How To Spend a Week At the Great American Beer Fest
I'm embarrassed to admit this: Although I've written about beer professionally for over four years now, until this year, I'd yet to attend the most important beer event in the country, the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado. (Previous excuses include a conflicting trip to Oktoberfest, unexpected illness, and sheer terror.)
So, at last, here is a play-by-play of my attempt to right the wrongs of past missed opportunities, cramming as many amazing events, parties, and convention sessions as possible into four days, all at the risk of potentially crushing my delicate, sissy-man liver. (Spoiler alert: it did.)
If you've never been able to attend GABF, I hope you'll be able to use this as a guide for next year's fest, or at the very least, live vicariously through me. And if you were there, feel free to let me know how I did.
Here we go:
1:40 PM – Little Machine Brewery
2924 W 20th Ave, Denver, CO 80211
After checking into the Hotel Teatro (which I can't recommend enough), I head out for the "Brewers' Health Fair", Little Machine's ironic invitation to "climb nearly two feet over three stairs" after fueling up with a whole hog roast and beer. My kind of workout. I order a Razz Against the Machine (a tart raspberry ale) and grab a plate of pulled pork and bratwurst, merrily chowing to the beat of some white dude skillfully looping funky Bill Withers tunes on a makeshift stage. It has begun.
3:00 PM – Hogshead Brewery
4460 W 29th Ave, Denver, CO 80212
Hogshead doesn't participate in GABF, so before I fully dive in I stop to sample Boy's Bitter and Denver Pride, two of the best British-style fresh cask ales I've ever had in the U.S. The venue is like a cross between a coffee shop and traditional British pub, and I bask in the peace while I can, anticipating the onslaught about to ensue.
4:55 PM – Lucky Pie
1610 16th St, Denver, CO 80202
Eventually I get over to the Local Conspiracy GABF Kickoff, bringing together Funkwerks and River North, two killer Colorado breweries collaborating on two unique saisons. Funkwerks contributes Saison Conspiracy Blanc, brewed with white grapes and aged in white wine barrels, while River North has Saison Conspiracy Noir, brewed with Syrah and aged in red wine barrels. As I'm praising both beers as intriguingly different interpretations of the same idea, Funkwerks co-founder Gordon Schuck informs me of another event down the road, a collaboration with Asheville', NC's Wicked Weed, kicking off in just a few minutes. I'm in.
6:15 PM – Rhein Haus
1415 Market St, Denver, CO 80202
I follow Gordon down the street like an eager puppy, and enter Rhein Haus for their Bocci Party. As much as I love a good ball-tossing, I am also very easily distracted. In this case it is by the Uncle Rick's Pilsner Wicked Weed Head Blender and co-owner Walt Dickinson hands me. As the New York Mets melt down in their final televised game of the year, I'm obliviously sampling WW's Pacificmost Gose and Juiceless IPA without a care.
7:10 PM – Wynkoop Brewing
1634 18th St, Denver, CO 80202
I arrive at Denver's oldest craft brewery to find one of the most bizarre scenes I've ever witnessed. My cousin Shawna is a finalist in Wynkoop's "Beer Drinker of the Year" competition, proving herself in eight different categories such as trivia, beer whispering, and judge-bribing. But as strange as one contestant's Wynkoop-themed version of "Take Me Home, Country Roads" is, the event is incredibly fun – especially when Shawna wins, earning free beer for life. By 10pm, I'm heading back to my hotel full of chicken wings and beer – but not too full to grab a slice of Marquis Pizza on the way, thus commencing my weeklong meat-and-carb-only diet.
The reigning beer drinker of the year.
3:00 PM – Appaloosa Grill
535 16th St #110, Denver, CO 80202
Thursday gets off to a late start. After a great sausage lunch at Euclid Hall, my buddy Max and I head to a Deschutes Brewery party to sample three rare beers, including The Dissiden (sour brown), Not Stoic (quadruple), and Black Butte XXVI (porter). The venue captures the outdoorsy and woodsy vibe of the brewery. The curiously large number of beefy, bearded, lumberjack-like men in attendance helps that cause, too.
4:30 PM – Novo Coffee
1600 Glenarm Pl, Denver, CO 80202
Realizing we've yet to take in any caffeine today, Max and I duck into Novo. I order an espresso, and Max asks the barista for her opinion of the cold brew on nitro. She may or may not use an expletive before the word "fantastic" to conclusively convince Max. Both beverages are great, in fact, and we're now ready for beer battle on the convention floor.
700 14th St, Denver, CO 80202
The main event! Our press passes enable us to enter 30 minutes before the general public, but the space is so vast we barely get a lay of the land before the crowd streams in. Veterans have advised me to start with sours and imperial stouts, the first beers to go—so we jump from Jolly Pumpkin's Cucurbitophobia, to Cigar City Outskirts, to New Holland Dragon's Milk Reserve Vanilla Chai. I'm scouting out this year's offerings from Russian River when a brewer asks what I'd like to try, allowing me to bypass a terrifyingly long line. Between sips of Pliny the Elder, I get misty-eyed thinking about how lucky I am to have this job.
8:00 PM – Infinite Monkey Theorem
3200 Larimer St, Denver, CO 80205
One thing a beer-soaked weekend like this requires is a break from beer. Thankfully, not far from the Convention Center is Infinite Monkey Theorem, an urban winery that packages quality red, white, and rosé wine in slim, convenient cans for incredible value. When we walk into the winery's adjacent bar, a '90s rock band is blasting a cover of Alice In Chains "Rooster," and I know I've found my people. Owner Ben Parsons pours us tastes of his premium bottled Syrah, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc, and I briefly consider abandoning beer forever. (But eventually reconsider.)
