"Beer in Colorado" is dedicated to that divine elixir born of the marriage of water, malt, hops, and yeast as interpreted
by those living in Colorado. Follow the author as he visits every brewery in the state, creates experimental homebrews,
attends beer festivals, tries interesting beers from around the world, and spreads the good word of beer. Prost!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Great American Beer Festival: Still Lookin' Good After 30 Years

This past week in Denver has been a marathon of beer-related events and it all culminated in a big finish: the 30th annual Great American Beer Festival (GABF).  I am proud to say I gave it my all; through the week’s many beer celebrations, I got my fill and everything remaining I left on the sticky floors of the Colorado Convention Center.  Do I really have to wait a whole year for the GABF to come back? 

However, I’d first like to talk a little more about the lead-up to GABF.  You’ve already read about some of the other Denver-area events I attended but there is one more I’d like to talk about before delving into the grand finale: Denver Beer Co.’s Barleywine Burritos Brewer Breakfast.  That’s right, barleywine for breakfast.  That’s the way we do it in Denver.  For six bucks, attendees could get a chorizo, bacon, or veggie burrito with a side of the house-made brew and, surprisingly, the two seemingly disparate offerings went quite well together.  I never would have figured a strong ale of English origins would taste great with a Mexican entrée but I suppose it’s all in the spirit of experimentation. 
Burritos?  Check.  Barleywine?  Check.
I also had In Da Hood Hop Swap NPA (Neighborhood Pale Ale).  This beer tasted great but its story is even better; Denver Beer gave out free hop rhizomes to neighborhood beer geeks that planted the hops in their backyards.  Then, come harvest time, those beer geeks brought in their yield and it was all mixed together to create In Da Hood.    
In Da Hood

While the food and drink were quite satisfactory, so, too, was the people-watching.  There is a reason it is called the Great American Beer Festival; it’s an event that showcases all that America has to offer in the way of beer and, appropriately, people from all corners of the nation descend upon Denver when the GABF is in town.  It’s easy for Denverites to pick these out-of-towners out of a crowd.  For one, everybody is wearing a brewery shirt.  Now, I have a respectable collection of brewery memorabilia and it’s not an uncommon occurrence for me to wear them about town but it was beer hipster central at Denver Beer Co.; everybody was wearing a shirt from some obscure brewery in a far-flung region of the country because, y’know, they’re really into those underground places.  Don’t worry, you’ve probably never heard of them but try to remember that these people liked those breweries before they were cool.  The second way to spot a visitor is by the way they bundle up for Denver’s “harsh” weather.  It was hot and sunny the day I went to Denver Beer Co. yet I still saw people layering clothes and wearing wool socks.  People don’t realize how temperate our weather is.  They just hear the word “Denver” and assume they’ll have to dress like an Iditarod contestant.
Star Wars geeks and beer geeks--get together and explain to each other why this shirt seen at Denver Beer is funny

Also, congratulations to Denver Beer Co. for snagging the bronze in GABF’s Specialty Beer category with Graham Cracker Porter.  Not too shabby for a brewery that has only been open for about three months. 

Speaking of GABF, yes, if you’ve never been it is exactly as fun as you’d imagine times fifty.  This was my third time going and it always exceeds my expectations.  This year’s group included me, my two sisters, Kevin (my older sister’s friend from our hometown in Indiana), and fellow beer geeks and pub trivia teammates/opponents Robin and Justin.

I guess the best way to start is to describe GABF.  That’s just it, though; describing GABF to somebody who has never been is like describing color to a blind man or crappy music to somebody who’s never heard a Nickelback song.  These are the cold-hard facts: 465 breweries, 2,400 beers, and 50,000 attendees.  Impressive numbers, yes, but it’s hard to visualize.  You can know that Mt. Everest is 29,029 feet tall but it really doesn’t mean much until you’re standing in its shadow.  The enormity also presents a challenge to me, the reporter.  The best I can do is relate my personal experience with the GABF with your understanding that this is but one man’s interpretation of the event.
It's HUGE!!!
Our party arrived at the convention center in many different ways (bike, bus, and foot) but we managed to be in line at roughly the same time.  Unlike previous years where I entered the line when it was already wrapping around the building, this year we all got there early and had a relatively straight shot into the entrance.  You may be standing for over an hour before the doors even open but it is worth it to be among the first in line because the festival floor won’t already be plastered with people by the time you get there; the open space give you room to maneuver and strategize your next move.

