The Great American Beer Festival is the premiere beer festival in the United States, held each year in my adoptive city of Denver, Colorado. As a former staff writer and editor at Thrillist, I’ve been lucky enough to score a media pass for every Great American Beer Festival since 2011.
That is, until this year. This year, I was banned from GABF.
That’s because I’m now Senior Editor of this very website, a collaboration between Wasted Talent Media and Anheuser-Busch’s The High End. (Apparently AB and the Brewer’s Association -- which produces the Fest -- aren’t getting along too well these days?) I hold no ill will against the B.A., and I’m sure they still like me as a person. (I think…?) But I was certainly bummed that my request for a press pass had been denied, as I was excited to write about craft beer from all over the country as I’d done for many years.
At first, I thought I’d just ignore the Fest as if it wasn’t happening. I thought that from October 5th to October 7th, I’d just stick my fingers in my ears and scream, “LA LA LA” as world class beers from all around the country would be poured just a few miles from my home.
But then I thought, “No! Heck, no!” (Please excuse my language, I feel very strongly about this.) Instead, I would write about all of the amazing stuff happening outside of the convention center before, during, and after festival hours: every tap takeover, tasting, and party for which I could muster the energy.
And that’s exactly what I did, gosh darnit. (Again, sorry for the language.)
Here’s my diary of the play-by-play:
Wednesday, October 4th, 12pm
Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. Tap Takeover
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It's noon at Lowdown Brewery + Kitchen on a Wednesday, but it's so crowded, it feels like a Friday night. And while Denver loves this brewery, it’s clear that everyone here is drinking beer from the Toppling Goliath tap takeover. The brewery known for the barrel-aged imperial stout Assassin (sadly, not found on the taplist -- only in my dreams) and double IPA King Sue, brings a crowd. The beers aren’t usually available around these parts, which explains the buzz in the room, and the 8.5% ABV King Sue I ordered at noon explains why I have a buzz in my head. But I’m not complaining -- the aroma of this beer is so full of tropical fruits I can't stop sticking my nose in the glass like a total weirdo. It goes down easy and tastes like alcoholic grapefruit juice mixed with beer, mixed with -- oh, God, I'm drinking a double IPA before I've had lunch.
The crowd here is decidedly beer bro -- office workers aren’t here for lunch today. There are beer nerds here as far as the eye can see. I'm tempted to try the Mornin’ Delight imperial stout with coffee, but that's 12% ABV, and I don't think I'd make it to any of the next takeovers I have to attend.
Good Bugs Fermentation Tap Takeover at The Crafty Fox
My buddy Jensen Cummings is a fermentation whiz. A chef who’s passionate about beer and food, he’ll whip up batches of kimchi with yeast from fermenters at a local brewery. For this event, he’s made one-off beers at some fantastic breweries from around the country (e.g. Against the Grain Brewery; Odd13 Brewing), all of which are highlighting good bugs (a.k.a. yeast and bacteria!) that give off notes like strawberry and dates.
The first beer I drink is a quad from Denver’s River North Brewery that goes down reeeeal easy. It has dark fruit notes out the wazoo, and a dry finish. And even though I’ve come alone, I make friends real quick. Over beers, we’re talking about Frito Pie -- and where to find a good pint in Breckenridge, Colorado. This sort of engagement is unheard of at GABF, which most people attend in order to consume as much beer as possible in three hours.
Before I run over to the next event, I have a smoked beer from Against the Grain that tastes like olives with a tomato-y finish. Fascinating! Where else are you going to find beer like this?!
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Duvel USA GABF Pre-Party at First Draft Taproom and Kitchen
Fun fact: the legendary Belgian brewery Duvel owns a few stellar American breweries: Firestone Walker Brewing Co., Brewery Ommegang, and Boulevard Brewing Co. And lucky for me, they’re throwing a party that features all of their beers. The vibe here is jovial, and I can’t tell if it’s because people are cheering for the Colorado Rockies in the playoff game on TV, or if they’re just super psyched about this beer. I’m gonna guess it’s the latter, because the Ommegang Fruition I’m drinking is damnnnn good. It’s citrusy and funky, and has a silky mouthfeel.
If I hadn’t been drinking high gravity beers all day, I probably would’ve also tried a Firestone Helldorado Blonde Barley Wine Ale, or the refreshing sounding Boulevard Jam Band Berry Ale. But I know I have to give my liver a little bit of a break before an Oskar Blues Brewery event tonight, so I finish my Fruition and head to dinner with my girlfriend.
