Great American Beer Festival 2018. Photos © Brewers Association
by Warren “BeerSensei” Monteiro
Let’s raise that tasting glass to the 37th Annual Great American Beer Festival. I’ve been flying to Denver for over 20 years now and just have to ask. Why, after all these visits, do I keep coming back? I guess the feeling rolls beyond the Colorado Convention Center and out into the embrace of Denver’s enveloping beer culture, providing just enough mystery elements to give each trip a singular breadth and depth.
Everything seemed even bigger this year, and, yes there was more space. Amazing what another 100,000 square feet can do. More people too. This year a record 62,000 drinkers and a flurry of designated drivers rolled up the stairs to a vast explosion of style and content. In this year’s fresh layout, brewery booths were arranged in alphabetical order (no “the”s). It’s a somewhat controversial first – great for finding a specific brewer but a lot rougher sledding to truly cover a region or city. Put on those hiking shoes! The special sections were easier to navigate, too, once you look for the “A”.
There was an astonishing number of beers, styles and special tastes to wade through, certainly more than a single session could satisfy. But aisles were wider. Queues were shifted to the ends of rows, making traffic a lot more bearable. And of course there’s that ubiquitous 1-oz pour. OK, I give up! Clearly it’s a permanent fixture after all these years. Certainly with all these choices.
This new arrangement certainly requires a lot of decision-making, even for the seasoned beer hunter. Fortunately, the Brewers Association provides a phone app where you can devise your personal track for your visit(s). And speaking of BA, it was great to see so many booths sporting the Certified Independent Craft Seal. So far, more than 3,700 breweries have signed on to this initiative to visibly support small and independent craft brewers on packaging and in advertising. That’s more than half of U.S. craft brewers pitching in.
Here’s to the winners of the beer competition! Newly acknowledged styles inflated judging categories to a daunting 102. Consider 8,700 beers submitted for judging from 2,450 breweries and thank our judges coming in from around the world. Since the awards tally runs 14 pages (see www.greatamericanbeerfestival.com/the-competition/winners/), look it up – you’re on your own. Entries were truly national, coming from 49 states and DC (sadly, not Mississippi). And I must slyly mention that in its first time inclusion as a style, Hazy or Juicy IPA unseated long running champion American-Style IPA by 391 to 311 for most entries.
My favorite evening event is always PAIRED, though it’s guaranteed to eat up most of your session (if you do it right). This year’s spectacular featured 25 breweries and chefs rolling out 80+ beers, each brew accompanied by a small savory plate. We were doubly stunned by The Lost Abbey’s Number of the Beast (bbq beef brisket + mole negro) and Falling Rock 20th Anniversary, a multi-sour blend, tequila-aged confection (smoked salmon + bagel schmear + everything spice). That was just the first table. Let’s just say we lingered until we had at least one beer and one special dish from each chef and brewer.
A certain amount of nostalgia as well as innovation showed up in the special sections. A Heavy Medal area featured 50+ past winners of GABF and World Beer Cup competitions. There was a Collaboration Competition Pavilion, a separate race won by New Belgium/Oud Beersel’s TransAtlantique Kriek, a superb cherry lambic sour. The Protect Craft Guilds Pavilion featured 24 state guilds rotating their wares. The Pro-Am Competition offered even more unusual choices. AHA member Chris Allen brewed Deer Crossing zwickelbier with Little Harpeth Brewing Company’s Jesse Brown for the Gold. To push boundaries a little, Buffalo Wild Wings had a very credible slurp and taste pavilion.
Irish whiskey producer Jameson co-opted 17 American brewers as Caskmates by supplying them with barrels. Along with these creations, the beer garden featured a cooperage demo by Master Cooper Ger Buckley. It isn’t heresy to say that a great number of the brews delivered Irish coffee flavors. I stumbled over the obverse of this at Duty Free Heathrow a month ago, with a tasting of Jameson whiskey aged in stout barrels to a similar but perhaps more punishing effect.
On the newsworthy front, Charlie Papazian presented Colorado Governor (future President?) John Hickenlooper with the Friend in Beer Award. We know him as co-founder of Wynkoop Brewery and perpetual Friend of craft brewing. Also, at the Sam Adams Breakfast, founder/owner Jim Koch seemed well poised for what he calls “the rediscovery of lagers.” We owe him (along with Stoudts & Schells) a big hand for keeping good lagers around when they were generally ignored by the early days craft sector. He spoke as well on Brewing and Business Experienceship, Sam Adams’ well intended start-up subsidy for selected young brewers.
But don’t think that GABF is the only reason to be in town. Before and after GABF sessions, a host of Denver delights abound. How about an Uber ride to nearby Crooked Stave for a tableful of small delights? Or a bus trip to Boulder (less than an hour) for an exploratory afternoon? For the more hardcore, late nites at Falling Rock Tap House present beers unavailable basically anywhere, curated by co-owner Chris Black. This year’s Saturday brewery night featured 20 special sour beers under a tent out front, while Firestone Walker and New Belgium rarities poured indoors. If you’re early or late enough you don’t have to fight over them.
Friday afternoon, Pints for Prostates sponsors the Denver Rare Beer Festival, an explosion of 74 wonderful breweries each proffering one, sometimes two of their rarest and best. Think Sam Adams Utopias Aged on Cherries, Avery Islay Stout (served only at the brewery), or 2017 and 2018 vintage 3 Floyds Dark Lord. Make it a truly scary day by topping off with dinner at the famed Buckhorn Exchange, which holds the first restaurant license in Denver. Start with Rocky Mountain Oysters followed by buffalo prime rib, or perhaps a slab of elk or a brace of quail. Not for the faint of heart.
Meanwhile, back at GABF, merely witnessing the spectacle of 62,000 people drinking 4,000 beers from 800 breweries is awe inspiring. Even more so the contemplation and tasting of it all. Thanks yet again to Nancy Johnson, shaping the whole frothy mix so that it makes sense. As I started out the first session, I noticed the omniscient halftones of my departed craft heroes Michael Jackson and Fred Eckhardt looking out over the start of this year’s alphabet. I thought about where we’ve been, how everything just keeps growing. I wondered where we are headed. See you next year.
You might want to look up the PAIRED menu for ideas at www.greatamericanbeerfestival.com/at-the-festival/paired/menu/.