The Great American Beer Festival. GABF. Craft beer’s Mecca, Holy Grail, Citizen Kane – whichever superlative you wish. For three days every year, usually in October, craft beer creators, consumers and others interested descend upon Denver, Colorado to try and soak in as much beer as they humanly can. Not simply limited to the fest itself, the week leading up to it is littered with tap takeover events, bottle releases, and breweries sending bottles that you normally couldn’t get in Denver – basically a week long Bacchanlia of craft beer. The events, especially those not GABF itself, become more and more numerous as the week progresses, reaching its zenith during the festival days of Thursday to Saturday.
Therefore, I arrived on Wednesday night to get all I could of the Thursday events. Seeking to maximize the amount of quality beer both consumed and purchased, all while limiting or beating the crowds, I decided to head over to The Source, home to a group of shops, florists, and restaurants, as well as Crooked Stave’s tap room. Needing a good base to start a day of drinking, I arrived early and purchased a sandwich. While eating, I ran into two other beer fanatics – Gene and Steven of Talk Beer. They both had been there the previous night and were there again for the special Passion Party tapping. After chatting for a while, we lined up at about 11:30 and were the first three in line. We picked the right time, as it quickly grew to about 30 to 40 people as the shutter to the tap room was raised, opening for the day.
We grabbed our seats at the bar and I was presented with the difficult decision of choosing a beer. Crooked Stave does not distribute to Chicago, so, of the 18 Crooked Stave taps mixed between cellar reserve releases, standard “seasonal” bottles and special GABF tappings, I had only two to three beers available. As Gene ordered a “70% Aprioct Petite sour/30% Pomegranate Petite sour blend” and his brother and my friend ordered Passion Party, the bartender asked what I was having. After not being able to come up with a definitive answer, she said a full flight was an option. Choosing it with the warning that it would take a bit of time, I sat back and began figuring out which bottles to purchase.
And then the flight started. Surettte, St.Bretta, two petite sours, two Nightmare on Bretts and everything else they had on tap came out to me, two at a time, until all 18 were in front of me. And so I began the daunting task of finishing 18 tasters of beers, with some assistance from my friends and encouragement from those in the immediate vicinity. One even went so far as to call me her hero! So how were they?
I preferred the light sours to the dark ones, generally. The standouts were Pomegranate Petite Sour, Apricot Petite Sour, and Batch 100, followed by Passion Party, Autumn Surette, and Double Dry Hopped Viellie. Lowlights were the Port Nightmare on Brett (a bit too dry), Sentience (a sour BA quad; didn’t really fit in well with everything else), and Surette Reserva. Crooked Stave, please bottle the pomegranate and apricot petite sours if you haven’t done so already.
Throughout my entire stay, there was a line to get in, usually around 20 deep. Upon choosing my bottles (Mama Bear’s Sour Cherry Pie, Autumn Surette and a Tango Mandarin St. Bretta not on tap), we headed out to check in to our hotel room. We were looking for more food before GABF and What the Funk and the concierge was eager to recommend 5280 Burger Bar. After chowing down (the green chili queso fries were great), we walked down a couple blocks to the Colorado Convention Center.
Pretzel necklaces, people looking to buy tickets, and very helpful GABF volunteers greeted us as we made it to the convention center. There was a fairly long line to get in, but it moved quickly when the festival started.
The first thing one realizes is the enormity of the festival. This is not a Goose Island Stout Fest or San Francisco’s DIPA fest (focused on one style) or a FOBAB (focused on the barrel-aging technique), but a combination of them, then taken to its utmost limit. (Maybe not utmost, as they announced at the awards ceremony another 90,000 square feet for next year’s fest). All non-small (stickers, buttons, etc.) swag was on one impressive wall, featuring mostly t-shirts but also some glassware.
Retrieving my plastic tasting glass, the floor became my booze-infused playground. Figuring the big, sought after beers would kick first and having a limited amount of time at the fest on Thursday due to What the Funk, I hit the Lost Abbey booth for a pour of Cable Car 2013, then shot over to Toppling Goliath for some Assassin. I decided my next move (after laughing at the oddly long line for Russian River) would be to my personal must hit, number one brewery of the festival – Melvin Brewing.
