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3,900 Beers on the Wall, 3,900 Beers…

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Take one down, pass it around, 3,899 bottles of beer on the wall!

Better late than never, I’m taking a look back at the great experience I recently had out in Denver for the 36th annual Great American Beer Festival.

Crisp cool air, wide mountain-filled vistas, and a distinct smell wafting by every now and again set the stage for my second annual go at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. 35 years old, but doesn’t look a day over 30, the festival brought together 800 breweries from all over the country (up quite a bit from the inaugural edition’s 24 exhibitors) and 60,000 attendees to the massive sprawl of hoppy glory.

I brought out Kenny from Aero Drone Media to help capture the experience and it was definitely a whirlwind adventure. He even managed to get in some footage of the beautiful neighborhood we stayed at not far from the downtown area. That’s one tip I’ll definitely start with if you plan on checking out the festival next year: find yourself an Airbnb in one of the more suburban neighborhoods surrounding the downtown area (both times I’ve gone ended up around Jefferson Park). You’ll save a good amount on housing, and it’s only about a $5-$10 ride to the convention center, as well as to the RiNo Arts District a bit further North.

But I digress, on to the festival itself. The first thing that hit me this year were the lines to get in. It definitely seemed like the organizers knew what they’re doing and kept the issues/delays to a minimum, but I was still in awe of how many people it was (to give you an idea each day was about 3 sections the size of the one in the picture here spaced a bit apart from each other). Just goes to show how much interest in the craft beer industry has grown in recent years.

Growth on a national scale has definitely encouraged local development as well, with Florida breweries gaining some well-deserved spotlight at the festival this year. LauderAle’s C Porter (coconut porter) was awarded gold in the Field Beer category for example, one of 7 total FL breweries to place this year; that’s up from only 2-3 annually as far back as 2014.

There were some notable absences from the South Florida roster this year including J Wakefield, but it’s still always great seeing the other usual suspects from our hometown making a great impression on the attendees from all over the US. For some visitors, it’s the only chance they’ll get to try these beers if they never make it into distribution in their home states. Funky Buddha is always one of the local breweries that attracts the most attention every year, but you have to wonder if that momentum will keep up now that they’ll probably be getting into wider distribution. Time will tell, and as long as they continue making great beer, we’re not complaining.

One of the more interesting things to check out if you’re able to snag tickets are the “Paired” sessions that happen a couple times throughout the festival. Paired delivers on its name by combining celebrated chefs with small & independent brewers from around the country in an intimate setting located just off the main festival hall. Chefs are encouraged to collaborate with their brewery counterparts on pairings which creates a unique experience and break from the constant drinking.

 

The underlying driving force behind the festival is also the competition, which saw 7,923 entries this year. With over 200 experts lending their tastebuds to the cause, brews are sorted into 98 different categories and awards handed out for the top 3 ranked in each. Wins definitely carry some weight at the festival, and previous year’s winners usually get increase visits because of the clout. You can also spot the current year winners sporting their medals proudly by the last day after the outcomes are announced.

The last thing that struck me were two ends of the spectrum ranging from beer geek “elitism” to downright all-inclusive humor, whether poking fun at the “Goliaths” of the beer world, or in self-deprecation. The former was gleaned mostly at the uber a la mode breweries (or overheard with them in reference). There’s this mythical aura that surrounds certain breweries at the festival, the ones that have bottles sold on secondary markets for 10 times or more their original retail value. Many times these will have “timed tappings” when they put out select beers that are more limited in supply in theory. Though some people were all about hitting every timed release, I opted to just go with the flow. I did make two exceptions to that philosophy though I didn’t wait more than 20 minutes for either: Avery Brewing and Odell Brewing’s “live shotgun collab”, which consisted of them simultaneously pouring two different beers into a pitcher and serving it on the spot, and Bottle Logic’s Darkstar November which was served out of limited release bottles. Both definitely lived up to the hype, but neither would have been a make or break element to the overall experience.

As the craft beer industry continues to inevitably dilute into more of a main stream preoccupation, we’re sure to see festivals like GABF evolve and adapt. My only hope is that it’s able to keep its soul intact, and continue being the ultimate beer geek (whether pro or amateur, geezer or rookie) destination to explore every facet of the business.