It’s hard to describe the Great American Beer Festival to the uninitiated. It’s the Super Bowl of beer. It’s hop heaven. It’s a beer carnival. And so much more.
Even as it faces more competition for attention — and slower ticket sales — GABF remains a zenith in the craft-beer world and a testament to the industry’s estimated $3.3 billion economic impact in Colorado. An estimated 62,000 beer fans and brewers will descend on Denver from for this year’s event, Oct. 3-5 at the Colorado Convention Center.
More than 800 breweries will pour 4,000-plus beers (in 1-ounce pours at a time) during the festival hosted by the Boulder-based Brewers Association. It covers the size of 10 football fields and includes live music, educational seminars, lawn games, food trucks and more. The experience is overwhelming — to say the least.
So here’s a guide to what you need to know:
What’s new this year?
First and foremost, the festival’s layout is returning to how it looked in prior years. Last year, the organizers tested out an alphabetical order for breweries that scrambled the map. This year, it returns to a regional format that groups breweries by alphabetical order within their geographical locations. “I think we’ve been doing the regionals so long we might have moved their cheese a little too much,” explained Ann Obenchain at the Brewers Association about last year.
Hold on tight, all attendees this year will get a glass tasting cup — no more plastic for the evening sessions.
And this year, listen for live music. WinterWondergrass — which hosts bluegrass festivals across the country — is bringing four acts to play live from a stage near the entrance area, including musicians from Leftover Salmon, Elephant Revival and Wood Belly. Like the addition of food trucks and games in prior years, the new element is about “being relevant and staying relevant to attendees as far as wanting to have other experiences with their friends while they are drinking beer,” Obenchain said.
Why it didn’t GABF sell out yet?
This is the second year in a row that tickets remained available the week of the festival. The Friday evening and Saturday afternoon sessions are sold out, but tickets for Thursday and Saturday evenings remained available this week.
The organizers say they aren’t surprised and expected to top out at this level because “festivals are ubiquitous — there are so many choices, more and more choices every year,” Obenchain said.
What you need to know from festival insiders and pros
If you walk into the festival without an idea of where you want to go, you’re immediately lost — and likely to miss great beers.
So definitely make plan. A little bit of research ahead of time will go a long way, and this year, the beer list is available early to make it easier to craft a game plan. Prioritize the most popular breweries — such as Russian River, WeldWerks, Dogfish Head and Cigar City — so you arrive before the long lines. Also save time for the “Meet the Brewer” section, where you can talk to the brewers about the artistry that went into the beer in your hand. (Here’s a map to get you started.)
Find the secret stashes of beer. It doesn’t take long for groupthink to take hold and create long lines. This is when you head to the Fresh Hops booth at the end of the Pacific Northwest region (Section 23). It’s hop harvest season and nothing beats a beer made using hops picked just hours earlier. The Washington Beer Commission is pouring five fresh hop beers from brewers you can’t find elsewhere at the festival.
The next little-known beer stash is found in the Brewers Guild section in the middle. The state guilds are pouring 169 beers, including great ones like Creature Comforts’ Tropicalia (Georgia), Old Nation’s M-43 (Michigan), Bond Brothers Beer’s Gin Duality of Funk (North Carolina) and Prairie Artisan Ales’ Rainbow Sherbet (Oklahoma). Other big hitters include Blue Jacket (Washington, D.C.) and Hudson Valley Brewery (New York).
Three other places that most attendees miss include the collaboration section with big-time brewers, the Heavy Medal table with 50 award-winning beers, and the barrel-aged goodness in the Jameson Caskmates area.
The can’t-miss breweries at the festival
It’s impossible to taste all the breweries at the festival, so don’t even try. But there are a number of breweries you won’t want to miss. Most of these breweries specialize in different styles — whether hazy IPAs or stouts — but all make great beer across the board, so be adventurous. (The list below is organized by region — clockwise from the entrance — to help you navigate the floor after you check the box on your own favorites.)
