Oh, GABF week. For the 35th year, the Great American Beer Festival opened its doors to the tired, the hungry (for pretzels… or basically anything to coat the stomach), and the thirsty masses of craft beer consumers that make the pilgrimage to Denver, Colorado every year to experience the insanity that is one of the top beer festivals in the country. On Thursday, October 6, the doors at the Colorado Convention Center officially opened to beer drinkers, introducing them to more than 800 breweries collectively pouring 3,800 beers and celebrating different beer styles brewed throughout the entire country. As the first session of the festival, Thursday night is filled with hope, and promise, and a solid chunk of people engaging in enthusiastic and somewhat responsible craft beer consumption that mostly falls apart as the festival carries on into Friday and (gasp!) Saturday evening.
When I crossed the threshold into the giant GABF hall this year, I was immediately drawn towards the Dogfish Head booth, where owner and charismatic craft beer enthusiast, Sam Calagione, poured me a version of the brewery’s Alternate Takes series—a beer that Calagione picked as the brew he’d be reaching for to cap off the busy Thursday night session. While in the Dogfish line (which seemed to double every time I blinked) I ran into Ginger Johnson—founder and CEO of Women Enjoying Beer and author of the recently released “How to Market Beer to Women” book—who was snagging a moment with Calagione and grabbing a beer before heading to the Beer Geek Bookstore within the fest to chat more about her book with a healthy-sized group of curious beer geeks looking to spend their dollars appropriately at this year’s GABF.
In between gawking at the long-running lines for brewery’s like Firestone Walker, Lagunitas, and Russian River, I overheard GABF-goers spouting off typical one-liners that you’re likely to hear while cruising around the festival, like: “Is it a microbrewery? Is it a nano brewery? Who fucking knows, bro.” And “that Pilsner was on point, dude.” And my favorite, “How did you like those testicles?” A solid one-liner spoken by chef Dan Lasily from Rebel Restaurant in Denver in the Beer & Food Pavilion—an open-to-the-public section of the festival that educates beer drinkers on food and beer pairings—all while offering a free and seated area to take a breather from the busyness of the GABF hall. Along with brewer Steve Gonzales from Stone Brewing , Lasily put together three beer and food pairings for the Beer & Food Pavilion—the final pairing featuring some tasty Rocky Mountain oysters paired with Stone Brewing’s 08.08.08 Vertical Epic Belgian Strong Ale.
Though quite tasting, and featured as part of an excellent and well thought out pairing, eating a bull’s testicles wasn’t exactly the last taste I wanted to have before night one of the fest ended, so I headed out in search of one last good beer to cleanse and pay amends to my palate. It was the revolving lights of a disco ball that drew me into Boulder Beer Company’s booth, and that’s where I found it—a delicious beer that was the perfect last taste of my evening. Higher in ABV than anticipated, the brewery’s super speciality Spikeberry Saison was flavorful, smooth, and deceiving in a way that only really well-made beer can be.
Farther away, representatives from Austin’s Jester King Brewery stayed busy explaining to GABF-goers that the brewery had run out of their day-one stash within the first hour of the festival, (if you’re attending the Friday and Saturday sessions, add this to the list of brewery lines to get immediately get in upon arrival). And even deeper into the festival, the “Welcome to the Backyard” portion of the fest slowly filled up with beer drinkers making peace with a slower, more relaxed take on an often overwhelming beer festival—displaying various levels of sober and awkwardly drunk at Oskar Blues’ Silent Disco set-up and at the other random lawn games set up throughout the beer hall’s “backyard”.
When the last calls reverberated throughout the Colorado Convention Center, beer drinkers, brewery reps, and everyone in between hit the streets of Denver for after-parties thrown by some of the biggest names in the industry. But most didn’t make it past the 1400 Miles mini beer fest and fundraiser that takes place in a parking lot across from the Convention Center’s iconic Blue Bear statue each year. From Wednesday through Saturday night craft beer fans can get a taste of Texas breweries all while supporting the conversation about prostate health. $10 gets you for a day and unlimited tastings, but $30 get’s you in for all four days.
At the end of the day, day one of the Great American Beer Festival felt very mellow—somewhat calculated—as many flaws from previous years where dealt with, and the brewery love—regardless of size or financial status—was evening distributed throughout the maze that is the Great American Beer Festival floor. The addition of the Meet the Brewers rows and the many educational events easily accessible throughout the GABF floor really reflected a industry-wide push to highlight and focus on the breweries and beer values that ignited the craft beer industry in the first place. Your friendly neighborhood, independent brewery is here to stay—at the folks behind the steering wheel that is the more than $55 billion craft beer industry want to remind you of that.