The first Great American Beer Festival took place in Boulder in 1982. There were 24 breweries, 47 beers and about 800 attendees. Oh, how things have changed. This year, the Brewers Association, which hosts the annual event, expects more than 800 breweries, 3,800 beers and 60,000 attendees. But after 35 years, one thing has stayed the same: the quest for good beer and good times. You can find both with a little patience and with a plan — despite the crowds, despite the overwhelming scene. Here are a few things to look for this year to help you understand what is going on around you. Cheers.
This is a somewhat charming tradition that seems to have carried over from GABF's old days, when people would dress up in the favorite hops hats or keg suits, lederhosen or dirndl dresses. Some singles, couples and entire groups take it to ever-heightened extremes these days. And even if those people are very drunk, you have to respect their penchant for pre-party organization. Dress up yourself, or just look for your favorites and congratulate them. It beats Halloween any time.
Some lines are dumb. Dogfish Head, for instance, always has a long one even though the majority of their beers can be found year-round in Colorado liquor stores and on tap. Other lines, though, mean that there is a buzz beer attracting attention, a flavor of the moment, a special sip. In previous years, these buzz lines have formed at tables from Black Project to Lawson's, J Wakefield to Melvin. Who will bring the crowds in 2016? It's hard to predict, but keep your eyes out for those long lines and ask around.
New Award Categories
GABF's category list changes every year as new styles are added or dropped and others are broken out or split into new categories. Here are some of the changes. The pumpkin-beer category, which itself is only two years old, has been split into two different categories: Pumpkin Spice and Pumpkin/Squash beers. Coffee beers now have two sub-categories: Coffee Beer and Coffee Porter/Stout. On the wild side of things, mixed-culture Brettanomyces beers have been split off from regular Brett beers. For you total beer nerds, there are four new historical beer categories: Finnish Sahti, Swedish Gotlandsricke, and Pale and Dark Breslau Schoeps. Also, German Leichtbier has been added for the first time.
New England-style IPAs
If there was one trend this year that rose above all the others, it was the proliferation of the so-called New England-style IPA. Typically brewed to appear hazy, almost like juice, New England-style IPAs typically have more tropical flavors, and although the hops are the stars, they are much less bitter than the typical West Coast-style IPAs that usually define the genre. The style took root in New England with breweries like Tree House, Trillium , the Alchemist, Lawson's and Hill Farmstead. But hazy IPAs have spread all the way across the country, landing particularly hard in Colorado, where numerous breweries are making them — most notably Odd 13 in Lafayette, which has become a leader here. But New England-style IPAs aren't recognized as their own style yet by the Brewers Association or GABF. It will be interesting to see, though, how many of these are entered into competition and poured at the festival despite the fact that they don't fit the standard style definitions very well. Even more notable would be if one of them were to win a medal.
Once everyone is inside the festival, the holding area will be transformed into The Backyard, a new part of the festival that was designed to resemble a brewpub patio. There will be artificial turf, lawn games like cornhole and KanJam, ping-pong and perhaps some ’80s video games harking back to the days when the fest was founded. You'll also find ’80s music, the traditional silent disco, cheese from Cypress Grove, and the 35th anniversary GABF beer, brewed by Boulder Beer Company and Charlie Papazian.
AB InBev's Craft Breweries
The international conglomerate now owns at least eight U.S. craft breweries, most of which were purchased in the past three years. All of them are planning to have tables at the festival, though Budweiser itself will not. How will they be received? How will they present themselves? You can bet there will be a coordinated strategy of some sort. Breweries on the list are Breckenridge, Goose Island, Ten Barrel, Elysian, Golden Road, Blue Point Brewing, Four Peaks Brewing and Devils Backbone.
A Periscope and Other Twists
Breweries love to mix things up, host stunts, add flare. St. Arnold Brewing, for instance, has married people during the festival, while Oskar Blues gives away can necklaces, and Bull & Bush always has something weird going on. This year, you might want to check out Denver's Declaration Brewing (in the Meet the Brewer hall), which will have a cell-phone periscope (not the app). Put your phone in their device, and the periscope will raise it high above the crowd, where you can record a 360-degree view of the party.
The Return of Cannabis Beer
Dad & Dudes Breweria created a huge buzz last year when it introduced Sativa IPA, the first commercial beer made with cannabis oil, at GABF. Although the hemp extract used in the beer isn’t the psychoactive kind — meaning it can’t get you high — people still lined up to try an ounce or two. This year, the Parker brewery will bring at least five cannabis-infused beers to the festival, this time with a new name and plans to distribute them in Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska and other states. The line is called General Washington's Secret Stash, and you can try them all at the Dudes table.
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More Space, More Beer
GABF organizers expect to have 800 breweries serving 3,800 beers this year, up from 750 breweries last year. But the increase won’t cramp the festival. That's because the Brewers Association was able to add 90,000 additional square feet of space in 2015. It used a good chunk of that for the roomier Meet-the-Brewer Hall featuring one hundred booths staffed entirely by brewery employees rather than volunteers. There were also tables and chairs for resting here, and more food. The change made a big difference and will continue this year, but with 120 breweries. “We had good feedback from last year. There were wider aisles and carpeting that gave the area a good flow. It also gave people a chance to take a breath,” says BA spokeswoman Barbara Fusco.
Charlie never had it this good at Willy Wonka's chocolate factory: "During each evening session, two rock-star craft brewers will pluck a lucky attendee and their friends" from the pre-festival line in Hall A for "a special, private tasting tour of GABF thirty minutes before the doors open to the public," explains GABF organizers about this new feature. "Each brewer will use their own criteria — the chosen posse might be rocking their GABF pride, some brewery apparel, or costumes that can’t be beat." Confirmed brewers include Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker, Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery and Tomme Arthur of the Lost Abbey and Port Brewing.