Pacific Northwest: Breakside, Deschutes, Ecliptic, Fort George, Pelican, PFriem, Reuben’s Brews
Mid-Atlantic: Adroit Theory, Captain Lawrence, Dogfish Head, Oozlefinch, Troegs
Great Lakes: Brewdog, Central Waters, Destihl, Lupulin Brewing, Moody Tongue, More, Odd Side, Rhinegeist, Speciation, Sun King, Surly, Three Floyds, Upland
Meet the Brewer: Against the Grain, Bhramari, Bell’s, Cerveceria Colorado, Fat Head’s, Fiction, Foothills, Fremont, Forbidden Root, Great Divide, Heretic, Iron Hill, Lawson’s Finest Liquids, Modern Times, More, Odd13, Ology, Ratio, WeldWerks
Southwest: Austin Beer Garden, Bosque, La Cumbre
Midwest: Confluence, COOP Ale Works
Pacific: Almanac, Bagby, Beachwood Blendery, Brouwerij West, Bruery, FiftyFifty, Firestone Walker, Great Notion, Libertine, Lost Abbey, Moonraker, Pizza Port, Pure Project, Russian River, Societe
New England: Night Shift, Two Roads
Mountain: Black Project, Cannonball Creek, Dry Dock, Melvin, Our Mutual Friend, Revision, Ska
Southeast: Ass Clown, Cigar City, Commonhouse Aleworks, Edmund’s Oast, Funky Buddha, Hi-Wire, Orpheus, Parleaux Beer Lab, Three Notch’d, Triple C
The best events of the week
Much of the best beer poured next week in the Denver area won’t appear at the festival. A dozen-plus of the hottest breweries in the country plan to host their own events — tap takeovers, dinners, special releases — at area bars and breweries in Denver.
Monday: The place to start the week is Falling Rock Tap House in Denver. It serves as the unofficial hub for brewers and beer fans, and it starts the party with the kickoff event at 5 p.m. Monday. The bar will tap plenty of special beers, so don’t miss out. (Bonus: I’ll be there signing copies of my new book “Beer Lover’s Colorado.” Hope to see you there.)
Tuesday: Finn’s Manor is one of the best beer bars, and its tap list is a who’s who of great beer for GABF week. Starting at 4 p.m., the Denver bar is hosting a hazy versus clear IPA competition, of sorts. Moksa, Trillium, Modern Times, Fort George and La Cumbre are all pouring at this event for hop heads.
And if you can, hit Fiction Beer Company on East Colfax Avenue anytime after 2 p.m. for the release of Madame Psychosis, the inaugural bronze medal winner in the coveted hazy pale ale category last year.
Wednesday: Hops & Pie will sling great pizza and pour amazing beers all week starting at 11:30 a.m. But the CSA Portfolio Tapping on Wednesday is the one to prioritize. The breweries include Lawson’s Finest Liquids, Narrow Gauge, Three Floyds and Maine Beer Co.
Hope you didn’t wear the same shirt as Tuesday, because you’re going to want to make a return appearance at Finn’s Manor for WeldWerks and Friends at 4 p.m. for big stouts, great sours, and yes, more hazy IPAs.
And if you want to find some of the best Colorado breweries all in one place, Jake’s Brew Bar in Littleton is the place. The Colorado Brewery Showcase runs from 2-11 p.m. with beer from Wiley Roots, New Image, WeldWerks, Black Project, Odd13, Cerebral and others.
At the end of the night, the All-Star IPA Throwdown at Falling Rock Tap House is a pinnacle event. Get tickets at the door to order beer from some of the hottest IPA makers in the country, including Ruse, Transient Artisan Ales, Moonraker and Toppling Goliath. The event starts at 9 p.m.
Thursday: Our Mutual Friend in Denver is turning over eight of its 17 taps to their friends at Austin Beer Garden Brewing, making this a one-two punch of great beer from two great breweries. OMF opens at 4 p.m.
Wyoming’s Melvin Brewing is hosting a GABF After Party at Avanti Food & Beverage starting at 4 p.m. and going well after the first session ends. Look for the free shuttle from the festival to get to the special beer tappings.
The biggest, baddest and rarest beers pour at Denver Rare Beer Tasting from noon to 4 p.m. The event is a fundraiser for the Pints for Prostates nonprofit and a chance to rub shoulders with industry icons like Garrett Oliver from Brooklyn Brewery.
Saturday: Nothing says GABF Saturday like starting the day with a burrito and barleywine at Denver Beer Company in Denver. The Brewers Breakfast runs from 8:30-11 a.m.
Grab a can of beer at Cerebral Brewing in Denver from noon to 11 p.m. The Can Jam will feature big names like Alvarado Street, Cellarmaker, Trillium and Trophy.
And end the night at Ratio Beerworks for the GABF Karaoke After-Party. It starts at 9 p.m., and if you sing, you get a free beer.
Sun correspondent Kate Blackman contributed to this report.
John Frank is the author of the new “Beer Lover’s Colorado: Best Breweries, Brewpubs and Beer Bars.”