Heralded by bagpipes and the clinking of glass, the nation’s largest beer festival opens Thursday in Denver, promising a “bigger and beerier” party.

An anticipated 60,000 people will attend the three-day Great American Beer Festival, 11,000 more than a year ago. The event has added 90,000 square feet of space — nearly two football fields — to accommodate the crowd, but it did little to ease demand as tickets sold out in little more than an hour.

The fever is viewed as a sign of the growing popularity of craft beer, but it is likely to exacerbate concerns that the festival is becoming a booze carnival — complete with a costume contest, pretzel necklaces, karaoke stage and a menu of more than 3,500 beers poured an ounce at a time.

It’s a reality that organizers acknowledge in efforts to make the event less about drinking and more about exploring the art of craft beer.

“The beer is first in craft beer,” said Barbara Fusco, the sales and marketing director at the Boulder-based Brewers Association, which hosts the event in conjunction with a beer competition.

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This year, festival organizers are emphasizing educational “Sit and Sip” sessions and dedicating extra space to a new “Meet the Brewer” booth, where fans can talk with industry leaders and learn more about the beer.

“Those non-drinking elements at GABF are important,” Fusco said. “Anybody who has been to the festival once understands there are more beers than you can possibly try and you might enjoy yourself more if you don’t try to overachieve.”

In response to a frequently asked question — “Is the Great American Beer Festival like a giant bar?” — the event’s website says the goal is to “allow attendees to taste a variety of new brands and different styles of beer.”

Nick Nunn, the owner of Trve Brewing in Denver, makes innovative beer styles but argues that the party atmosphere takes away from the experience. He is intentionally not pouring at the event. “It’s a drunk fest,” Nunn said.

Other brewers, however, still see value in pouring their brews. “As crowded as it was, and as many of thousands of people came to our booth, I really felt a connection,” said Ray Goodrich of Foothills Brewing in Winston-Salem, N.C. “I have been to festivals where it is a drunk fest and people walk up and literally say, ‘What is the most alcoholic beer you have?’ No one has asked me that at GABF.”

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The question of whether bigger is better echoes broader concerns in the $19.6 billion craft beer industry, which sits at a pivotal moment amid worries about sustainable growth and big-footing purchases of breweries by multinational beer conglomerates.

The craft industry grew 18 percent in 2014, compared with less than 1 percent growth in the overall $102 billion beer market, industry statistics show. So far in 2015, the boom is only continuing, with more than 3,700 breweries counted in the United States through the end of June — 699 more than the year before.

Colorado ranks third in the nation in craft breweries, with roughly 300, according to the state brewers guild, which issued a recent report that pegged the industry’s total direct and indirect economic benefit at $1.15 billion.

The 750 breweries from across the nation that will pour at GABF exceed the total number of beer makers in the United States at anytime from 1938 to 1994, according to the Brewers Association.

Well before this year, the festival at the Colorado Convention Center had grown so big that it overwhelmed many newcomers — and even a few stalwarts that go each year. This is particularly true for craft beer fans such as Eric Hendrix, who admits he tolerates the fanfare to enjoy the beer.

He avoids the final session Saturday evening because of its rowdy reputation. “It’s just crazy,” said Hendrix, a 35-year-old car mechanic who lives in Arvada. “We went to try beer and not to get plowed.”

Sitting at a table near Hendrix this week at Falling Rock Tap House, a downtown craft beer bar that hosted a GABF kickoff party, Kris Sunshine agreed.

“I’m going for the beer,” said the 26-year-old restaurant manager from Denver. “I don’t have a costume. I don’t have a pretzel necklace.”

Across the table, his friend said she is excited for her first GABF experience. “I’m going to make a pretzel necklace,” Kat Barthol said. “Just to be safe.”

John Frank: 303-954-2409 or jfrank@denverpost.com

By the numbers

The Great American Beer Festival begins thursday, offering four sessions through Saturday at its biggest year ever. Here’s a look at the numbers that define the event.

 

  • About 60,000 people are expected to attend, up from 49,000 a year ago.

     

     

  • More than 3,500 beers will be poured by 750 breweries, the most ever.

     

     

  • The festival sold out in 1 hour and 17 minutes during the public ticket sale. The record for a sell out came in 2013 at 20 minutes. But in 2007, the festival took a week to sell all the tickets.

     

     

  • This year features 90,000 square feet of additional space at the Colorado Convention Center

     

    Source: Brewers Association