Heaps of hops. Masses of malts. Scores of suds. No, it’s not heaven. It’s the Great American Beer Festival (GABF).
A veritable nirvana for beer lovers, the GABF is a gathering of like-minded souls, quaffing connoisseurs that want nothing more than to celebrate and consume craft beer and there’s no better place to hold this event than in Colorado.
FACT: Colorado is the number one state in the nation in terms of craft breweries per capita and beer volume and is number two in absolute number of craft breweries by state and sheer craft beer volume. That’s a lot of beer for a state that has a lower population than many.
The first Great American Beer Festival was held in Boulder in 1982. 22 breweries attended, offering more than 40 beers for sampling. Today, the GABF hosts more than 600 of the nation’s finest breweries, pouring one ounce samples of more than 3000 beers over three days of festivities.
FACT: if you tried just one sample of each beer offered, you’d be drinking the equivalent of more than 108 regular 12-ounce bottles of beer.
Needless to say, it’s almost impossible to try every beer, though you’d be hard pressed to convince some attendees of that. They make a valiant effort to defy the odds.
So, how do you dominate the Great American Beer Festival? After all, there are more than 49,000 attendees over the course of three days—that’s a lot of pretzel wearing, beer sampling, costume-wearing folks with the same goal in mind.
But never fear—we’ve got you covered. We spoke to several experts to give you the ultimate game plan for the GABF.
What’s the best way to navigate through the GABF?
There are a number of ways to navigate the festival and none require GPS. “Two common strategies are tasting by style and sampling by region,” explains Barbara Fusco, Sales & Marketing Director at the Brewers Association, the folks that put on this shindig. “Perhaps you’re a huge fan of sour ales, or porters, or pale ales—seek those out and compare and contrast your experiences.”
Technology is a wonderful thing. The totally revamped GABF app now offers a variety of “Beer Tours” that help you navigate by style category such as “Spice, Spice Baby” or “Dark Vader” by pointing you to the beers on the festival map.
Another way to navigate is by region. The hall is divided into eight U.S. regions: Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Rocky Mountain, New England, Pacific, Pacific Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest. Many beers are only distributed regionally or locally, so get outside of your home state and zip code and sample from areas that you might not get to try otherwise.
Of course, doing some research ahead of time helps make the most of your time in the Festival and saves aimlessly wandering around sampling anything within cup’s reach.
“The first time I went I tried a lot of BAD beer. Don’t get me wrong…I tried a lot of tasty brews and was floored at some of the offerings. But with no “game plan” I was juggling fire,” says Constance Aguilar of the Abbi Agency, who has attended the GABF as both a brewery representative and as a regular attendee. “Ask your beer geek friends, read BeerAdvocate or peruse beer blogs and get some insight on the go-to breweries there.”
How do I avoid looking like a rookie?
Probably the most common rookie mistake is the one most easily avoided: don’t forget to drink plenty of water.
“Drinking water not only cleanses your palate, refreshing you for that next taste of beer, but it keeps you hydrated and helps moderate overall intake,” says Barbara. “Hydration is especially important for the 50% of guests that come to the Mile High City from sea level.”
The GABF provides numerous water stations throughout the festival hall, so make sure to down some water as regularly as you swig suds.
It’s also important to follow the rules—spoken or unspoken—of the GABF and tastings in general.
“If you don’t like something, dump buckets are there for a reason. Don’t spit, don’t try and pawn off your beer, etc. Just politely pour it out,” Constance explains. “And when you can, shake the hand of the guys who make the beer. You never know who you might meet. Sam Calagione (founder and President of Dogfish Head) might just be handing you your next beer.”
Is the GABF just a bunch of beer tasting?
While the highlight of the Great American Beer Festival is the tasting, there are plenty of other activities going on to keep you entertained between samples.
“There’s a variety of non-drinking fun to be had, from the Silent Disco to the Beer & Food Pavilion, the Brewers Studio Pavilion, our giant wall o’ merchandise, the You Be the Judge Pavilion and more,” Barbara says. “Plus, our sponsors and exhibitors tend to serve up fun in their booths as well—from the Wahl beard trimming station to St. Arnold Brewery’s wedding chapel.”
Note to self: Bring your brides and beards.
For those who want the inside scoop on the brewing scene, Constance suggests checking out the Brewers Studio Pavilion. “It’s a great place to meet and hear from up-and-coming brewers as they discuss industry topics. It’s a good jumping off point to be introduced to the intricacies of the craft.”
After meeting the brewers, you may start dreaming of creating porters and pilsners yourself. An element that sets the GABF apart from other beer festivals is the inclusion and emphasis on homebrews and home brewing. Visit the dedicated home brewing section to learn more about the craft; once you’ve gotten the brewing bug, there are vendors who can provide all of the necessary equipment to get started as soon as you leave the festival.
In the End
At the end of the day, the name of the game at the Great American Beer Festival is to have fun.
“Staying open to flavorful new experiences is what GABF is all about,” Barbara says. “Don a costume, string up your pretzel necklace, get your groove on at the Silent Disco and raise a toast to the hundreds and hundreds of innovative brewers making the American beer scene what it is today.”
If you’d like to attend the GABF—after all, it was listed as one of 1,000 places to visit in the U.S. before you die—plan ahead and pull the trigger when tickets go on sale. The festival sold out in just 20 minutes this year, compared to 45 minutes in 2012.