GABF 2023: The Recap
The Great American Beer Festival (GABF) returned once again for its 41st year in 2023. About 9,300 beers were judged from 2,033 breweries for the awards portion and more than 500 breweries poured on the festival floor. While some interesting changes happened, at its core it remained the GABF we all know and loved. But more on that in a minute.
As is the case every GABF, bars and breweries around town put on a showcase of great local and out-of-state beer for everyone. While the “tap takeover” events were limited in scope, it allowed for a bigger focus on the many new breweries and taprooms that have opened in Denver (at least for the two of us).
We only managed to hit two beer bars on our trip and these two seem to be our standards. Either close enough to our hotel (or other breweries) or they have garlicy cheesy bites on the menu. That’ll get us every time.
Continuing its streak of pushing festival attendees over the drunken edge, Finn’s Manor really brought it for their Outer Range & Friends event. Outer Range, WeldWerks, Casey, de Garde, Cerebral, and Tripping Animals dotted the taps while people drank and danced the night away. Most Chicago-area brewing personalities were there (as well as some non-Chicago-area ones) and it was absolutely a blast to hang out and chat for hours. Unfortunately combining it with the first night of the festival itself – when there’s less people and you’re able to drink more – leads itself to $40 Taco Bell orders post-revelry. But yes, I would definitely do it again. An absolutely memorable night.
Hops & Pie’s garlicy cheesy bites reminds us every time why we make the farthest trek from our hotel every year. They’re absolutely delicious (the pizza’s good too) and their event list definitely rivals Finn’s Manor in terms of quality. We attended during their Elite Brands portfolio event, featuring around a dozen Russian River beers as well as offerings from 3 Floyds, Brooklyn, Outer Range, 4 Noses, 903 Brewers, AleSmith, Modern Times and more. We arrived about 5 minutes after opening to a pretty much empty space – a drastic change from arriving 30 minutes before and hoping to be in the first wave. It filled up over the course of our Russian River-led stay to the point where Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo didn’t have a place to sit outside. We were on our way out and happily offered them our seats.
This year’s trip focused much more on breweries than in years’ past. I managed to hit 7 breweries this year, by far my highest count (3 solo, 4 with Ryan). Four of these breweries I had not been to before!
WeldWerks/Cellar West/Bierstadt Lagerhaus
The three I had been to already are familiar to anyone that’s read my previous GABF recaps. WeldWerks, if able to, is a must hit for all the styles, but with a focus on the big barrel-aged beers and crazily-adjuncted sours. While it might be prohibitive to drive out there from Denver, it’s completely worth it.
Cellar West focuses on the hoppy and saisony parts of the beer spectrum, although they had a lovely hoppy brown ale on cask that I promptly sucked down. Unfed Mind Vol. 2 – featuring Pink hops – stood out as well. Slightly closer than WeldWerks and still worth it.
Lastly, Bierstadt Lagerhaus and its insane brewery space typically draws the crowds during GABF. And they’re ready for it. Giant bags, giant beer pong, an SNES hooked up to a big screen TV, multiple free pinball games and ample amounts of seating for everyone. It also helps that it’s by places like First Draft and Finn’s Manor!
Somehow I had never been to Ratio Beerworks despite it being right across the street from Finn’s Manor. We finally went and it was great. An interesting space, the main, indoor taproom was spacious but small. An extensive outdoor patio next door and a small front patio round things out. Seeing as how the beer names are all 90s emo (or just 90s music) song titles, the soundtrack to our stay slayed, with both of us playing “Name That Tune” a few times. Fun times and good beers.
Burns Family Artisan Ales
After having two of their bigger beers at last year’s Rare Beer Tasting I had to visit. Thankfully they’re not too far south of the Convention Center. While they do make clean beers and IPAs, you’re coming here for their barrel-aged offerings. Bigger beers were available to go, like stouts 20% ABV+. Things like Stomp Twice, Wildly, a barrel-aged spontaneous oenobier dubbel you could sample. This beer sat in whiskey-gin-mead barrels before being released. Their Belgian Quad and Trails to Maromokotoro (BA vanilla milk stout) were excellent as well. But Gallivant stole the show for me. A gin barrel-aged barleywine, it took a little of the gin botanicals and blended it perfectly with the base barleywine to achieve something unique and delicious. Just don’t have it after three days of festing! If you like big beers Burns Family Artisan Ales is a must stop. It’s also not a bad Uber/Lyft from downtown Denver!
