DENVER - When Charlie Papazian first threw a little party here 31 years ago to celebrate the art of craft brewing, the national beer landscape was barren.

"There were only about 42 breweries left in the United States. They were mostly all producing light lager beers," recalled the president of the Brewers Association. "They were competing on price mostly. Their selling point had nothing to do with flavor. It had to do with their brands."

The nation, and especially Colorado, since has embraced the concept of beer that is flavorful, varied and intricate. Nowhere is that on display in all its foamy glory more than the Great American Beer Festival, which took over Denver last weekend during four sold-out sessions.

The largest event of its kind, GABF drew 624 breweries, 230 of which were making their first appearance. The scope of the festival is simply staggering. You couldn't try even 10 percent of the 3,200 beers being poured without needing your stomach pumped.

But that doesn't stop people from trying.

* * *

On the second day of the festival, in a swanky ballroom 38 stories above the 16th Street Mall, assembled the largest gathering of beer journalists ever in one room.

Many of my fellow beer journalists - "credentialed problem drinkers" might be a more accurate label - had been at it since 9:30 a.m., when the nation's largest craft beer maker, Samuel Adams, fed us breakfast. And beer.

Two years ago, 250 journalists came to the festival. This year saw 460, a testament to the thirst for beer and beer news. Beer after rare beer was served, perfectly paired with soup, ribs and two desserts.

The passion for beer was palpable. Speaker after speaker talked at length about their brews, the pairings with food and the industry's explosive growth. One brewer choked up when talking about naming beers for his daughters.

Several people mentioned that the media luncheon is their favorite part of the GABF. With bellies full and heads swimming, many poured onto busses to tour several Denver-area breweries.

I went back to my room for a nap. After all, GABF is a marathon, not a sprint,

* * *

Another day, another beer before noon.

On the festival's third day, thousands of brewers gathered for the awards ceremony. Of course, flowing kegs lined the hall.

This is the great equalizer, the most prestigious beer competition in the country. Factory-sized breweries and one-barrel systems in a strip mall all are judged anonymously.

As usual, Colorado had a good showing, winning 46 of 250 medals. Colorado Springs' Trinity Brewing Co. earned gold for its Elektrick Cukumbahh.

The 49,000 people who paid $75 apiece to attend GABF don't get this treatment. But tickets become harder to come by each year, and that's not likely to change.

Papazian, the Brewers Association president, spoke at the awards ceremony.

"The spirit that was ignited over three decades ago, that represented the new spirit of what beer could be, is still rocking and rolling. It's all about what you guys do," he said.

After the awards, the crowd dutifully filed upstairs for the 12-4 tasting session. That was followed by a night session.

"Beer is the answer!" shouted someone at the ceremony.

What was the question again?