The 38th annual Great American Beer Festival hits the Colorado Convention Center today, and attending can be like soaking in a sometimes overwhelming bath of sensory overload — and you will definitely be bubbling in all five senses. This year, the 62,000 festival-goers will be able to sample more than 4,000 beers from 800 breweries. As for the competition, there will be more than 9,600 beers from 2,300 breweries — the largest grouping ever — competing to win medals in a whopping 107 categories.
GABF will fill 584,000 square feet of space, which organizers says is equivalent to ten football fields. In addition to booths, there will be educational and experiential programs, a silent disco, hangout spots, several specialty beer areas, and lots and lots of people in costumes and pretzel necklaces.
How does it all work? Well, the Brewers Association, which organizes the event, wrangles 7,500 kegs of beer, 250 tons of ice, twenty refrigerated semi trucks, 4,000-plus volunteers and four miles of gas lines. That's a lot.
For this go-round, not a lot has changed. But there are still a few new additions, and subtractions, as well as some good things to know. Here are ten things to keep an eye out for.
The layout will return to its regional arrangement this year after an experiment in 2018 with alphabetizing the whole thing. This will be good. There are nine regions total: Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Mountain West, New England — will anyone show this year? — Pacific, Pacific Northwest, Southeast and Southwest. (Breweries with “the” in the title will be listed under the first word following “the.”) Colorado typically brings the fire when it comes to decorated booths, so don't forget to check out the home state. Last year, Intrepid Sojourner and Parts & Labor had two of my favorite booths. I'm guessing there will be more fun stuff this year.
Chicken Is Out; Hot Dogs Are In
Buffalo Wild Wings is gone, but the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council is in the house as the sponsor of the Backyard area, where there will be a DJ, yard games, hot dog and bun races (branding!) and other fun. In addition, Jameson Whiskey will be back with its special section — a little larger this year — and beers from 22 breweries that have been aged in Jameson barrels. This was a crowded space last year.
More People/Different Feel?
Between 2012 and 2016, a ticket to GABF was one of the toughest to get in Denver. All four sessions sold out within minutes, frustrating plenty of would-be attendees. Things began to ease in 2017 and then mellowed out much more in 2018 after GABF switched ticketing vendors to AXS, whose anti-scalping measures weeded out the scalpers. In addition, the BA increased its supply, adding 2,000 total tickets. That means that there are still tickets available to the Thursday night and Saturday night sessions. So, how will these changes affect the feel of the festival? It's hard to know. It may not change it at all, or the makeup of the crowd could continue to shift, for better or for worse, toward people who have never been before. Either way, I think the fest has possibly gotten bigger than it should be, in terms of the number of breweries, beer and people.
India Pale Lagers
IPAs are always hot, and lagers are trending, so this year, the Brewers Association added a new judging category: India Pale Lagers. Wibby Brewing makes one of Colorado's most recognizable versions of this style, but it will be interesting to see if breweries pour IPLs at their booths or if the style is still too obscure. In addition to IPLs, GABF has added Franconian-Style Rotbier, Emerging IPA (which appears to be a catch-all category), Contemporary Belgian-Style Gueuze Lambic, and Juicy or Hazy Strong Pale Ale.
Forecast Calls for Haze
While some of the best haze factories in the country (Other Half, Outer Range, Trillium, Toppling Goliath) will appear only at specific tappings around Denver this week and not at the festival, many more will be inside the festival hall, including Abnormal, Heretic, Icarus, Great Notion, Lawson's Finest, Lupulin Brewing, Modern Times and Two Roads. And that's to say nothing of local juice farmers like WeldWerks, Odd13 and 4 Noses. The real question, though, is who will win medals in the hazy/juicy categories. Three categories were added for these styles last year, and a fourth was brought on for 2019. Denver's Fiction Beer was the only Colorado brewery to medal in one of those last year, for Madame Psychosis. Hopefully, 2019 will call for more Colorado haze.
Will Hard Seltzer Sneak In?
Hard seltzer took the world by storm this year, and many breweries added them to their lineups, either on tap or in cans. And although most hard seltzers are considered to be "malt beverages," meaning that breweries can make them, GABF organizers are asking the attending breweries to leave them at home. "Since the purpose of GABF is to shine a spotlight on the wonderful world of beer, festival brewers are asked to pour beer," a spokeswoman says. Still, brewers can be an ornery bunch, so we'll see if some show up anyway.
There will be live music this year, in the form of three thirty-minute sets per session by a variety of Bluegrass artists. Located in the Backyard area of the festival, which has games like cornhole and Twister, the stage is being presented by Ikon Pass and WinterWonderGrass. It will feature Leftover Salmon frontmen Andy Thorn and Vince Herman, along with Silas Herman on Thursday; Bridget Law (Elephant Revival), Shelby Means, Courtney Hartman and Bonnie Sims (of Bonnie and the Clydes) on Friday; Meadow Mountain on Saturday afternoon; and Wood Belly on Saturday night. Although GABF is already a cacophonous place, I think the live music will be a nice addition, and hopefully not too overwhelming along with all the other noise inside the hall.
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For the first time in many years, the festival will hand out glass tasting cups — rather than plastic ones — to all attendees. Previously, only people who went to the members-only session on Saturday or the PAIRED tasting events got glass cups. The main reason for the switch is because the Colorado Convention Center no longer recycles #6 hard-plastic cups, but glass is also a better vessel for drinking beer. While there is some concern that there will be a lot of broken glass around, festival organizers are optimistic that will not be the case. They will also collect glasses at the end of the festival if people don't want them so they can be recycled.
History of Craft Exhibit
The Brewers Association and founder Charlie Papazian have been working on documenting the history of the BA and of GABF. One of the outcomes is this "three-dimensional timeline of the history of craft beer, featuring photos and items from the BA archive." The exhibit will be located between Halls A and F.
And finally, although BA and GABF founder Charlie Papazian retired from the organization in January, he'll return to the festival to present the awards, as he has done for many years, placing medals around necks and fist-bumping hundreds, if not thousands of winners. It's an Instagram moment every brewer wants.