Tag Archives: Great American Beer Festival

Six Tips to Help You Get the Most out of the Great American Beer Fest

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.

GABF 2014 (TastingGlass-GABF FB) 2On 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.

Drink. (Water!)

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.

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.GABF Map (2015) 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.

The Hunt.

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.GABF 2014 (Alaska-GABF FB) 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.

Good Housekeeping.

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.

Striking Gold at Boulder Breweries (The Front Range Series)

Craft Beer in the Mile-High City: Colorado’s Northern Front Range Series

Crystal Springs and the Music Teacher Turned Brewer

Milling Against the Grain: Grimm Brothers Goes All-Germanic

Wild Mountain: Come for the Great Outdoors, Stay for the Beer and Barbeque

Green Pints at Asher Brewing Company

Sources and Images

GABF Post-Event Report 2014

GABF Floor Plan

All other images from the GABF Facebook page.

© 2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

At the Foot of the Mountain: Boulder’s Brewpubs and Breweries

Boulder - FlatironsAutumn (WikiCommons)Long famous for mining and ranching, Boulder and its neighbouring Front Range towns have successfully tapped a more fluid natural resource in recent decades. Few could have predicted the seismic impact that Colorado craft beer would have on our contemporary drinking habits when Boulder Brewing Company threw open its doors in 1979. But even if Colorado has slipped out of the top three in the U.S. in terms of breweries per capita and absolute number of craft breweries, you could still make a convincing case that the Front Range region of Colorado remains the epicenter of North American craft beer. Nearly 50,000 craft beer enthusiasts make the pilgrimage to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver each October. And two of the most influential organizations that advocate on behalf of craft beer and craft breweries, the Brewers’ Association and the American Homebrewers’ Association, are headquartered in Boulder.

* * *

Morning had come and gone when I began to weave my way along the interstates and highways leading from Denver to Boulder. Eternal sunshine and strip malls for miles. And then, in an instant, all that is suburban melts into air. To one side, the plains open up to embrace the northeast and southeast as far as the eye can see. Before me, in the shadow of the sheltering Flatirons watching over Boulder like so many dragons’ teeth, the town spills languidly out into the flatlands. BoulderColorado (Photochrome Print ca 1900 - Public Domain)This vibrant college town renowned for its casual mix of yoga practitioners, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and outdoors enthusiasts is so close to Denver it could easily have been swallowed up like so many Austin exurbs. Why all this open space protecting Boulder from the encroachment of Denver? The story dates back to 1898 when a visionary city council took the lead in purchasing land that was slated for gold exploration. Shortly thereafter, and with the help of a public bond, the civic authorities purchased Flagstaff Mountain. These actions set in motion a series of land acquisitions that set the stage for a 1967 voter-approved sales tax geared specifically toward the purchase and maintenance of open space. Not only did the 1967 measure pass with 57% of the popular vote; in 1989, 76% of voters elected to increase the Open Space Tax nearly one-hundredfold.

* * *

I tie up my grey mule at the foot of the mountain and head back in the direction of town along the creek. A block or so beyond the bridge I come across the lively, pedestrian-only Pearl Street Mall, packed with funky cafés without a buck or a star in them, plenty of eateries and brewpubs, and a handful of used bookstores. Used bookstores, a dying breed!IMG_9288 I wiled away a few hours plucking this book and that off the stacks before I remembered why I came to Boulder.

And now for some beer …

Mountain Sun Pub and Brewery

When I stepped into the subdued psychedelia of the Mountain Sun, I felt, for a moment, as if I had stepped back in time into a café or eatery on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive. This animated Boulder institution opened in 1993 and attracts a twenty-something standard-issue college crowd with a few hale mountaineering types and understated hipsters thrown in for good measure. 1960s Berkeley and a Westerner’s interpretation of Kathmandu collide in this cheerful space where New Age suns smile benevolently on South Asian wall hangings.Mtn Sun - Interior 1 (www-mountainsunpub-com) The food is cooked slow, and you can pay with cash, cheque, or karma envelope. And not a TV in sight.

