DENVER - At the stroke of 5:30 p.m. Thursday, the doors of the Colorado Convention Center opened and thousands of thirsty people, some who had been waiting in line for hours, poured in.
Mike Bristol of Colorado Springs was among the 624 brewers waiting to quench their thirst. He's been coming to the Great American Beer Festival, the largest in North America, for 20 years.
"All of these people spent a lot of money, waited in a long line, and they're coming out to enjoy what we do for a living," said the owner of Bristol Brewing Co. Even after 20 years, he said, it's pretty cool.
The festival runs through Saturday, during which time some 49,000 beer lovers, who paid $75 apiece, will navigate a sea of 3,100 beers. But it's just as big a deal for the brewers; it's a chance to show their handiwork and see how they stack up against others in the most prestigious beer contest in the country.
Chris Wright, founder of Pikes Peak Brewing Co., is taking part in his third GABF. For brewers, winning a medal here is like winning a Pulitzer Prize or an Oscar. While he would love to win one, it's not why he brings his beers here.
"These are the legends in the industry and they're at the same event we are, producing good quality beer just like they are. It's an honor to be here," he said.
And while it's easy for one brewery to get lost among so many, he hopes to attract some new customers.
Jason Yester, of Trinity Brewing Co. on Garden of the Gods Road, enjoys the "huge cultural experience" of trying so many beers he's never heard of.
Of course, it's also nice to win. Trinity has won two medals.
"Because it's so competitive, I don't ever expect to win a medal. But when you walk up on the stage, it's almost like the whole world kind of stops and everything goes quiet. It's quite an honor," he said.
Bristol's Laughing Lab has won nine medals over the years. But this year, he almost didn't get to attend. The popularity of craft beer is such that festival slots filled within an hour of registration, the first time it ever happened so quickly.
Festival sponsor the Brewers Association was able to accommodate many brewers who signed up on a waiting list. Association spokeswoman Barbara Fusco said that in 2014, every brewer who wants to take part in the competition will be able to, though some will have to enter fewer beers.
Bristol said that while it would be nice for Laughing Lab, named for his old dog, to win a 10th award, that's not why he comes here.
"The people that are coming out are just really interested in what's going on and what they're drinking," said Bristol. "It sort of reaffirms to us that yeah, we're on to something. This good beer thing is working."