The new hip hangout – especially for visiting breweries – looks like Cohesion. While not totally far away, Cohesion was easily the furthest brewery we were able to visit. Housed in what looks like a former school building, Cohesion pours only lagers – and all from lukr taps. Everything I had came in a tankard glass with healthy amounts of foam. Absolutely perfect post-festival beers as they’re all light and not overpowered with flavors. We’ll probably be back.
Much closer but with more of a beer hall feel was Prost Brewing. Same concept (mainly lagers), but some guest taps offered hoppier options than available at Cohesion. The outdoor space was large with picnic tables all over the place. Nothing felt better than sitting at one of their picnic tables with the cool breeze and the night sky joining you. Elevated pub food was available here, which is nice for post-festing. Great place to chill and much closer to the Colorado Convention Center.
The Great American Beer Festival
Up until 2019, GABF took place in the main hall of the Colorado Convention Center, usually filling it to the brim with breweries, areas, and other things to do. Starting last year, it moved to a side hall in the Center, partly due to fewer breweries attending (and partly due to construction of the main hall). This year it was in the side hall again but with more breweries attending but still fewer than 2019. And, even more so than last year, it felt empty.
Tons of real estate around the perimeter of the festival, with organizers smartly using one portion for the WeldWerks booth that really needed it. Ditto for the Melvin bus. Some rows of breweries in the main sections lacked a full complement of breweries pouring, leaving either empty space or places for tables and chairs. It also seemed like some beer didn’t make it, as some beers kicked right when the session started.
The biggest change, however, came with the water. Typically at the ends of each of the main rows and sometimes in other places, this year all the water resided in Section 8 – and only Section 8. While I understand the concentration of water vastly assisted the convention staff with refilling them, more water definitely needed to be in various areas of the festival. Maybe not to the level of being at the end of each row, but definitely concentrated in, like, 4 areas of the festival. Looking for water at the end of the Pacific section (Section 18-ish) probably meant I wasn’t getting any. Water pitchers were plentiful on the brewery tables, however.
Also of note was the frigid climate of the festival hall. Walking in and for the first hour or so of the fest it was freezing, but once more people came in the temperature went up a bit but pants and probably a sweater or light jacket would’ve helped me out. But I was on vacation!
Bronze – Wibby Brewing
Definitely the most recognizable brewery at the fest, Wibby Brewing actually had two booths – one on the main floor in the Meet the Brewer section and then one at the Backyard as the sponsor of that area. Most attendees probably hit the Backyard location for the ubiquitous Wibby flamingo taster holder and a pour.
But the Meet the Brewer booth probably had a better quality concentration of beers, including a range of medal winners in the Moondoor Dunkel (GABF 2017 Silver), Volksbier Vienna (GABF 2020 Gold), and Wibby Jibby (GABF 2023 Gold). Add a lovely Helles (Lightshine Helles) and a nice Oktoberfest (Wibtoberfest) and you have a booth you could hang out at all day with your flamingo. The Backyard booth had variants of some of these beers – most notably a double dunkel. You couldn’t go wrong with either booth, though. But it sure it fun to say Wibby Jibby as many times as possible.
Silver – Third Eye Brewing
I was told to grab their beer last year and was so blown away by it that I had to interview them. I later found out we interviewed head brewer Kelly Montgomery while he was the head brewer for Brink. This year they blew up, mainly in terms of GABF medals with 2 Gold, a Silver and the 1,001-2,000 barrels brewery of the year award. While only the barrel-aged version of their Gold medal Double Astral was pouring, the rest of the offerings were either amazing or interesting enough to get multiple pours of.