I tucked into a healthy meal of vegetarian black bean chili and a spinach salad dressed with a garlic herb dressing and blue cheese while I sipped my way through samples of Mountain Sun’s beer. The FYIPA is a local favourite, and with good reason. Four kettle additions of four hop varieties plus one large dose of dry hops yields a refreshing, citrus-and-pine-inflected beer anchored by richly textured malt.

But it was the Colorado Kind Ale and the Annapurna Amber Ale that really won me over. The Colorado Kind is an amber-copper ESB that combines a floral-citrus Cascade hop presence and caramelized brown sugar malts into a toasty potpourri of ginger and autumn baking spices. Firm bitterness up front shades into an earthy spiciness and toffee-caramel richness cut through by bitter grapefruit near the finish. Slightly darker and reminiscent of chai tea in colour, the Annapurna Amber Ale shines the spotlight on malt aromatics of toasted caramel, milk chocolate, and plum.Mtn Sun - Exterior 1 (www-mountainsunpub-com) Creamy and velvety on the palate, maraschino cherry and amaretto mingle with bright cocoa in this rounded, full-flavoured beer that put me in the mind of a mild Scotch ale.

I visited Mountain Sun in autumn, but if you’re in town round about now and are a fan of stouts like I am, you’ll be happy to know that February is Stout Month. Twenty-three different house-brewed stouts and an additional twenty-three guest stouts make me want to brave the winter weather some day for a February journey back to Boulder.

West Flanders Brewing Company

Not far down the Pearl Street Mall is a much newer brewpub that serves up a completely different vibe: West Flanders Brewing Company. Iron beams support a corrugated metal awning that shelters outdoor imbibers and welcomes everyone else into a tastefully lit brasserie with cream-coloured walls and polished wooden floors.WestFlanders - Logo As the name would suggest, Belgian beer is given pride of place in the tap lineup, but aside from the well-executed Basil-Garlic Moules Frites with Malt Aïoli, I was left wishing for more dining options beyond the standard, if upscale, brewpub menu fare. As I was on my way to meet an acquaintance somewhere else and had just stopped in for a quick bite, I didn’t have time to sample more than a few beers. Of the ones I tasted, the Angry Monk, a Belgian-style Dubbel, had all of the caramel, brown sugar, plum-cherry, rum-raisin, spicy pepper, and honeyed fig aromatic notes you’d expect from a Dubbel, but with a slightly distracting banana twist. I preferred the Woodshed Porter, which bore the pleasant wood-smoked hallmark of Bamberg malts, freshly ground dark-roasted coffee, dark chocolate, and a mixture of dried fruit, leather, and licorice root across the palate and into the aftertaste.

Walnut Brewery

Every road trip coughs up a dud or two, and Walnut Brewery was the clear standout in this category. Not only does the space look like just about any other generic sports bar with a bit of wood slapped onto to the walls to warm up the flat-screen ambience; the frat kid bartender rendered detached service that bordered on surliness. Now, I’ve lived in countries where brusque service is more the norm than the exception, but Walnut’s ho-hum beers don’t compensate for the deficiencies in service and setting. Apparently this old stalwart has a few GABF medals under its belt, but it doesn’t seem to have kept up over the years. You can find much better beer and ambience a stone’s throw or short bike ride away.

Twisted Pine Brewing Co.

With an unwavering focus on experimentation and new beers tapped roughly once per week, Twisted Pine is the kind of place where you’re likely to encounter a beer that has, itself, met with some unlikely ingredient like wasabi.Twisted Pine - Taps (twistedpinebrewing-com) On the Sunday afternoon that I stopped by to catch up with an old friend now teaching at UC Boulder, we took advantage of the 5 X 5-oz pours for $10. Crisply acidic and light in body, the Razzy Raspberry Espresso Stout combined raspberry jam with dark coffee and a roasted accent reminiscent of jalapeno. Heftier was the Rhesus Chocolate Peanut Butter Stout, with its harmonious blend of smoky dark chocolate and restrained nuttiness. You may or may not see all of these beers when you pay a visit to this wood-accented industrial-chic taproom tucked away in an industrial park east of downtown. But if you’re a fan of beers that amp up the heat, Billy’s Chilies beer is, by all accounts, a constant fixture in the ever-rotating lineup. Let’s just say that I didn’t actively dislike this beer. Of the set, the Kölsch-style beer was the only one that pushed the envelope of normality.

