Photo by Barry Brecheisen

I’m a beer tourist. I never thought of it that way before, but I find myself at the 21st annual Telluride Blues & Brews Festival, realizing that I am just as likely to travel for a great beer as I am for great music, or for excellent scenery. Happily, for me, the beer tourist, the music tourist, and the eco-tourist are all well-sated aspects of my psyche here and now in Colorado.

“This is the most beautiful place in the world to have a festival,” exclaims Chris Vos, of crunch-blues outfit The Record Company at one of the festival’s after-hours Juke Joint shows at the Telluride Elks Lodge. The Juke Joints are a clever branding ploy on the part of the festival organizers, in an attempt to accommodate a “pop-up” music scene which, presumably, does not normally exist on the streets of Telluride, Colorado.

Though the main festival stage itself boasts some huge talent for the weekend – I caught most of a stellar set from the Robert Cray Band via KOTO-FM at 91.7 on my afternoon drive into Telluride – my money’s on the Juke Joints to really give me that intimate feel which makes the blues (and its unholy offspring, rock-n-roll) dig way down deep in your soul and make you feel something. As an aside, holy effing sh*t, see The Record Company live in a small club while you can, if you can. This was their only appearance on the Blues & Brews bill this year, though their broad-shouldered sound (think the Black Keys meet Mofro) should be filling arenas before very long.

The after-hours gigs charge a cover above and beyond the price of admission to the festival, and many are sweaty, standing-room only, wait-to-be-let-in-when-somebody-leaves kind of affairs, which only makes them all the more attractive to certain types. The grand beer tasting, which takes place during a 3-hour time period right in the middle of the festival, comes with the price of admission and, unsurprisingly, is the most crowded part of the entire weekend. I am told the normal population of Telluride and the surrounding area is about 3,000. The head count for the grand beer tasting comes in at well over 10,000. Somehow, Telluride is able to handle the influx of several times their normal population on a fairly regular basis. When asked, one of the representatives of the tourism board claims that Telluride’s slow season is “November.”

Day 2 of the festival begins with an amplified playback of the William Tell Overture, letting those waiting patiently in line know the time has come to storm the gates and claim their own piece of blue-square-tarp land for the remainder of the day. Anyone who arrives after the gates have opened are, therefore, likely to be relegated to the hinterlands of the open field, also basically known as the food court.

There are 56 breweries represented today, pouring 170 varieties of ale, stout, bitter, porter, lager, and even cider, which seems to be rising in popularity with brewers and drinkers alike. I’m not very good at math, but it’s obviously impossible to try every single brew available in this free-for-all, even if you could remain standing through it all. After considering the available options, I make a list of must-trys, a list of if-I-get to-thems, and stop there, suspecting there will be no time to go further. Many of the must-trys on my list are brewers from far afield, which I’m unlikely to have another chance to sample on tap – oddly enough, this is similar to the strategy I use to deicide which bands to watch at a festival.

Most of the brewers here are from Colorado, a burgeoning state in the craft brew realm. Julieana, a beer photographer from Ft. Collins, CO, tells me there are now 16 brewers in that city alone. Her associate, blogger Lauren Hoff, claims the front range of Colorado deserves the title “Napa of Beer,” though other beer-heavy states have also attempted to lay claim to that moniker.

When the 3-hour tasting was finished, most brewers had been drained dry of their allotment for the day. The sample-sized glasses, combined with long lines at most brewers, meant a sobering regulation of sorts for me, though I was able to sample all of my tier 1s, and most of my tier 2s. I even managed to uncover a couple of new favorites I plan to seek out when I return home.

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