Gettin Twisted stood out as the winner here as one of only two beers I had at the fest making me say “Wow,” while having it. This rye beer has big bready notes and a nice, dry finish thanks to the salt. (It uses Tuba pretzels.) It blew me away. Space Toast Continuum and Barrel-Aged Double Astral scratched the heavy beer itch, with the former going for the breakfast stout while the latter a more straightforward barrel-aged chocolate beer with bitter chocolate and bourbon leading the way. Even the crazy experimental beers – a pina colada milkshake IPA (Jelly Brain V1) and milkshake sour (Third Eye Kandy V1 Raspberry & Marshmallow) – didn’t go overboard on the flavors and sweetness and resulted in something I could see getting a larger pour of. While I wish some of the medal winning beers were being poured, it was still an amazing booth for Third Eye.
Gold – Heavy Riff
As you’ll hear me say on the podcast, Heavy Riff had a booth at the Great Taste of the Midwest this year but I somehow missed stopping by them. I did not make the same mistake at GABF. Heavy Riff’s barrel-aged things absolutely stole the show for me.
Dear Agony 2022 (barrel-aged vanilla espresso stout) had the barrel presence, coffee roast and didn’t go too sweet, while Quadraphonic Euphoria combined the fruit characteristics of a Belgian Quad with some sweetness from the 2 years in Port barrels to form a delicious treat. Gose to Fino’s reminded me of Off Color’s gin Yuzu Fierce, but with lemon and lime zest and a bigger kick of gin botanicals. Velvet Underbrown had all the nuttiness I want in a brown ale but added a bigger mouthfeel and a chocolate note thanks to the lactose and chocolate malts used. Peach Layla had a bit of funkiness and big peach notes while staying tart and refreshing. A range of styles and everything stayed within drinkable range (not too sweet or sour) makes this a brewery I’d make the 5 hour drive to visit.
Pickle Me Up! | Spiced Beer | Bootstrap Brewing | Longmont, CO | 4.5% ABV
This showed up at the Wish We Were Here taproom so I decided to get a pour. Pickle Me Up! never leans too heavily on the pickle aspect but it’s there and you taste it. It finishes on the beer side of things so it doesn’t get tiring to drink multiple times. We had a golden ale with pickle juice on our License to Dill show that didn’t mesh well together; this one succeeded in blending the base beer and the pickle juice much better. I would actually get a full pour of this one.
Memory Systems | Barrel-aged imperial stout with marshmallow, vanilla, cinnamon and cassia bark | Bottle Logic | Anaheim, CA | 14% ABV
After an issue with getting kegs of Voltaic Shock to the festival floor, Bottle Logic had some bottles overnighted for the festival and I believe this was one of them. A “cinnamon bun stout”, it does all of the main flavors but not in a cloying way. The base stout provides a chocolatey base while the barrel and two adjuncts add in some lovely vanilla/icing note. Somehow adding both cinnamon and cassia bark doesn’t make it too cinnamon-y or spicy; it’s actually the perfect amount to compete with the big barrel character and stout. Worth the line.
Cowboy Coffee | Amber lager with coffee | Estuary Brewing | Johns Island, SC | 5% ABV
After a day or so of drinking a bunch of beers on the GABF floor you want to try something interesting and different. I’ve had coffee lagers and coffee saisons but never a coffee amber lager (as far as I can remember!). Estuary pulled it off about as well as you could. Big coffee aroma led to a roasty and slightly bitter taste. The amber lager then took over and finished things off with some bitterness of its own and a little caramel (and maybe even some vanilla). Coffee seems to have fallen out of favor as an adjunct (look at my list; lots of cookie things) but when pulled off as well as this it makes me miss some of those coffee-only adjunct experiments on styles you wouldn’t think to have it.
Monstro | Imperial Stout with pistachio and vanilla | False Idol Brewing | North Richland Hills, TX | 17% ABV
Actually had this and their Helm of Awe back to back and preferred this. Only while writing this did I realize the non-barrel-aged stout had a higher ABV than the barrel-aged stout/barleywine blend! Monstro did all the things a big stout should – big mouthfeel, tons of chocolate – and simply added a good amount of vanilla to the proceedings. The pistachio didn’t really shine (might’ve been palate fatigue by that point) but it probably contributed to the mouthfeel more than the flavor. It obviously drank a hell of a lot less than the 17% listed on Untappd – a testament to the craft of the beer.