Endnote

Tempest’s series on Colorado’s Northern Front Range rumbles on. Next up: “Boulder Further Afield,” featuring, among others, Avery and Upslope. The compendium of articles I have been and will be rolling out is eons from exhaustive––who among us can conceivably take in the bounty of craft beer in the Denver, Boulder, Longmont, and Fort Collins areas over the course of a few trips? This is a happy conundrum indeed. Feel free to chime in with a comment about your own favourite brewery and taproom gems in the Front Range region.

Related Tempest Articles

Striking Gold: Boulder Breweries Further Afield (Northern Front Range Series)

Craft Beer in the Mile-High City: Colorado’s Northern Front Range Series

Crystal Springs and the Music Teacher Turned Brewer

Milling Against the Grain: Grimm Brothers Goes All-Germanic

Wild Mountain: Come for the Great Outdoors, Stay for the Beer and Barbeque

Green Pints at Asher Brewing Company

Further Reading

For more on how Boulder elected to tax itself, see the sections on Boulder in Nate Cavalieri, Adam Skolnick, and Rowan McKinnon, Lonely Planet: Colorado (Lonely Planet Publications, 2011).

Ed Sealover, Mountain Brew: A Guide to Colorado’s Breweries (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2011), provides a comprehensive snapshot of the Colorado craft beer scene. New breweries have opened in the years since, but the book is still an invaluable resource for your explorations of all things Colorado beer.

The City of Boulder’s website includes information on history, cultural events, cycling and hiking trails, industries, and festivals. I hadn’t heard the term used before, but the City of Boulder refers to the area as the Napa Valley of craft brewing. That works.

Images

A crisp fall morning in Boulder, Colorado. 01 November 2010. Eddyl (Wiki Commons).

Photochrome Print of Boulder circa 1900 (Public Domain, Wiki Commons).

The Foot of the Mountain, F.D. Hofer.

Mountain Sun Pub, interior and exterior: www.moutainsunpub.com

West Flanders logo: http://wfbrews.com

Twisted Pine taps: http://twistedpinebrewing.com

© 2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

Seven Steps to Surviving the Great American Beer Festival

It’s that time of the year again when the leaves start to turn and the National Hockey League season begins. It’s also the time of year when thousands of thirsty craft beer enthusiasts converge upon Denver for that annual pilgrimage known as the Great American Beer Festival.

GABF 2014 1

Equal parts serious beer connoisseurship, Bacchanalian revelry, and street carnival, the GABF may not be as large as Munich’s Oktoberfest, but it boasts a truly impressive cross-section of American breweries and an array of beers to match.

Maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who scored a ticket to this year’s GABF. Or maybe you’re putting your trust in all that “beer karma” you’ve built up on Beer Advocate and are heading to Denver in the hopes that you don’t get hosed too badly on a last-minute Craigslist deal. (It has worked for me in the past.) Whatever the case may be, and whether you’re new to the beer fest circuit or a seasoned veteran, I’ve compiled a few tips to ensure that you don’t expel all your hard-earned Untappd badges into your tankard at the end of the night.GABF 2014 (Alaska-GABF FB)But first, some fun facts from 2013:

The annual GABF offers the avant-gardists of the craft beer world plenty of compelling styles and ingredients du jour. 2013 was all about key lime (usually in saisons and lagers) and cocoa nibs (often in conjunction with coffee). Speaking of coffee, the seemingly perennial chili teamed up with shots of java and sometimes chocolate in many a stout and porter, often to convincing effect. Central American hot chocolate, anyone? Nelson Sauvin, Motueka, Galaxy, and Mosaic hops featured prominently, especially in American-style pale ales and IPAs. Cucumber also made the occasional cameo (Cigar City, Trinity, Wicked Weed), lending those beers an intensely refreshing quality reminiscent of running through the sprinkler on a sun-baked day.

  • Attendance: approximately 49,000
  • Competing breweries: 747
  • Judges: 208
  • Beers judged: 4,863
  • Number of categories judged: 84
  • Number of IPAs entered: 252
  • Fewest beers in a category: Dortmunder or German-Style Oktoberfest (29)

Now, that’s a lot of beer and plenty of stylistic variation to take in. How are you going to come out on the other end with any lasting impressions of your GABF experience?

