The trees are starting to don their autumn colours and the kegs have already been tapped for this year’s Oktoberfest in Munich. Today in Vienna the curtain rises on a less well-known festival, but one entirely in keeping with the spirit of the harvest season: the Wiener Wiesn Fest in the broad and leafy expanses of Vienna’s Prater park.
On the other side of the Atlantic, beer devotees are beginning to arrive at a different annual pilgrimage site. Yes, it’s that the time of year when thousands of thirsty craft beer enthusiasts converge upon Denver and its environs for the Great American Beer Festival. Equal parts serious beer connoisseurship and street carnival, the GABF may not be as large as Munich’s Oktoberfest, but it boasts a truly impressive cross-section of breweries currently operating in the U.S. and an unrivaled breadth of beer styles to match.
Whether you’re new to the beer fest circuit or a seasoned veteran, I’ve compiled a few tried-and-true tips to make sure you remember at least a portion of your experience and so that you don’t wake up the next day feeling like you’ve gone head-to-head, helmetless, with a Denver Broncos’ lineman.
First, though, some fun facts from 2014:
- Approximately 49,000 attended
- Average age of attendees: 34.5 years
- 76% of attendees were male, 24% were female
- 1309 breweries entered 5507 beers
- 222 judges from 10 countries judged in five sessions
- 90 + beer categories were evaluated, with an average of 61 beers per category
- 279 American-style IPAs were entered for judging
Now, that’s a lot of beer and plenty of stylistic variation to take in. Add to that the dazzling array of ingredients that find their way into kettles and fermenters –– fruit, herbs, vegetables, flowers, legumes, chiles, and chocolate are all fair game ––, all those cutting-edge hop varieties, numerous sour this and barrel-aged that, and you’ll have plenty of reason to wonder how you’re going to come out on the other end with any lasting impressions of your GABF experience. And we haven’t even mentioned all the solid takes on straight-up styles like stout, porter, and pale ale.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. And then repeat. The downside of all this hydration? You’ll probably spend more time in those interminably long bathroom lineups than you’d like. But think of it this way: It’ll give you a chance to meet new people, or to mentally sort through the last hundred-odd beers you’ve just sampled.
Eat a huge breakfast and then keep eating throughout the day. Food is available for sale inside the convention center for a price, but since you’ve dropped upwards of $85 on a ticket and spent your last pennies on those tap takeovers around town, why not get your money’s worth? Once you get yourself past the hordes of folks flocking to the beer booths, head straight for the cheese tables and stash away as much of it as you can for later. You might even discover your new favourite cheese in the process. (On a serious note, the cheese selection is immensely underrated by event-goers, so take full advantage!)
The Road Less Traveled.
Upon entering the hallowed precincts of the GABF, you’ll receive a map of the venue along with your tasting glass and program. Take a look around and familiarize yourself with the lay of the land. Circle your top picks, but give yourself some leeway to explore areas outside of the Pacific Northwest, Cali, and Colorado. Never had a beer from Oklahoma? Head on down and have a beer with my friends from Roughtail.
Rather than looking for that serendipitous find in far-flung regions of the U.S., get to know your fellow revelers and exchange notes on what might be most outrageous, outlandish beer in the festival. Have you ever stood in front of a shelf of beers and thought, man, I’d really like to try that lemon chiffon cruller beer or that bacon and maple syrup beer, but I don’t really feel like dropping upwards of 15 bux on this particular lottery ticket? Well, here’s your chance. Take a vacation from all those IPAs you’ve been drinking and see how many rabbit holes you can go down.
Flora and Fauna.
For the majority of you who have already purchased your tickets, you’re already locked into a session. But if you’re arriving in Denver hoping that all your BeerAdvocate “beer Karma” will help you land a ticket (or for those contemplating a trip to the GABF at some point in the future), I’ll try to give you a sense of how the sessions differ from one another.
Avoid the Saturday evening session unless your main reason for going is to get hammered. Most of the brewers have long since checked out to party with their compadres, and many of the most sought-after beers have long since been Untappd. The Saturday afternoon session is the one filled with the most serious beer enthusiasts and “tickers,” so be prepared to stand in long lineups for any of the so-called whales. For my money, the Friday evening session is the best. You’ll have a chance to meet many of the brewers and to try some truly extraordinary beers before the kegs start running dry. Since the proportion of flannel-clad beer geeks and neck beard-stroking wannabes is much lower, you won’t be stuck in too many lineups waiting to taste the beers you might have on your list. (Note: I haven’t been to a Thursday session yet, so can’t comment on the pros and cons.)
Know Your Limits.
You don’t want to be “that guy” or “that girl.” If you’re new to this whole beer fest thing, brush up on your beer styles ahead of time. Given the widespread adulation of high ABV beers among the craft beer brewing and drinking community, many of the beers you drink will clock in well above the 5% ABV to which you may be accustomed. Most barley wines, Doppelbocks, Double IPAs, and Imperial Stouts tip the scales above 7% ABV, and beers topping out over 10% ABV are not uncommon at the GABF. You paid good money to be here, so enjoy that beer rather than treating your commemorative cup like a shot glass.
Keep Track. You will, after all, be drinking. And drinking has been known to interfere with our mnemonic faculties on occasion. (Did you really think you were going to remember all those beers?) Bring a small notebook or, at the very least, a pen so that you can jot down notes in the program you received. If you really must, enter your finds into Untappd. Regardless of your chosen method, keeping track of all those beers is going to be one of the toughest things you’ll do at GABF––especially if you’re with a group of friends. Stick with it, though. You’ll thank me for the tip when you get home and can remember what characterized even a few of the beers you liked.
This year’s GABF runs from September 24 through September 26 in Denver, CO.
As the organizers of the GABF put it, “Savor the flavor responsibly.” I’ll be thinking of you while I drink my Maß of beer here in Vienna. Cheers and Prost!
Related Tempest Articles
Check out these articles if you’re looking for breweries, brewpubs, and bottle shops beyond the general GABF festivities. Boulder is easily reachable from Denver via public transit, and Fort Collins is but a short car ride from both Denver and Boulder.
Sources and Images
All other images from the GABF Facebook page.
© 2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.