Dividing Time | Barrel-aged Munichwine | Firestone Walker (collaboration with Private Press) | Paso Robles, CA | 13% ABV
Every session Firestone Walker tapped a special beer, usually one of their Brewer’s Collective beers (the Thursday session had D(DB)2A). It just so happened that we interviewed Matt Brynildson for the podcast and I mentioned talking to Brad Clark of Private Press while this beer was pouring. Dividing Time features Clark’s own Munichwine creation aged in bourbon barrels and it does everything you’d expect from it. Molasses, dark fruits and bourbon give way to a dry finish that highly reminds me of Private Press’ A Silent Pursuit. While having a little bit more carbonation than A Silent Pursuit, Dividing Time shows that Firestone Walker still is at the top of their barrel-aging game.
Nose Goblin | Double IPA with Strata, Nelson Sauvin, and Mosaic | Ghost Town Brewing | Oakland, CA | 9.2% ABV
I finally found it. While in the area over the summer, all my searching for Nose Goblin led nowhere. Couldn’t find it. I wanted it on the show as a back-to-back GABF Imperial IPA Gold medal winner, but alas. As soon as I saw the Ghost Town booth, I said, “Over here. Nose Goblin.” And it did everything I wanted out of the style. Big, abrasive bitterness and a touch of sweet malt character to keep things in check. Pine, grass, and dank notes supported by an unlikely amount of fruit character that went down way too easy for 9.2% ABV. Of course I had multiple pours.
Void of Light | Export Stout | Gun Hill Brewing | Bronx, NY | 7.9% ABV
I did not go into GABF expecting to come out of it writing about an export stout but here we are. When the beer in question has one of each GABF medal (2014 Gold, 2019 Bronze, 2020 Silver) that’ll happen. Void of Light had an unexpected amount of coffee roast to go along with some chocolate character and a pretty dry finish. A bit of bitterness (but not too bitter!) showed up in the finish and you have something closer to a classic stout than the current sweeter versions. As is the theme, it drank a lot lower than its listed 7.9%. While the mouthfeel wasn’t as full as something like an imperial stout, you should know that going in and enjoy it as much as I did. Gun Hill ages it in bourbon barrels and that’s definitely something I don’t think I’ve ever had.
Second Amendment | Brown ale with orange peel and coconut | Montclair Brewery | Montclair, NJ | 4.5% ABV
My other “Wow” beer. I grabbed a pour as we went over to interview Leo Sawadogo and stopped in my tracks with that reaction. Second Amendment (Note: They also had a First Amendment beer pouring and plan on doing more, so it’s not just that one) absolutely stood out to me. The nuttiness of the brown ale gets a huge boost from the added coconut. While the orange peel really didn’t show itself for obvious reasons, the beer itself had so much coconut and nuttiness that it didn’t matter. And it was the good coconut, not a sun tan lotion coconut. While very coconut forward, it still finished like a brown ale with some bready and sweet malt notes driving it. Absolutely outstanding. More expertly adjuncted brown ales please!
Expand Your View | Porter with barrel-aged chocolate malt | Pax Verum | Lapel, IN | 6.8% ABV
I had to re-adjust my eyes after reading Expand Your View’s description to make sure it wasn’t the beer that was barrel-aged. Instead Pax Verum went with barrel-aged chocolate malt and that sure does something interesting to the beer. While this BA malt didn’t do anything so drastic as to enhance the mouthfeel, it did bring a wisp of bourbon flavor to the overall porter experience on this one. Chocolate and a bitter roasty coffee flavor still dominated but everything else about this porter was a little bit different. There was even a hint of smokiness on it which, as long as in moderation, is a good thing.
Pure West | American IPA with Nelson Sauvin, Citra, Strata, and Simcoe | Pure Project | San Diego, CA | 6.5% ABV
I honestly don’t think I had one hazy/juicy IPA at the festival this year. If I saw an American/West Coast IPA I most likely went with that. Pure West is one of the reasons why. Using some typical hazy IPA hops (along with Simcoe) with a West Coast malt bill results in yet another best of both worlds scenario. Sweet malt, big bitterness, and big fruit notes made this one something you could go back to again and again. Bring back that bitterness!
