I've been lucky enough to attend the Great American Beer Festival for the past nine years in a row. Over that time, I've watched it grow bigger and I've watched the beers get better. I've also watched the traditional opening notes from the bagpipe-and-drum corps during most of those years, but apparently I never noticed how big that band was. Maybe that's because it's usually swallowed up by the throngs of people who come pouring through the door, necks covered in pretzels, hands firmly gripping plastic tasting cups. Most years, the bagpipers could barely make it through the hall as they fought with attendees for their bit of floor space.
But on Thursday — the opening night of the three-day fest — the bagpipe-and-drum corps looked a lot bigger, and it had plenty of room to move inside the Colorado Convention Center. So, it seems, did everyone else.
Two years ago, the Boulder-based Brewers Association, which hosts GABF, announced that it had secured an extra 90,000 square-feet of space for this year's fest. The addition was a long time coming — and something the BA had been after for years.
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Organizers decided to up the number of attending breweries this year — from 710 to nearly 800 — as well as the number of attendees — from 49,000 to 60,000 over the four sessions — and also rearranged some things. The biggest change is the addition of a whole new hall, called the Meet-the-Brewer area, which features more than 100 different breweries. The booths here are larger, and staffed by GABF brewery employees and representatives rather than volunteers. (I hung out at the Wynkoop Brewing booth for at bit, and if you are going to the festival tonight, try the Wynkoop's two Law's Whiskey barrel-aged beers, a stout and a quad. They're both awesome.)
The extra space made a major difference. Not only was this area fun and interesting to walk through, but it created significant elbow room throughout the entire convention center, making it easier to find specific booths, to locate friends, to make your way from one side to the other. There were also plenty of tables and chairs where you could reset, check in on Untappd, eat a hot dog, drink some water.
And finally, there are now two entrances into the GABF. Although attendees were penned in like cattle at the new one, I've only heard positive reports about the experience. Having two entrances eliminated the overwhelming rush on brewers at the front of the festival, and while there were still lines at some of the big, popular breweries and the smaller, big-buzz breweries, most booths had no lines at all.