The annual Great American Beer Festival swept through Denver last weekend, and this year’s version may have been the best I’ve been to in a while. The reasons for that are clear: The organizers at the Boulder-based Brewers Association made some simple but significant changes that really helped change the dynamics for both brewers and attendees. The most obvious change was the addition of 90,000 square feet of space in a separate “Meet the Brewer” hall. Although there were more breweries this year and more ticket-holders, the space allowed for a little more elbow room throughout the fest and for some open areas in the corner where you could sit and catch your breath for a moment, check your GABF app and eat. And speaking of eating, here are a few other takeaways from GABF.
The food is getting better. In past years, the choices for food at GABF have been abysmal, in part because organizers are limited to what is provided by the Colorado Convention Center. This year, it seemed like those choices were slightly better. Giant hot dogs resulted in glorious mustard stains all over the fest. In addition, there were more places to grab cheese and other small munchies, including pretzel bites from Red Robin.
Paired should be its own event. If you were lucky enough — and flush enough — to score a ticket for Paired, GABF’s stellar event-within-an-event, then you know how fantastic it was to comfortably try creations from some of Denver’s best chefs and restaurants paired with amazing beers from around the country. The only thing that would make this better is if more people could experience it. Maybe the BA could do this by separating Paired from the festival and holding it somewhere else. I’m guessing there might even be enough interest to host six of them, Monday through Saturday.
Volunteers acting as Beer Geeks. Last year, GABF introduced its Beer Geek program, which consists of more than 100 blue-shirted volunteers, many of them American Homebrewers Association members. Their job is to roam certain sections of the hall and help direct and educate people who are trying to locate certain styles of beer or who need to get some beery context. Although I’d forgotten about the program until Thursday, I heard repeatedly throughout the fest about how helpful the Beer Geeks were this year. I also got to sit and chat with a pair of Geeks who’d come in from Montana; our conversation about beer and what was going on at the fest was one of the most interesting ones I’ve had at a beer event.
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Take it outside. The weather was beautiful and Denver was electric on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with beer lovers and brewers walking around the streets and enjoying themselves throughout downtown — on 15th Street, on the 16th Street Mall, in LoDo and everywhere else. Would it be possible for GABF or Visit Denver to host a mini-beer festival on the mall for people who don't have tickets? What about closing down 15th Street one night for a GABF beer garden and block party?
The BA is going to have to acknowledge pot. Although the BA doesn't want to address it, questions about pot and about pot and beer are everywhere. So is the interest in it: If you had any doubt, the very long GABF line at Dad and Dudes Breweria, which was serving a beer made with hemp oil, should put that to rest. The two products have a lot of crossover when it comes to their place in society and when it comes to their customer bases. I'm not saying that the BA should host a pot-smoking seminar, just that the organization should come up with a measured way to acknowledge the interest in marijuana in Colorado, especially since the BA is based here.
What were some of the best beers I tried? People often ask me that question. I try to taste new ones, beers I haven't had before, along with a few old favorites. This year, some of my top tastes were Sun King's 666 Sympathy for the Devil; Ska Brewing Ska Face; Wynkoop Brewing's Law's whisky-barrel-aged quad and stout; Fremont Brewing's Bourbon Barrel Aged Dark Star; Modern Times Aurora; Lawson's Finest Hopzilla 2IPA (I liked this better than its Sip of Sunshine); Foothills Brewing's Sexual Chocolate; Melvin Brewing's 2x4 Fresh Hop; Comrade Brewing's Super Power Fresh Hop; Two Roads Workers Stomp; and J. Wakefield Miami Weiss.
Colorado's medal count was a little underwhelming. Although it is always thrilling to see local breweries win their first awards – and to see deserving beers (ahem: Broken Compass's Coconut Porter) take home hardware – the medal count this year, and the winning beers themselves, seemed a little strange to me. Colorado's 300 breweries won just 38 awards this year, down from 40 in 2014 and 46 in 2015. Left Hand took home three of those, while Grimm Brothers, Ska Brewing and Dry Dock each scored two. But rather than winning for the big, boundary-pushing beers that Colorado has become known for, our state's breweries primarily gathered up medals for lighter, German-style brews, like hefeweizens and other wheat beers, kolsches, dunkels, alts, pilsners and light lagers. Not that I'm complaining. I just feel like the bigger brews didn't get the recognition they deserve. To see the full list of local winners, go here.