Luxurious Potential | Barrel-aged imperial stout with cacao nibs, vanilla beans, and tart cherries | Radiant Beer Co. | Anaheim, CA | 13.5% ABV
I like cake. Black Forest cake? Sure why not. Thankfully Radiant kept things in check with their Luxurious Potential. While big on the chocolate and vanilla, the cherries added a nice contrast to all the sweetness going on with a little bit of tartness injected into things. While not particularly bourbon-forward, the barrel also helped cut down some of the sweetness of the beer as well. What you’re left with is a cake-flavored beer that never went overly sweet. I really enjoy these beers and while my pour might have been the perfect amount, I think I would’ve liked a bit more.
Real Heavy | Scotch Ale | Real Ale Brewing Co. | Blanco, TX | 9.3% ABV
Yet another style I didn’t think I’d be writing about. Real Heavy does the scotch ale really well – full mouthfeel, some caramel character but a big smokiness from the malt. The smoke isn’t overpowering but makes its presence known. It all comes together right before it leaves the tongue, leaving only some caramel and smoke in its wake. The closest comparison around us would be Unite the Clans from Third Space Brewing, but this one is bigger in both mouthfeel and any flavors. A uniquely flavorful ride.
Rhythm Unfiltered Lager | American Lager | Rhythm Brewing | New Haven, CT | 5.5% ABV
Rhythm Brewing keeps things simple. Only three listed beers on Untappd – two lagers and a vanilla porter. They brought their Unfiltered Light Lager (Blue) and this beer (Red). Having the two side by side you can immediately tell the difference. Red had a much bigger mouthfeel and any hop or corn flavor from the lager stayed on the tongue longer. It was refreshing and crisp and really shined against all the bigger, heavier flavored beers at the festival. Our only regret is that we didn’t see Lady Lager (owner Alisa Bowens-Mercado) at the festival to talk to her about the brewery!
Barrel-Aged Father Time (2019) | Barleywine | River North | Denver, CO | 16.9% ABV
Not too many barleywines stood out on the festival floor this year, but this one from River North piqued my interest after having it. Listed as an Old Ale in the Untappd description, BA Father Time toed that line, with some barleywine-like molasses and brown sugar notes being accentuated by the prominent barrel character. There’s some booze heat on the nose and when you drink it but it never gets to be too much. It just lets you know you’re drinking a big beer! River North would’ve been a contender for booth of the fest if things hadn’t run out when I went up there!
Small Batch: Peach Beer/Docta-Ron | American Wild Ale with peaches/ New Zealand IPA | Russian River | Santa Rosa, CA | 7.06% ABV/6.45% ABV
Of course I went to Russian River to get some beer. The line was insane but get what you’re supposed to after waiting in that line – a wild ale and something hoppy. Both knocked it out of the park. As you can hear on our Patreon-exclusive Low ABV (featuring Vinnie Cilurzo and Tomme Arthur!), Small Batch: Peach Beer tastes like biting into a peach. Sometimes these beers go overboard on the tartness or acidity, but Peach Beer does neither. There’s a little tartness but it’s quickly replaced by juicy peach notes. If you see a Small Batch beer at Russian River (like the 2023 GABF Bronze medal-winning Small Batch Intinction), grab it.
Docta-Ron, meanwhile, features all New Zealand hops and was brewed with Dr. Ron Beatson of NZ Hops. Bitter with a sweet malt backbone, it’s exactly what you’d expect out of this style from Russian River. It’s basically a riff on Blind Pig with different hop combinations. Still piney and grassy, but this one featured more fruit character than that classic brew. An excellent blend of old school IPA with new school hops bringing in the best of both the West Coast IPA (bitterness/malt) and hazy IPA (fruit). I’m lucky as it was my last pour of the entire festival!
