The Great American Beer Festival. Institution. Icon. Lightning rod for all that is craft beer. It's a fest so grand that only marching bagpipe players can properly kick it off, and yet so swollen that it has trouble getting out of its own way at times. GABF returns to Denver October 3 through 5 for its 38th iteration.
Tickets for the three-day affair go on sale July 30 (for members of the Brewers Association and the American Homebrewers Association) and to the general public on July 31; they are $85 per session. And the organizers would really, really like people to know that they will be a lot easier to get in 2019 than they have in years past.
"There’s been a bit of an immediate sell-out stigma in the past, and we want people to know that, while they shouldn’t procrastinate purchasing tickets, tickets are easier than ever to acquire, and our sophisticated monitoring software ensures that more tickets get into the hands of real ticket buyers rather than bots and scalpers," the Brewers Association said in an announcement earlier this week.
Sell-out stigma? More like sell-out reality. Between 2012 and 2016, buying a GABF ticket online was almost as difficult as grabbing a casual pint with J.D Salinger or sneaking a camera into a Dave Chapelle show. The fest sold out within an hour almost every one of those years — and in just twenty minutes in 2013 — a year that still holds the record for speed, and for consumer frustration. In 2017, however, things began to slow down: it took a whopping four hours and fifteen minutes before the festival's four sessions sold out that year.
The problem during all of those years was twofold: As craft beer's popularity surged — and number of breweries nationwide rose from 2,420 to 5,540 — aftermarket sales companies and bots figured out ways to scoop up tickets before the thirsty public could do the same and sell them later for inflated prices.
But in 2018, a couple of things changed. For starters, the BA switched ticketing vendors from Tickemaster to AXS, whose anti-scalping measures weeded out the bots during last year's sale day. In addition, the BA increased its supply, adding 2,000 total tickets. But it's also true that interest in the festival has shifted. While it's still a top ticket in town — and a bucket-list destination for craft geeks — many locals have grown tired of the size and scope of the fest, choosing instead to attend any number of ancillary events. And there are plenty of those — hundreds, in fact, taking place at breweries, bars and restaurants all over town.
As a result, the 2018 festival didn't actually sell out until the day before it started — a development that was shocking to anyone who'd followed the events of the previous six years.
This time around, there will be 62,000 tickets available (up from around 60,000 two years ago), along with more than 4,000 beers from 800-plus breweries. So getting one should be a lot easier than it has been.
What's new for 2019?
Well, for starters, there will be live music. Winter Wondergrass, which puts on bluegrass festivals in different parts of the country, will have three sets of live music per session (the lineup has yet to be announced).
The Fresh Hops category didn't make it to GABF in 2018 because of the earlier timing of the festival, but it will be back in 2019, along with a special booth from the Washington Beer Commission that will feature five fresh-hop beers from ten breweries; these beers won't be found anywhere else in the festival.
The Jameson Caskmates Barrel-Aged Beer Garden will also return — but with more space this year. The garden will include 22 breweries that have partnered with the whiskey maker to created barrel-aged beers using Jameson casks. It was a hit — a crowded hit — last year. "In addition, the garden will host experiential areas including master cooper Ger Buckley’s stage, a Bow Street education experience and interactive activities," according to organizers.
As always, GABF has added and tinkered with its competition categories in order to reflect what is going on in the beer world. This year will see the addition of categories for India Pale Lager, 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 — the fourth category for the rapidly growing juicy and hazy IPA style.
In addition, the festival will — thank goodness — return to its previous organizational layout, meaning that the breweries will be arranged by region rather than alphabetically (though they will be alphabetical within the regions. 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.) Pro Tip: Breweries with “the” in the title will be listed under the first word following “the.”
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.