Oskar Blues Family Jewels Tap Takeover at Chuburger Rino
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They’re not just pouring OB’s beers at this event -- they’re also pouring stuff from Cigar City Brewing Co. And that will get my butt to a bar at 8:30 on a Wednesday. I start with C.C.’s Lue Gim Gong, a special release of Invasion Pale Ale with added orange peel and white oak spirals. It’s…subtle. Especially for Cigar City, known for over-the-top brews like the pumpkin extravaganza Good Gourd and the rich and creamy Cubano Espresso.
A white guy with dreadlocks sets up his equipment next to the bar here at the hamburger joint. (He actually turns out to be pretty good!) And at 9pm on the dot, the special release beers -- like Oskar Blues barrel-aged Ten Fidy -- are tapped. People will usually line up overnight to buy this beer, but here there’s no rush. I order the uber-rare rum-barrel aged Oskar Blues Death by Coconut, which has serious cacao, coconut, rum, and vanilla notes.
I'm still watching the Rockies, and my girlfriend is making new friends at the bar while sipping Double Barrel-aged Good Gourd Have Mercy, a pumpkin beer that’s spent time in rum and bourbon barrels. It's tasty (as is plain ol’ Good Gourd), but I love my Death by Coconut. I also love sleep. I finish the beer and head home to pass out early.
Thursday, October 5, 3pm
Alaskan Brewing Co. Tasting at Henry's Tavern
Somehow, my liver does not hate me. Yet. I meet up with Andy Kline of Alaskan Brewing at a tasting of Alaskan’s beers for industry folk. I’ve never had an Alaskan brew before! While the brewery’s famous for their Amber (a beer I tried and enjoyed), I’m most surprised by the fact that all of their beers are made from melted glacier water. Every day, their brewers sail to a glacier to chip off some ice for their beer.
….Okay, fine, that part’s not true. But melted glaciers are Juneau’s water source!
Kline also schools me on their location: Alaskan Brewing has an ice field and a largely untouched rainforest next door. And from that location comes some surprisingly great beer -- I didn’t expect to enjoy their Mosaic hopped Husky IPA so much. It’s also nice to drink a beer that’s not 12% ABV doesn’t resemble a glass of motor oil. Citrusy, clean, and with a bright finish, Husky clocks in at 7% ABV. Now I want to go to Alaska and drink this beer with some moose.
21st Amendment Brewery, Funkwerks, and Brooklyn Brewery party at Star Bar
You know when you walk into a room and can immediately feel that everyone is cooler than you? Yeah, that’s happening right now. Why am I wearing khakis?? But the refreshingly fruity 21st Amendment Blood Orange Brew Free or Die IPA I’m sipping is helping me erase this fashion blunder from my consciousness.
There’s more baseball on TV, but no one’s watching. Except for me. Oh, baseball: you’ll always be there for me when no one wants to talk to me because of my unflattering khaki pants.
Booth 2721 Party at Larimer Lounge
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This event is a team-up between The Fader and the breweries of Anheuser-Busch’s The High End. I still have on those dumb khakis, and now I’m in a fucking rock club with Ra Ra Riot playing on stage. I start off with Wicked Weed Brewing Pernicious, a delicious IPA with hop character, but without a bitter finish. The beer won a silver medal for American-Style IPA at GABF in 2015, so you don’t have to take my word for it.
We take a break from the packed concert, and my girlfriend orders a tallboy of Breckenridge Brewery Nitro Pumpkin Spice Latte, but quickly gets distracted when I order a Blue Point Brewing Co. Bourbon Barrel-Aged Coconut Stout. This beer blows me away -- it’s on the same level as the barrel-aged Death by Coconut I’d had the night before. The coconut aromas are off the charts, the mouthfeel is rich and creamy, and finally no one’s judging me for wearing khakis to a concert.
Across town, the first night of GABF is coming to a close. As is my two-day non-stop drinking adventure...
Friday, October 6, 9am
The Brewtography Project at Hotel Teatro
I want to sleep in, but waking up to see my pal Dustin Hall’s photo exhibit is more important. He’s damn good at making (what could be boring) photos crackle with life, so I’m excited to see his prints.
The 19 photos displayed in the exhibit are of the ingredients, tools, and spaces necessary for producing beer. And even in my tired state, I can see how extraordinary the photos were. It was seriously inspiring! His behind-the-scenes photos of brewers at work make me think about how much labor went into all of the many, many, many pints I drank over the last 48 hours.
This year, instead of attending GABF, I went to eight different beer-themed events all over Mile High. I met people, tried a slew of new brews, and even took in a beer photography exhibit. People go to GABF to have a one-of-a-kind beer experience. And I’m happy to report that by drinking beer in Denver for two straight days, I did just that.
Additional reporting by Daliah Singer
Note: Wicked Weed Brewing, Breckenridge Brewery, and Blue Point Brewing Co. are all members of The High End, owned by Anheuser-Busch.