I’ve been to my fair share of beer fests. Therefore, I thought I had an idea of what to expect from America’s largest craft beer event. But I didn’t truly understand the utter immensity of The Great American Beer Fest. Let me help explain it with stats. Big Texas Beer Fest, with its ruckus noise, staggering selection of beer and immense crowd had 106 breweries with 416 beers to serve to about 6,000 beer drinkers all in one day in 2014. GABF, in its 32nd year, had more than 3,500 different beers from 710 breweries that served 49,000 attendees in 3 days. That means our largest local festival, even with its colossal size, could fit 8 times into GABF based on beer selection and breweries in attendance!! Those of you who know and love Big Texas Beer Fest, like I do, hopefully now understand that if it is that large, Great American Beer Fest with its three decades of growth and non-hindering state laws is that much larger. (Side note: with time and participation from the Texas craft beer community, state laws on craft beer could be amended and Big Texas Beer Fest could be even better. Hell! It took GABF 10 years to achieve the numbers Big Texas Beer Fest reached in 3 years! But now I’m just rambling and preaching the needed changes in Texas alcohol legislation. Let’s move on.)
Thursday (Day 1)
On my first visit to the festival on Thursday, I entered and set off with a plan (Check out the GABF app. In it, a beer drinker can find his/her favorite breweries, the beers the brewery brought along and soo much more)…That plan was quickly dashed. Rocked by the noise of around 16,000 people, the large (almost 300,000 square foot) room and my excitement over every brewery that I hadn’t tried (and some I never knew existed), I began trying any beer in easy reach. The couple I tried were delightful and I realized a brewery invests in the time, travel and expenses to pour at GABF because their recipes are worth it.
That’s probably why I next found our local craft beer leaders; Community Beer Co,
Michael Peticolas just hangin’ out at GABF 2014
Peticolas Brewing, Armadillo, Four Corners Brewing, Lakewood, DEBC, Karbach, Buffalo Bayou, Real Ale, Oasis, 512, 903…(I apologize to our other local buddies not mentioned here. I have to stop because this list would engulf the entire article. Check out Lee Knox’s article on the amazing Texas turn out at GABF) My point is this, Texas has so many talented brewers and breweries that are willing to invest the time, manpower and money to pour at GABF because their beers are that well planned and brewed and sought after. (Again go read Lee’s article on Texas because I’m moving on.)
For the remaining 2 hours of that Thursday I meandered about with no real path. I saw some old friends (like David Walker of Firestone Walker, George Esquivel from Four Corners, Yianni at Armadillo, Jamie and Aric of Community, Bailey the #1 Real Ale peddler and Craig Bradley at Lakewood) and tried some great and new, but mainly familiar beers. I guess my evening spent sticking primarily with the beers and breweries I know and love, and venturing out only a couple of times to try new tastes, was my way of adjusting to this massive and wholly unknown sea of brewed delights. Despite my having an interactive map on my phone, the festival felt like a large black sea. I wasn’t sure which way to swim or what booth to approach.
With Thursday’s session over, I headed out to see Denver and try even more craft beer.
Friday (Day 2)
I started Friday morning right, with some food. Sam Adams (Boston Beer Co), and founder Jim Koch, were hosting a brunch to announce the winners of their Longshot Homebrew Competition and showcase some of this year’s new beers all paired with an awesome meal at Marlowe’s in downtown Denver. (For the full rundown, check out Ben Webster’s article on the brunch.)
After a quick jaunt up to New Belgium Brewing, in Fort Collins, and my stomach full, I headed to The Denver Convention Center because I had a media pass! (I was like Charlie bounding down the street with his Golden Ticket!) I arrived early and beat many of the brewers and all the drinkers to the booths. Inside the fairly empty convention hall, I stopped at some manned booths, talked with a couple of brewers, but mainly got a visual for the entire festival’s layout. (Again check out the app so you, at least, have an idea of how the aisles were laid out.)
When the bagpipes sounded (as they did at the start of each session), I knew the flood was coming and I started in with the plan. I began on the East side of the room and tried cool beers from regional breweries with highlights from; Four Fathers, Hailstorm, Hamburger Mary’s (out of Chicago) and Hoppin’ Frog. Everything that tumbled down my gullet was great, as expected. Next I hit the brew pub area and drank samples from Apple Blossom, Black Sky, Fate, Black Star (out of Austin) and Yak & Teti (later I’d return to hit up the other side of this aisle because all the tastes in this area were so thrilling and Joe and the boys from Pinthouse Pizza were over there).
