With more than 3,500 beers from about 800 breweries, the Great American Beer Festival in Denver should be on any craft beer lover’s bucket list. Denver is already an amazing craft beer city, but GABF week takes the town to a new level as thousands of beer nerds flock to Colorado for the mother of all beer festivals. While I’ve always had an incredible time at GABF, this was the best event to date since I started attending in 2007.
IT’S A MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT
Leading up to GABF, Denver hosts plenty of beer-focused events—from tap takeovers to special bottle releases, beer and food pairings, and adjunct beer festivals. While I could have easily entertained myself every night with a different event, I kept my eyes on the prize: GABF. I wanted to feel fresh for the Friday session, so I limited my pre-GABF fun to a couple of nights, starting with Sour Sunday at Backcountry Pizza and Taphouse in Boulder, Colorado.
With 55 sours on tap, including casks of Cantillon Rosé de Gambrinus and Iris, my husband and I had lots of delicious options. Along with the sours, Backcountry Pizza arguably has the best bottle list in the state, so it’s worth a visit if you come to Colorado. My favorite of the day was Oak Theory, an American wild ale from Glenwood Springs, Colorado-based Casey Brewing and Blending. The oak balanced well with this brew’s citrus and lactic notes, and the crisp, dry finish made for a wonderful patio beer.
As it turned out, Freshcraft, one of my favorite beer bars in Denver, hosted a Casey Brewing tap takeover that Thursday night. Freshcraft held a different tap takeover each night of GABF week, and an evening of sours sounded like the perfect precursor to the big event.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. When my husband and I got to Freshcraft, the line was out the door. Freshcraft is in a small space, so waiting in what could be a ridiculous line didn’t seem like the best use of our time. Instead, we started walking to another bar and made it as far as next door to Jimmy’s Urban Bar and Grill before we stumbled upon a Bourbon County Brand Stout tap takeover. Sold. The standard, barley wine and coffee versions were all available as well as other Goose Island Beer Co. offerings and food pairings. As far as I’m concerned, Bourbon County is one of the best barrel-aged imperial stouts around, so it was the perfect serendipity.
After another friend joined us for couple of rounds and snacks, we headed a few blocks over to World of Beer for an Evil Twin Brewing tap takeover, where more imperial stouts awaited. We kept this trip short, though. Remember, staying fresh is key, and we had our fair share of 10-plus percent ABV beers that night.
Besides the aforementioned bars, Denver is home to so many great beer spots. Whether you’re in town for GABF or a random trip, you can’t go wrong with any of these places.
- Ale House at Amato’s
- Euclid Hall
- Falling Rock Tap House
- Highland Tap and Burger
- Hops and Pie
- Lucky Pie
- Park Burger
- Star Bar
THE STAR ATTRACTION: GABF
The Brewers Association, which organizes GABF, deserves a shout-out for the fantastic changes it made to this year’s event. In past years, it didn’t take long before the line wrapped around the Colorado Convention Center. When I lined up early, I could get into GABF without much hassle, but if I were on the later side, I easily waited 45 minutes before entering the building.
This year, GABF opened a second entrance where staff checked tickets and IDs before you got into line. We waited in blocks, and then each block was released in order once GABF started. Two sets of friends got in line about half an hour before and after us, but the process was so quick that we were only minutes apart from each other. For future GABFs, it makes me happy to know I don’t have to choose between waiting in line for an hour or missing out on 45 minutes of beer tasting. My impatient side and beer-loving side have finally struck a balance.
In addition to the more efficient entry points, GABF added 90,000 square feet of space to create the Meet the Brewer area and sold 11,000 more tickets, bringing attendance to 60,000. Tickets went fast during the initial online sale, but plenty were available on the aftermarket at or below face value. GABF also added the Beer and Food Pavilion where chefs and brewers collaborated to create complimentary food and beer pairings and demonstrations.
Now for the beers. Like past years, the breweries were separated by region, which made it easy to find our must-visit breweries and target certain areas of the country. While there were far too many beers to highlight all of them, these were a few favorites of the night.
High Water Brewing
Brewed with graham crackers, this brew was a favorite among our group with its smoky, chocolaty notes. Think s’mores in a glass.
ABV: 6.5 percent
Track #8: The Number of the Beast
The Lost Abbey
What’s not to love? This quad was aged in bourbon barrels with cinnamon and dried chilies. I could sip on this by a fireplace all night.
ABV: 13.7 percent
Firestone Walker Brewing Co.
This is a blend of nine Firestone Walker brews: Parabola, Helldorado, Bravo, Stickee Monkee, Velvet Merkin, Hydra Cuveé, Wookey Jack, Ol’ Leghorn and Double Jack. The Parabola and its delicious bourbon notes are especially prominent.
ABV: 13 percent
Specializing in wild ales, Bruery Terreux is an arm of The Bruery, which has quickly become one of my favorite breweries. This beer is a blend of Black Tuesday, a fantastic bourbon barrel-aged stout, and Oude Tart, a Flemish-style ale. Tart cherry is the predominant flavor with the bourbon barrel being more of an undertone.
ABV: 13.7 percent
Funky Buddha Brewery
I could smell this beer all day. Although it was delicious, I almost didn’t want to finish it because I couldn’t stop smelling it. Snowed In is an imperial porter with coconut, coffee and white chocolate. The coconut and white chocolate really come through on the nose.
ABV: 11 percent
Of course, part of GABF’s fun is the competition. I always love seeing how Colorado stacks up, which of my favorite breweries placed and what beers took home medals in my choice styles. If you’d like to see how your state and favorite breweries fared, this list is available on GABF’s website.
MARK YOUR CALENDAR
Next year’s GABF is Oct. 6-8. You have plenty of time to start planning. Cheers!