The numbers are staggering. About 780 breweries from across the U.S. spread over 584,000 square feet, serving more than 3,800 beers to 60,000 attendees. In its 35th year (30th for the competition), the Great American Beer Festival is a monster. The three days of GABF would test the limits of human endurance in the consumption of beer, food and Chapstick.
I had been in Denver less than an hour when I hit the floor for the first GABF session on Thursday night. Imagine Comic-Con, but instead of costumed geeks, envision pudgy bearded men jostling for position in front of legendary craft breweries.
What sets GABF apart from other festivals— besides the size of it—is the sheer hot fire the nation’s best breweries serve. A few just brought their production beers but most were slinging the goods. Tampa’s Cigar City Brewing poured White Oak Jai Alai, its famous IPA aged in white oak barrels. Jester King, from Austin, commanded long lines throughout with its impressive line-up of barrel-aged sours. San Diegans such as The Lost Abbey similarly served some of the fest’s best: Cable Car and Veritas sours as well as its legendary barrel-aged imperial stout Churchill’s Finest Hour.
There was a brewer’s panel that evening with Allagash Brewing founder Rob Tod, Modern Times Beer founder Jacob McKean, New Belgium CEO Christine Perich and Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione. Brewers Association CEO Bob Pease asked the panel questions on the importance of remaining independent.
McKean said Modern Times’ independence meant it could focus on values.
“Being independent allows [us] to care about something other than money,” he said.
Many critics of consolidation point to the three-tier-distribution system as part of the problem for independent brewers, but Calagione disagreed.
“If the three-tier system didn’t exist,” he said, “the little breweries would be fucked.”
Pease said California’s hybrid distribution system was good for small start-up breweries. In California, breweries can sign on with a distributor or distribute themselves.
“That’s a model we’d like to see in all 50 states,” Pease said. “The brewers in California are lucky to have the California Craft Brewers Association advocating for them.”
The convention center festivals are only a part of GABF. Denver has its own robust brewing culture and many local pubs and breweries hold companion events to GABF. Tap takeovers, bottle shares and meet-the-brewer events abound. It is impossible to attend them all, although I gave it my best effort.
That Saturday San Diego breweries won 18 medals and Karl Strauss Brewing Co. was named Mid-Size Brewing Company and Brewer of the Year. Being on the floor afterwards with some of San Diego’s medalists was the highlight of the fest.
By the time I boarded Denver’s “train to the plane” at Union Station downtown Sunday my liver had turned on me, and my lips had begun to crack from the dry mountain air. My flight was again full of brewers and industry people, most looking a little worse for wear.
GABF should be on every beer geek’s bucket list. It is intense, overwhelming and awesome. Some of the best beers in the country are being poured, and you never know what legendary brewer might be enjoying the same beer with you. Just remember to plan ahead, drink lots of water and bring plenty of lip balm.