We didn’t have a hard-set plan for taking on GABF—we just made it up as we went.  The first move was to walk to the back of the convention center and work our way forward; the front end gets crowded quickly and we wanted at least a few minutes of shoulder room.  To keep our group together, we walked in thirty foot increments, found distinguishing features on the floor of the aisles (the convention center has regularly-placed steel plates in the floor), and used them as home bases.  We spread out to the nearby breweries and reconvened at home base.  It was a pretty effective strategy; we only had two instances where we lost a person (I was that lost person once) but we were always able to recollect them.  Plus, we tended to do the Mexican hat-dance around home base or argue loudly about who received the most generous pour so we were an easy group to spot in a crowd.

Home Base

The best part of any beer festival is the ability to try new and weird concoctions of which you wouldn’t necessarily want a full glass.  Sour, whiskey-barrel aged, and barleywine style beers were all on my drinking resume’ for the night because, while I love all types of beer, I’m not as accustomed to those particular types.  Since the cups are so small at GABF, if you order a nasty-tasting beer, you don’t have to drink very much of it.  In our group, if your beer's a dud, you sip it, make a disgusted face, and make everybody else in the group taste it, too, so that the misery can be shared.

Obviously, we visited a lot of breweries that night and I definitely can’t remember them all but a few stick out in my mind.  I remember that Amicas Pizza & Microbrewery had a mighty tasty hot pepper beer.  I made a point to visit Sun King Brewery so I could show my Indiana love.  Unfortunately, Sun King had kicked most of the beers they came in with.  A lot of breweries run out of beer on the Saturday session if their beer is really good and Sun King is, indeed, really good;  it won the most gold medals (4) out of all breweries in attendance and it also earned the most medals overall (8).  Likewise, the state of Indiana earned more medals at GABF than any other state.  Hoosier Pride, baby!  I also visited some other Indiana breweries whose names I never heard: Brugge Brasserie and Figure Ei8ht Brewing.  I’d also say that Nebraska’s craft beer scene might be one to look out for; I didn’t have any disappointing beers from their breweries. 

As big as GABF is, I still managed to run into two of the guys Nicole and I were shooting the breeze with at Upslope Brewing Company’s tap takeover at Hops & Pie.  Considering the solid mass of people in the convention center, it’s pretty amazing that two people would be able to happen upon each other and, furthermore, have the clarity of mind to recognize each other.

Now, the fervor is gone.  The day after GABF is like the day after Christmas; there’s a lot of hype and excitement and the anticipation absolutely kills but then the day comes and eventually passes thus leaving beer geeks with the post-GABF blues.  Of course, those blues are much more difficult to handle when you have to leave Denver and go back home to a place much less prestigious in the craft beer world.  Denver beer geeks have it much easier; we have most of the best breweries at GABF right here in the city limits.  So, to all you out-of-town GABF-goers, see ya next year, suckas; I’ll save you a seat at the bar. 



I was lucky enough to attend a couple of the beer events that took place before the Great American Beer Festival. I had my eye on a couple of pumpkin beers that I wanted to try; fall is my favorite time for beer because I love pumpkin beers—specifically the ones that have pumpkin pie spices. The first pumpkin beer that I had was Tommyknocker Brewery & Pub’s Small Patch Harvest Pumpkin Ale.  Small Patch has a faint cinnamon aroma, but no other detectable aroma.  The flavor is bitter up front with an aftertaste of pumpkin pie spices. The color is a clear brown with orange highlights. Compared to other pumpkin beers, Small Patch has a thin mouthfeel. This beer tastes like a watery pumpkin pie.

The second pumpkin beer was part of Denver’s Littlest Big Beer Festival held at Hops & Pie. Upslope Brewing Company brought four beers including their Munson Farms Pumpkin Ale which is brewed with pumpkins grown in Colorado. This beer was slightly hazy but mostly clear. As I looked at the glass, the color gradient ranged from orange at the bottom to reddish on top. Upon first sip, this beer tasted like straight up pumpkin pie. The pumpkin flavor dominated with strong tones of nutmeg flavor and hints of vanilla. Upslope’s version of a pumpkin beer ranks near the top of my list of pumpkin beers. As I enjoyed Upslope’s offerings, I learned about three pumpkin beers from Elysian Brewing Company. I am now on a mission to find these beers.

My favorite part of beer week is Sweet Action’s Denver Beer (Ice Cream) Fest. I had the Strong Coffee Oreo which was made with Sunday Morning from Renegade Brewing Company.  Sunday Morning is an American Strong Ale (6.8% ABV) that is brewed with coffee beans.  It was delicious but did not have an overwhelming coffee flavor that I expected.  Chris had the Silverback Honey Spice which was made with Silverback Pale Ale (5.5% ABV) from Wynkoop Brewing Company. Fifty percent of the sales of Silverback Pale Ale go to help the Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund.

Not only did I get to enjoy some fantastic beers this week, but also delicious desserts made with beer. My goal next year is to convince The Denver Cupcake Truck to make some beer themed cupcakes for GABF week.


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