Hopper’s Hell | Helles Lager | Seedz Brewery | Union Pier, MI | 5% ABV
I toyed with leaving Seedz off this list entirely because we’ve already covered them on the podcast (and already had half of the fest beers on the podcast in some form). But I just couldn’t. While repeatedly trying to get Ryan Ziarko for an interview we stopped by the Seedz booth. We got pours each time. I kept reaching for the Hopper’s Hell each time. Light, slightly bitter and with a touch of malty sweetness, it was an easy drinker every time. I honestly would have parked myself at this booth and drank everything all day and not been mad about it at all. Such a good boy!
Scout Badge | Barrel-aged porter with Samoa cookies | Sun King | Indianapolis, IN | 13.1% ABV
Nice to see a barrel-aged porter at the festival. Sun King took a porter and added Samoa cookies to the brew which sometimes results in mixed results. They took it one step further by aging it in whiskey barrels with chocolate and coconut. I think that’s what I was tasting as Scout Badge really shined in the chocolate and coconut departments. A little amount of caramel may have been present as well. The whiskey barrel added some fullness to the brew but not a ton of burn at all. Sun King wins a ton of awards at most events it enters and this is just another reason why that happens.
Halcyon | American IPA with Mosaic, Simcoe, and Amarillo | Tonewood Brewing | Barrington, NJ | 6% ABV
I wish we had done a Low ABV versus battle between Halcyon and Pure West. Someone would’ve won the battle, but we’d definitely won the war! Halcyon leans into the same things that most of the IPAs I liked at the festival did – malty body with some sweetness, bitterness, and piney and grassy flavors. The big difference here is that while there were some fruit notes coming from the Mosaic it wasn’t as powerful. Halcyon had more in line with those classic West Coast IPA days with a nice little twist on the formula. I’m hoping this means American and West Coast IPAs are on their way back in style now.
Lot K | Fruited Mixed Culture Beer | Von Ebert Brewing | Portland, OR | 9.1% ABV
While Ryan preferred the more wine-like offering from Buried Acorn, I leaned towards this one. Sufficiently wine-like in its own right, Lot K still retained some beer-like qualities in its finish. The Malbec grapes bring all the fruitiness and tannic qualities you could want. The beer doesn’t dry out your mouth as much as you think it would. Some of the mixed culture beer makes its presence known once the grapes move out of the way, resulting in a bit of unexpected funkiness before the dryness sets in. It seems like wine-inspired or wine/beer hybrids were exceedingly rare at the fest so it was nice to have a good representation of one.
Hall of Fame
Reserved for breweries that would otherwise dominate everything else in this recap. They are not eligible for best booth or best beers and should always be considered as a top priority, especially if you’re coming from out-of-state.
Melvin, once the rulers of the festival and the week, were somewhat back to their old shenanigans. They had at least one event during GABF week (and it sounded crazy) and their booth (with fellow Jackson Hole, Wyoming brewery Roadhouse and the Melvin bus) had a DJ pumping tunes that could be heard a fair distance around the booth. (Things got especially interesting when the bagpipers got close and it sounded like they were dueling.)
Beers were what you’ve come to expect of Melvin. Heavy on the hops with some stouts and light things thrown in the mix. 2X4 was tasting as good as ever. The one beer I really wanted to have from them – Barrel-Aged Ruckus – never seemed to be available. Lines were more of a mob around the booth and were consistent throughout the fest. You were guaranteed to get some quality if you stepped to the Melvin booth.
WeldWerks was up to their typical shenanigans. Multiple Medianoche variants. Crazy sours, including the Cream Cheese Rangoon gose (and pairing). Juicy Bits all over the place. And their solid Colorado Ale. Thankfully organizers put them basically on an island by the wall with no booths near them. And guess what? The line still stretched to the point where it was interfering with the rows.
It seriously would’ve been my booth of the fest (again) just for the sheer options they brought. Medianoche Amburana Vanilla Luar would’ve been on my top beers list for sure. (More on that beer – and some other Medianoches – on an upcoming podcast.) The lines moved and it typically took them a while to run out of beer even with those insane lines. Additionally they were ubiquitous around town, as various WeldWerks beer was showing up on taps all around town. I think I can safely say that WeldWerks has figured it out and rules GABF every single year they attend. I always get excited to be able to go to their booth at the festival and try whatever things they’ve come up with in the past year. WeldWerks is a must stop at any festival they are pouring at.