Dispatch From the Great American Beer Festival
All photos by Nora McGunnigle.
This is a series of articles that focus on three different beer events surrounding three different populations in the craft beer world: the brewers, the distributors, and the writers. This article will discuss my impressions and experiences of the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), which took place this year over the first weekend of October in Denver, CO. FYI, Next year’s GABF is September 24-26, 2015.
This was my second time in Denver for GABF, but the first time I was there as a member of the media. This year there were over 49,000 total attendees of GABF, including people with tickets, media, exhibitors, sponsors, volunteers, and brewers. Tickets for the event, which is four 4-hour sessions spread out over three days (Thursday, Friday, and Saturday - all session tickets sold separately) sold out in 32 minutes for 2014. For comparison, in 2007, tickets were still available until the week of the event.
The Colorado Convention Center hall where the festival takes place is absolutely enormous, about 290,000 square feet. The Brewers Association (who runs the festival) announced that they were going to expand it by an additional 90,000 square feet. I can’t even imagine!
But as huge as the Festival is, oddly enough, it’s only a small part of what’s going on in Denver that weekend. I had so many different opportunities to meet with my peers and make new friends that I couldn’t get to them all. On Thursday, I hustled from my hotel to New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins to the first session of the festival to What the Funk?!?! sour beer festival across town. On Friday, I was hard pressed to decide between the BA Media Lunch followed by the Denver Brewery Tour and the Pink Boots Society annual meeting/luncheon followed by the North American Guild of Beer Writers awards ceremony. (I eventually decided on the Media Lunch at the last minute.)
There were a bunch of little events in there as well - beer launches for media (thanks for the breakfast Hop Drip coffee IPA served with doughnuts, Magic Hat!), tap takeovers (one of my favorite events all weekend was the Surly/Cigar City/Green Bench tap takeover at the Star Bar. In related news, the Star Bar is one of my favorite places on the planet now), and brewery parties (hanging out drinking Bruery beer with Patrick Rue and the whole Bruery gang was another highlight.)
As registered media, I was also able to attend the GABF awards ceremony, which starts at 10:30 on Saturday morning. You may or may not be surprised to hear this, but they also serve a whole lot of beer outside the auditorium, which was drunk dry by the time I headed out an hour later. But it was fun to watch and be a part of, and Charlie Papazian was good natured and caught up in the excitement of it all, even though he’s been doing this since 1982.
GABF session pro tip: check out all the state brewers guild booths along the side of the auditorium. I was able to drink 3 Floyds and Cigar City without waiting in line at those brewery’s booths. I tend to not stand in long lines for beer - with over 700 breweries pouring more than 3,500 beers, I’m happy to let others stand in line for the crazy sought after stuff (like Dogfish Head,3 Floyds, Cigar City, New Glarus, Russian River, and Allagash, to name a few) while I scoot over to a brewery I’ve never heard of before from Wyoming or Washington State or New York. I don’t care that much about trying to discern what the “best” beers will be; if I get one I don’t like, I dump it out (not in front of the brewer, that’s just rude) and go get something else. There’s always something else.
According to the handy dandy GABF app I downloaded and used quite a bit, I can look back and see that I particularly enjoyed Framboise de Amorosa from The Lost Abbey, Porterculture from Hops & Grain, The Kimmie, the Yink, and the Holy Gose from Anderson Valley, Blazing World Hoppy Amber from Modern TImes Brewing, The Apprentice from Societe, Black Project #1 from Former Future, Tafelbully from Heretic, Campside from Upland, Creeper from Columbus Brewing Company, and Hoponius Union from Jack’s Abby.
This is by no means a complete list - but some of those beers I wandered by and decided to try, some I sought out, and some were recommended to me by fellow festival goers or people on the internet. I enjoyed chatting with the brewers, if they were actually pouring their beer (often times brewers are checking out other beers and leaving the pouring to volunteers), and visiting with brewers I knew.
I must admit I used my early media access on Saturday for evil in order to line up at the 3 Floyds booth. No beer is poured before the official start of the festival, but I figured I could get through at least one of the crazy lines. I’d originally thought about getting Zombie Dust, but as I waited, they didn’t have the Zombie Dust on, so I mentally switched to Arctic Panzer Wolf, but then there was one that came out that was unlabelled and I was quite intrigued. When I inquired, the volunteer told me it was “Chevalier Bertrand du Guesclin” which she didn’t know anything about. I did a quick search on my phone and saw it was a barrel aged blueberry sour beer and I had to have it.
One Denver brewery that I’d gone to check out right after landing was Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project, a brewery that focuses on sour, funky beers. They had an amazing selection on hand for GABF. I particularly enjoyed their Batch #100 (barrel-fermented Wild Wild Brett brewed with Centennial & kumquats, and dry-hopped with Centennial) and the Nightmare on Brett aged in port barrels. The Crooked Stave folks were very friendly, and there was a taco place in the same building that would deliver your tacos to you while you sat in the tap room. It was a fantastic afternoon.
Sitting at the bar at Crooked Stave, I struck up several conversations with brewers, people who worked at breweries, and folks just in town for GABF. This was a theme that carried out through the weekend. Like at the Star Bar, I snagged a seat at the bar and started many conversations with people who sat next to me, or who were hanging out waiting for a beer. It was great just to be able to nerd out hard while drinking amazing beer (OMG, that Surly Eight, which won’t even be released till November 9, was amazing. An Oat Wine aged in High West Rye whiskey barrels - I generally don’t drink real high ABV beers when I’m drinking a lot of different beer, but I made an exception to that with Eight and I was so glad I did).
I realize this essay is somewhat fragmented in terms of timing and events (and yes, so many parentheses!), but that’s how I felt while out there in Denver. There were so many things to do, people to meet, beers to drink, that it all became a bit of a blur. To my surprise, it was a very pleasant blur. I haven’t even talked about the amazing beer pairings and industry speakers at the Brewers Association Media Lunch, or the hundreds of sour beers at What the Funk!?! (Jester King, Jackie O’s 10 Barrel Brewing, Wicked Weed, Green Bench, Westbrook, Cambridge Brewing Company!), or my gorgeous afternoon wandering Fort Collins and enjoying New Belgium and Odell beer.
Although the festival is a bit of a fustercluck, and there are throngs of people everywhere (especially when you’re trying to get something to eat - I love you Hops & Pie, but damn), the shared GABF experience is profoundly satisfying and makes me realize how insanely lucky I am to be able to do stuff like this. And I think as long as I don’t have expectations and just go with the flow and avoid being jaded, any beer experience can be a great one, no matter the size or place.