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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.

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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

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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.