Based out of Jackson, Wyoming’s Thai Me Up restaurant, Melvin won three awards at the 2012 GABF (gold for their IPA Melvin and DIPA 2×4, silver for ChChChCh Cherry Bomb), but failed to get into the 2103 event. Seeing as how their distribution currently is limited to Wyoming, I had to try everything they had. I was not disappointed. 2×4 was one of the, if not the, top DIPA of the festival for me, while ChChChCh Cherry Bomb was like sucking down liquefied sweet cherries. Their triple IPA, 4X8 (AKA Tramcan), was a bit malty and their Melvin IPA was a solid offering. Happy I got to try everything Melvin had to offer (and not a moment too soon, as the ChChChCh Cherry Bomb would kick on Friday), I went back to perusing the floor.
Continuing with my theme of trying beers most likely to kick, I hit up a trio of them – Kane’s A Night to End All Dawns (ANTEAD), Port Brewing’s Churchill’s Finest Hour 2014 (from bottles) and Funky Buddha’s Last Snow and No Crusts. A Night to End All Dawns was like drinking a melted chocolate bar, with a ton of cocoa on the nose and in the taste. I tried Churchill’s next as it was right down the line and, while very good, it was a bit hot and not quite as good as ANTEAD. Last Snow was a coconut chocolate porter tasting very much like a Mounds bar (and like Bourbon County Proprietor’s 2013) and is begging to be aged in barrels. No Crusts, meanwhile, was mine and my group’s Gadot, never quite showing up. (For reference, ANTEAD was gone by Friday, while Last Snow and Churchill’s lasted until Saturday afternoon).
Realizing time was short, I quickly hit up Transient Artisan Ales booth. Chris brought Presque, a Flemish red that I had not had the pleasure of trying, that was spot on and, as I later found out, has been barrel aged in 3 different barrels. Upon trying that, two of my friends and I grudgingly headed out to the Exdo Center in the River North (RiNo) area of Denver for What the Funk.
Showing up fashionably late for the 6 PM start (we got there at 6:20), we were greeted with a very long line that went down the block the length of the Exdo Center. While the line moved, it was slow and foreshadowed my experience at this fest. When we made it to the front, we found out it wasn’t the ticket scanners or ID checkers that slowed things down, but the one booth for the taster glasses and programs. I did not even realize there were programs until I was in my second line for beer.
The space was a converted warehouse, with food trucks outside a side door and (for some reason) a bar set up. The brewery layout was well conceived, having them in alphabetical order starting at the entrance and going clockwise. This was extremely helpful, as the name of the brewery pouring each beer was in a picture frame next to the bottles they were pouring, making, “What line is this for?” the question of the fest
Oh the lines. Some moved quickly, some didn’t; some had none, while others had ones that arched through the festival floor. A few breweries even had “assorted vintages” on the program so you had to ask what they brought when it was your turn, slowing down the line even more.
The quality of the breweries present, though, was of the finest quality. In attendance were Side Project, Crooked Stave, Ale Apothecary, Rare Barrel, Jester King and Sante Adairius just to name a few. Not surprising in the least, especially after showing up 20 minutes late and waiting out the line, was that 3 of Side Project’s 4 beers (Saison du Ble, Fuzzy, and Blueberry Flanders) were gone, leaving me to try the only beer of their’s I hadn’t had – Grisette, which I got one of the last pours of.
Also of note were the breweries pouring that were not at GABF. In addition to the aforementioned Side Project, Crooked Stave, Ale Apothecary, Jester King, and Sante Adairius, there was Casey Brewing and Blending, TRVE, Perennial, Cascade, Jackie O’s, Oxbow, and Westbrook, which was a nice treat. Oddly enough, one of the breweries at GABF, Rare Barrel, had the longest line throughout the night, possibly due to the fact they were only pouring one of the beers at both fests (Cosmic Dust).
Highlights were many, but ones that stood out that I had were Jester King’s Fen Tao and Aurelian Lure, Sante Adairius’ Saison Bernice (with no line!), Crooked Stave’s Raspberry Origins, Casey’s Fruit Stand Cherry, and Lost Abbey’s Duck Duck Gooze which I thought was superior to the Cable Car I had earlier in the day.
At this point we had imbibed enough, but we thought it would be a good idea to try and get some Fou Foune being poured by Shelton Brothers. That quickly ended as it was a festival staple that I wish wasn’t, the dreaded timed tapping. That meant the line started at around 8 PM (for a 9 PM tapping) and was spanning a majority of the festival floor by the time it was pouring. Please, for future events, just randomly put it on with no tapping time. PLEASE.
I went home satisfied in knowing that I probably wouldn’t have that many quality beers in one day ever again. I went to bed, still with two full days of GABF ahead of me and many new, amazing breweries and beers to try.