The GABF, which will be the country's largest virtual beer event this year, has announced its online program.

By Mike Pomranz
August 28, 2020
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Pouring Beer at the 2019 Great America Beer Festival
Credit: © Brewers Association

2020 has been a difficult year for the brewing industry. Consumer changes caused by COVID-19 have impacted most brewers, especially smaller ones that rely on taproom sales. And other areas of the industry are struggling, too. The Brewers Association (BA) is primarily a craft brewery trade group, but the bulk of their revenue comes from holding events—including the country’s largest beer festival, the Great American Beer Festival (GABF).

In April, the BA had to make the late decision to move its entire Craft Brewers Conference online. And in May, it was announced that the same fate would befall the GABF, meaning 60,000 beer fans would not be making the annual pilgrimage to Denver. Sadly, those and other cancellations forced the BA to lay off over a third of its staff.

However, the Great American Beer Festival is still happening—albeit in a highly-altered form—and in some ways, due to all the trouble the industry has been facing, this year’s fest could be seen as more important than ever.

This week, the BA offered new specifics on what this unprecedented 39th annual Great American Beer Festival will look like. As hinted at previously, the event will feature both an online component for people across the country to view, as well as “local deals” from over 900 craft breweries—meaning over one in ten brewers nationwide are participating. And importantly, the competition component of GABF will still be happening; gold, silver, and bronze medals will still be awarded to beers across about 100 categories.

The online event will be held on October 16 and 17 and will be open to anyone who has purchased a $20 GABF Festival Passport. Things will kick off at 5 p.m. Mountain Time (MT) on Friday with the Competition Awards Ceremony Presentation. (Full disclosure: It’s usually just a long list of names and isn’t the most exciting thing to watch if you don’t have a horse in the race.)

Then, at 7 p.m. MT, the Virtual Great American Beer Festival begins in earnest with a three-hour online event, followed on Saturday with a second event from 5:45 p.m. MT to 9:30 p.m. MT.

You can find the full programming schedule and descriptions on the GABF website, but overall, it has ten different sessions across the two days. Speakers include legendary brewers like Sierra Nevada’s Ken Grossman and Russian River’s Natalie and Vinnie Cilurzo, as well as brewers who have had a more recent impact, like Weathered Soul’s Marcus Baskerville, who was behind the recent Black Is Beautiful beer project. In fact, diversity—something the BA has been very outspoken about—is a major component of this year’s event, with other sessions featuring things like a talk from the aptly named Lady Justice Brewing and “a tour of the beer styles and culture of Latin America.”

Food will continue to play a significant role in the festival, as well—both upmarket (pairing saisons with a downloadable recipe of beef and pork dumplings from chef Danny Lee) to more down home (pairing beer with pantry classics like mac and cheese and Jell-O).

At this point though, you may be thinking, What about the damn drinking?! And that’s a fair question. When I attended GABF, I spent way more time trying beers than listening to speakers. Luckily, GABF also published its list of the over 900 breweries who will be participating offline in the “deals.” And, unlike the two-day festival, these deals are open to GABF passport holders from October 1 to 18—so depending on where you live, you should have plenty of time to get your 20 bucks’ worth.

Some of these deals are already posted on the GABF website—but organizers promise that's just the beginning. “More breweries to come! The participating brewery list is updated daily,” the fest writes. “Final list of breweries and GABF Passport Deals will be published September 15.”

To be honest, the overwhelming experience that makes up the usual in-person Great American Beer Festival isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. And frankly, the virtual event—which will feature far less crowded revelry—won’t be some people’s idea of a good time either. That said, if you like craft beer, and happen to have $20 kicking around, at the very least, this mix of online and offline beer festival will give you a reason to enjoy a beer or two