Eat.

Eat a huge breakfast and then follow it up with an ample lunch. Avoid intensely-flavoured foods that will linger on the palate, but don’t be shy about indulging any latent desires for waffles, pancakes, or French toast. Food is available for sale inside the convention center, but perhaps you’re broke because you’ve just dropped upwards of $85 on a ticket, gave blood so you could pay for your over-priced accommodation, and spent your last pennies on those rare beers being tapped around town. What’s a hungry but penurious beer drinker to do? Once you get yourself past the deluge of people lining up to get their beer on, head straight for the cheese tables and stash away as much of it as you can for later. The pretzel necklaces work in a pinch, too.

Drink. (But of course!)

Every seasoned imbiber knows this––and then promptly forgets. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. And then repeat. And then repeat again after every booth you visit. Wear a CamelBak if you have one. You’ll fit right in with all the other mad hatters wearing scuba gear, Viking helmets, Lederhosen, pretzel necklaces, and sundry beer paraphernalia. The downside of all this hydration? You’ll probably spend more time in those interminably long bathroom lineups than you’d like.GABF 2014 (Floorplan-GABF website) But hey, it’ll give you a chance to meet new people, or to mentally sort through the last fifty-odd beers you’ve sampled.

Cartography 101.

Dust off your map-reading skills, folks! Google Maps won’t help you pinpoint where your favourite brewery will be pouring its libations. You’ll receive a map of the (cavernous) venue along with your tasting glass and program when you get in the door. Before you start running around like a kid in a candy shop (it happens to the best of us), take a look around and familiarize yourself with the lay of the land. The convention center is laid out regionally: Great Lakes; Mid-Atlantic; Midwest; Mountain; New England; Pacific; Pacific Northwest; Southeast; and Southwest. Circle your top picks, but give yourself some leeway to explore. You might find that you’d rather not stand in line for fifteen minutes for a sip of one of those “must-taste” brews.

The Serendipitous Find.

Alternately, put that map in your back pocket and just wander around. You’ll find an inordinately high number of quality brewers whose booths have no lineup whatsoever, especially from regions of the country less renowned for their craft beer scene. Advice: Head to the tiny Midwest section (Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, and Oklahoma). After that, go south. And then head east. You’ll find some real gems.

The Notebook.

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.Muji Notebooks 2 If you really must, enter all your beers into everybody’s favourite “record and forget” trophy app, 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. But stick with it. You’ll thank me for the tip when you get home and can remember what characterized even a few of the beers you liked.

The Time Out.

Sure, we came here to sample the beer, but it doesn’t hurt to check out what’s happening away from the main stage. Our arms may not get very tired from repetitively hoisting a four-ounce sample glass,GABF 2014 (TastingGlass-GABF FB) 2 but our palates will most certainly suffer a minor beating after drinking all those sours, Brett beers, IPAs, and Imperial Stouts in quick succession. Give yourself a break from all that hard work!

Want a quick primer in judging beer? The Cicerone program offers half-hour workshops that’ll help you put a finer point on what you’re tasting at the festival, or identify common flaws in beer. How about a quiet respite from the colourful mayhem surrounding you? Step into the comparative sanctuary of the “bookstore” and strike up a conversation with beer writers like Garret Oliver, Stan Hieronymus, or Jamil Zainasheff.

_____________________

One last tip thrown in for good measure: Stay in Boulder and take advantage of the reasonably-priced and very convenient public transit that runs between the two cities.

Most importantly, enjoy!––or, as the organizers of the GABF put it, “Savor the flavor responsibly.”

Related Tempest Articles

Crystal Springs and the Music Teacher Turned Brewer

Milling Against the Grain: Grimm Brothers Goes All-Germanic

Crystal Springs is in the Boulder area; Grimm Bros. is near Fort Collins. Stop in for a visit if you’re touring Colorado’s Front Range beer scene.

Sources

2013 Great American Beer Festival. Official Program.

2013 Great American Beer Festival. Winners List.

GABF Festival History/Facts and Figures

Images

GABF Site Plan 2014: www.greatamericanbeerfestival.com

Notebooks: www.muji.us

All other images from the GABF Facebook page.

© 2014 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.