9:00 PM – Hop Alley
3500 Larimer St, Denver, CO 80205
A crazy beer weekend also requires plenty of food. Down the road from IMT, Max and I kick off a meal at Hop Alley with a dry cider, a perfect match for the summer sashimi we order as an appetizer. On the saucier side, we also enjoy the beef chow fun, Beijing duck rolls, and steamed eggplant with bean sprouts. It's the perfect food for sopping up alcohol (and for perhaps imbibing a little more).
10:50 PM – Epic Brewing Company
3001 Walnut St, Denver, CO 80205
With our bellies full, we roll into Epic for their fourth annual 50 Firkin Fiasco. No, a firkin isn't a dirty word for a magician's private parts – it's a small, naturally fermented cask. We try Mid Mountain Mild with mushrooms, 825 Stout with bacon, and Escape to Colorado IPA with Swedish Fish, among other odd creations.
11:45 PM – Appaloosa Grill (Again)
535 16th St #110, Denver, CO 80202
We walk back to the Grill where we started our day, this time for a GABF after-party thrown by Southern Tier, Victory, and Ninkasi Brewing. The band, Alive on Arrival, is masterfully cranking The Meters’ "Cissy Strut" and "Shakey Ground" by the Temptations, while the crowd —a bit older than the average GABF-goers – are getting down like they're at the best party your dad ever threw. I last about an hour, and then after some Victory Sour Monkey I find myself back at my hotel room, face-down in my pillow.
10:25 AM – Marlowe's
501 16th St, Denver, CO 80202
When I roll into Samuel Adams's Beer & Brunch about an hour late, I'm hurting quite a bit. As the legendary Jim Koch drones on about new beer releases, I'm disrespectfully shoveling pastrami sandwiches, sausage, and fried clams into my mouth. On any other day, Sam's new Rebel Juiced IPA would be perfect for washing the food down. But at this moment, any form of alcohol is tough to swallow.
1:00 PM – Great Divide Barrel Bar
1812 35th St, Denver, CO 80216
After briefly relaxing at the hotel, I head out to Great Divide's new barrel room, a bit north of downtown. Originally meant to expand production, the bar is now also a prime gathering place that has invigorated an emerging neighborhood of a city bursting at the seams. I'm especially excited to try Velvet Yeti, their new 5% ABV version of their well-known stout that will gently ease me out of my hangover. That is, until I discover Red Wine Barrel Aged Yeti on tap, and all bets are off, hangover be damned.
2:45 PM – Black Shirt Brewing
3719 Walnut St, Denver, CO 80205
Not far from the Barrel Room is Black Shirt Brewing, a 4-year-old brewery specializing in red ales. My cousin Shawna – newly crowned Beer Drinker of the Year – also happens to work there as Special Events Coordinator, and she's tending bar today. She serves me a flight that includes their nitro Tropical Sour (conditioned atop pineapple and coconut) and Semitone (a petit saison brewed with sweet orange peel). I sip my snifters slowly, savoring the down time.
700 14th St, Denver, CO 80202
Back to the madness on the convention center floor: Funky Budha ran out of beer yesterday, so I make sure to hit them up first. Their Maple Bacon Coffee Porter and No Crusts PB&J beers do not disappoint. I also pay my respects to some GABF celebs, stopping by Dogfish Head's booth to say hi to Sam Calagione (already mobbed) and Jester King's to greet Jeff Stuffings (equally swamped). I visit the Brooklyn booth to see if Garrett Oliver is around, but have to settle for a meeting with a 2005 Brooklyn Chocolate Stout.
8:00 PM – Summit Music Hall
1902 Blake St, Denver, CO 80202
Great Divide's The Smoothness – a lager aged in Jameson whiskey barrels — is making its debut at a Laith Al-Saadi concert downtown. The amazingly subtle but tasty dark lager and its corresponding stout-barrel-aged whiskey go great with the pizza and chicken fingers that I'm scarfing down like a careless adolescent, but I'm beginning to feel the effects of my careless life choices. By 10PM, I'm fully saturated, heading out to pick up an Odwalla juice on the way back to my hotel.
9:30AM – Hydrate IV Bar
753 S University Blvd, Denver, CO 80209
Following three days of self-destructive behavior, I'm officially a mess. So when I overhear that a Denver "bar" will hook you up to a IV to replenish all that was lost, I jump on the opportunity. Normally I'd be terrified of a stranger sticking me with a needle and filling me with bags of yellow fluid, but…desperate times. However, I'm pleasantly surprised to find registered nurses and paramedics working in a l living room with lounging customers socializing as their arms suck up a mix of saline, Toradol, B complex, and more. The effect isn't immediate, but as I'm walking out the door, the rough edges start smoothing out, and I sense a warm, protective aura. Fifteen minutes later, I'm ready to do terrible things to myself once again.
700 14th St, Denver, CO 80202
I get back downtown just in time to catch the last hour of the awards, held in a giant auditorium packed with cheering brewers. Back on the convention floor, Dogfish Sam is still pouring, pointing and gesturing wildly like a caffeinated mime, having lost his voice. By 2PM, the session is getting rowdier, periodically marked by the breaking of a glass taster followed by an uproar of joyful boos. Even over three sessions, it's impossible to try everything, so I try to heed recommendations. Fortunately, fellow beer writer Chris O'Leary had already tipped me off to Revelry, the Charleston, SC, brewery that just won Silver for Scotch Ale with a beer called Oh My Darlyn!. I track the brewery down and witness the slow growth of their line as word gets out about the award. The beer is, indeed, fantastic, but getting to interact with these elated, previously unknown brewers, see their faces and listen to their celebratory chatter and toast them with other impressed beer fans: This is what GABF is really all about.