there and came up with a loose plan — no business plan, a loose plan, and a direction, and went for it.”

Papazian has a passion for beer, said Mosher, and the right personality for it building a big event.

“(He) had this crew around, and had the confidence and vision to say, ‘who’s with me,’ and be the leader of this merry band. I think it’s a unique personality well suited to that role.”

Papazian also has the community-driven view of craft beer that helped early breweries get established, said Dan Weitz, spokesman for Boulder Beer, Colorado’s first craft brewery.

“Charlie is an example of the vibe all of the craft brewers have had — we all support each other, we’re all happy, we all like each other, and we want the rising tide to float all the boats. …”

Mosher, who recently traveled to Mexico’s version of GABF, Expo Cerveza Mexico, said other countries now model their festivals on GABF. “It’s the envy of the world,” he said.

“I think his reach is really a global reach at this point, because for many years, he represented American craft brewing in other countries,” said Doug Odell, founder of Odell Brewing in Fort Collins, of Papazian. “And I can tell you, 15 years ago in Europe, Europeans thought the American brewing industry was laughable. And as they realize what’s going on in this country, many of my friends overseas say that America is leading the way in brewing, and that’s in part because of Charlie’s reach.”

Jenn Fields: 303-954-1599, jfields@denverpost.com or @jennfields