The Great American Beer Festival (GABF) is the premier collection of craft beer competition and tasting in the United States held in Denver, Colorado.
Held in an ever expansive auditorium of 90,000 sq ft, it features nearly 750+ breweries and 60,000 attendees, brewers, judges, and volunteers. It’s economic impact on the city of Denver nears somewhere around $7 million dollars. And it was sold out in 1 hour and 17 minutes during the public sale this year.
What a humbling experience it is to attend such an event.
I will talk about the amazing beers, “white whales”, food pairings, brewery bus tours, special tappings, and benefit events in later posts but today I simply want to concentrate on the logistical and organizational aspects of this large-scale event.
Okay, the auditorium seems endless when you enter. There are more booths there than anything else I’ve ever seen, it’s difficult to even share an analogy. We split the regions into 8 places: Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Rocky Mountain, New England, Pacific, Pacific Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest and you can use the GABF phone app to help navigate. Each of the sections has it’s region label on the ceiling so you can (more or less) get around - you'll still need a least an hour to get a feel of the place.
1. Craft Beer & Food Pavilion – These are my favorite sessions to attend. You get to enjoy food/ beer demonstrations where brewers and chefs pair up to talk about flavor combinations and inspire you to be daring in your kitchens – plus the added benefits of munchies!
2. Paired/Farm To Table Pavilion – I missed this but…apparently you “join chefs and small and independent brewers as they discuss and pair craft beer with dishes created with locally grown ingredients”.
3. Brewers Studio Pavilion – Listen to the brewers themselves as they share their stories and beers in an intimate environment – beer is all about the story.
4. The annual GABF Pro-Am Competition – Homebrewers and professional brewers team up to vie for top honors. They must choose to replicate a past homebrew recipe that has already won a local BJCP sanctioned competition – welcome to the big leagues!
5. Brewers Publications Beer Geek Bookstore – Books on knowledge on everything beer. Sample copies and signings are available – my goals are to meet Joshua Bernstein & Michael Palmer because I actually own their books (super geek).
6. BeerX: The CraftBeer.com Experience – I thoroughly enjoyed sitting down with an actual competition judge to judge a beer together! You get to pick a style being offered and off you go!
This is a fun one to talk about. Mainly because all strategy falls to the wayside once you’ve downed 10 pours. But…There are several ways to think about it. You can taste beers from a particular region, taste them from a particular style, or just wander around aimlessly in search of big crowds, which indicate there’s some rare beer being served. You’ll hear “Ohhhh’s” every 30 min or so that means somebody has accidentally dropped his or her plastic cup. Don’t go towards those mobs.
- Don’t bring unnecessaries – such as a backpack. I learned this the hard way (though I ended up getting through because of my media badge). Carrying bags and everything else are provided in case you receive swag. Things like water bottles are unnecessary because of stacks of water bottles and portable fountains every 10 ft or so. I suggest filling up the water bottles since it's more efficient.
- Study the floor plan beforehand. I forgot to visit entire sections of space on my first day because I didn’t even know they existed. I think I also missed the food Paired VIP section, which sounded like it was amazing – learn from my mistakes people! Have your top breweries lined up and go there first, then wander around aimlessly for maximum value.
- Drink sparingly and know your limit. I probably wouldn’t suggest drinking a Samuel Adams’ Utopia or Bruery’s Black Tuesday first, since that’s precisely what I did and they took me a while to finish. Thankfully, the Food Pavilion provided plenty of food pairing options and delights to keep me going.
- There’s more to it than beer drinking. Yes, beer is in fact the main ingredient here but it’s surrounding elements: food pairing, judging, commercial v. homebrewing, books and knowledge, etc are all wonderful additives to the entire experience. You can always take a 30 min break from drinking and enjoy other things before going back to the line.