Trying more brew pub beers would come the following day for I had to head to the Mid-Atlantic area to finally drink some beer from a few chaps I met on my arrival night in Denver. Jailbreak Brewing sports 2 brewers from Dogfish Head (like our very own Jeremy Hunt at DEBC), Ryan and Clay led by a one of the largest wine nerds (of his own acclaim) not on the West Coast , Justin Bonner. The highlight of their beers was Dusk till Dawn, a stout with chocolaty coffee deliciousness that just floated across my tongue. I then dropped by DC Brau, a brewery that has much
DC Brau Co-Founders Hancock and Skall.
social media buzz, to sample their top beers. Co-founders Brandon Skall and Jeff Hancock brought along some excellent brews, but their top was On the Wings of Armageddon, an imperial IPA. On the Wings of Armageddon was their dedication to the 12/21/12 end of the world fiasco. (I say fiasco because, clearly, this long planned event never happen.) I’m not a hophead by any means, but I would’ve seen the end of the world in 2012 with this beer in hand because the hop bitterness, while aggressive, wasn’t unpleasant.
Next I headed north to 3 Floyds and The Great Lakes Region. Patrick at 3 Floyds poured me out some tasters of fantasticness. The best of the bunch was 3 Floyd’s Blot Out the Sun, a black as night imperial stout that pays its homage to Charles Montgomery Burns and his fateful plot that almost ended in his death. I, of course, had to get a couple of tastes of Zombie Dust, their year round pale ale that is as complex in its hop tastes as any great IPA. Another tasty surprise on The Great Lakes aisle was Forbidden Root, a smaller brewery that touts its botanical ingredients as a return to an old way of brewing. Operations Manager BJ Pichman poured me some Forbidden Root, a 4.2% abv root beer that reminds you that it’s not just any old root beer soda with a little hop bite.
I finished the 2nd day of GABF watching Verboten Brewing (from Loveland, CO) battle 21st Amendment Brewing (from San Fransisco, CA) in The 2014 Brewers’ Feud. This game was an alcohol fueled take on the old Family Feud game show where each brewery’s team had to guess top rated answers from surveyed craft beer drinkers. As the game went on, the participants got more and more relaxed and funnier because the beer was definitely flowing. (Check out the highlight pics on our Facebook Page or go watch the entire, candid mess.) Day 2 finished with a bang and I again headed out into Denver to enjoy the city’s nightlife and…well….craft beer.
Saturday (Day 3)
Saturday began with an abrupt awakening that I had 30 minutes to get across downtown Denver, on foot, to make my way to The Award Ceremony. (To see the Texas highlights go to our Facebook Page or Twitter or check out GABF’s page of all winning medals.) Saturday was split into 3 sessions; The Awards Ceremony, The Midday Members Only Session and The Evening Session. GABF veterans kept telling me Saturday evening was the time to party. Brewers had won their medals and could relax, local Denverites were off of work and the party would be wild. Those veterans were correct. Here’s where I have a little advice in choosing your day to attend GABF, Day 1 is the day to sample craft beer. Day 3 is the day to party! The costumes were donned and drinkers headed out to try some of America’s best craft beer. I tried some great new beers from highlights like Saucony Creek, Single Cut, Cigar City and Mother Road Brewing and visited with some old locals, like Joe from the 2014 medal winning Pinthouse Pizza out of Austin.
I ended Saturday, and my first adventure into GABF, at The Intersection of Brewing and Music discussion that culminated in a jam session with free-style rapping from Sam Calagione and Bryan Selders, of Dogfishhead Brewing, Isaac Hanson, eldest Hanson brother and colab brewer of Mmmhops, Bradley Latham of The Brewers Association, Matt Potts from Destihl Brewing and Kyle Hollingsworth of String Cheese Incident. (Again see the pics on our Facebook Page or watch the entire discussion and listen to the music here.)
What I Learned:
-GABF is a long festival and you can’t try every beer offered. Build a list of the top breweries that friends have mentioned or you’ve heard about and find a couple lesser known breweries around each stop. Sampling some other breweries, along with those that you know, will expand your horizons.
-Stick to your plan. If you go meandering about you’ll miss some top rated beers, but you might, like us, find some interesting and off-the-beaten-path brewers that you may never have found. This suggestion is a toss-up for me. I’m not a strict and regimented person and therefore don’t lend well to planning, but following a plan will ensure you get some of those super rare beers before the brewers run out.
-Check out the extra events going on at GABF. They’re free, there will be beer to drink and you’ll get a hell of a good show.
-If you want an easier flow with less of a crowd, buy your tickets for the first day or even the second day. If you want to party and enjoy the festival as a full experience, be sure to grab tickets for the last day.