Just a couple days off my first-ever trip to Great American Beer Festival, I’ve had some time to reflect and reminisce on just how meaningful my 5 days in the Denver area really were. I was lucky. I got to tag along with Ezra Johnson-Greenough, the proprietor of this fine publication known as The New School. Ezra’s a seasoned GABF pro who was on his umpteenth or murphteenth trip to Denver. I, on the other hand, was fresh as a spring chicken and as excited as a kid in a candy shop.
The more I think about it, the more I know I would have missed out royally if I had tried to venture to Denver on my lonesome. So, here’s a few tips that made my GABF experience great.
1) Go to events outside of GABF.
Yes, 8,000+ beers under one roof is the reason tens of thousands of beer lovers flock to the Colorado Convention Center each autumn. But there’s so much more happening before and after the GABF sessions that you need to be on the lookout for!
My favorite pre-GABF event had to be the Beers Made By Walking event on Tuesday, October 4th inside the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. This festival (founded by Portland native and Hopworks marketing chief, Eric Steen) featured a couple dozen breweries with casks, firkins and kegs of limited release beers all using foraged ingredients that a brewer may find by walking outdoors in their brewery’s region. Imagine enjoying all these curious concoctions under an 80+ foot pre-historic whale after being greeted at the door by an incredibly fearsome T-Rex specimen.
My favorite brew of this particular event was by Spice Trade Brewing out of Arvada, CO. Their Scarlet Giant was a lite wheat beer fermented with wild yeast cultured from the petals of a ‘Scarlet Giant’ hibiscus flower. The beer was then aged with hibiscus and key limes harvested from the Denver Botanical Gardens.
This is the sort of thing you might miss out on if you remain too focused on the Convention Center area at GABF.
2) Have an itinerary.
I’ve only given one example of an outside event, but as you can see here, there are many, many more.
Before my trip to Denver, I had just wrapped up Northbank Beer Week here at home in Vancouver, WA. The beer week is something I helped start in my backyard beer region of SW Washington and it consumed most all my spare time in September. Therefore, I didn’t do much in terms of planning for Denver or GABF.
Lucky for me, Ezra had a very well thought-out and detailed itinerary.
Fellow New School contributor, Bill Night, and I poked some fun at Ezra for the meticulous detail of the itinerary, but without his plan we would have wasted a lot of time.
Here’s the deal. Don’t write your itinerary in stone. We approached each day with a plan. However, within that plan were caveats and disclaimers that allowed us the freedom to spend some extra time at a place we really liked (read: Crooked Stave’s place at The Source) knowing that we may simply need to cross off a later plan to enjoy more time there. It didn’t feel like a loss to cross something off when we had great beer right under our noses.
In addition to the flexibility that the itinerary provided, it gave us a compass. It served as a constant reminder that if we veered too far off course, we’d certainly begin to miss out on things we really wanted to see, do and taste.
3) Eat good food.
If you’ve been to many beer festivals or participated in Beer Week activities, you probably know how important nutrition is. Or maybe you don’t. Think about how you felt the day after said festival or event – therein lies your answer.
Man cannot live on beer and salted pretzels alone. That’s why God gave us Illegal Pete’s.
Illegal Pete’s is a locally-based mini-chain of laid back and music-focused burrito stops around the Denver/Boulder area. At one point on the trip, I called them my “Badass Chipotle.” Get in line for burritos, nachos, tacos or a bowl filled with fresh ingredients. Avoid the fatty foods like pork and stick with steak, chicken or vegan options. You’re still within arm’s reach of great beer as Illegal Pete’s has a fantastic tap list from folks like Ska Brewing and Great Divide. If you’re a little beer’d out, but still want to fight the good fight into the night, a $5.50 happy hour margarita in a pint glass will get the job done. Don’t believe me? Ask Bill Night.
Honorable mention: Snooze AM Eatery for free coffee stations, great food, and impressive Bloody Marys.
4) Visit local bars & taprooms.
I figure even a noob has probably got a list longer than their arm of breweries to visit in Denver. So, that’s why visiting local breweries is not on this list. You’re going to visit breweries in Denver. That’s a given.
I found the bars and taprooms to provide a little more ambiance and a bit more local flare than the breweries. It’s in the pub scene where I found more locals enjoying a pint, or folks not necessarily in town for GABF ponied up to the bar. Unless their was a GABF event going on, the pubs were a quieter respite from the crowd noise around town.
A couple notable spots for me were Falling Rock Taphouse and The Terminal inside Union Station–yes, a bar inside the train station.
You’ve probably heard of Falling Rock. One step inside and you get the vibe that it’s just as iconic as Portland’s Horse Brass Pub or San Francisco’s Toronado. Breweriana relics of yesteryear don the walls and line the shelves. The tap list is extensive and you’re humbled by the thought of how many Denver area breweries started out down the road these pioneers paved. If only these walls could talk. You’ll find Falling Rock to be quaint and charming on Tuesday before GABF and likely mild on Sunday after the festival. Mid-week until Saturday will be packed in tight and festive as it’s a perennial hub of activity for industry folks and beer fans alike.
My favorite night of the week was wasted away playing shuffleboard outside The Terminal at Union Station. This was NOT a stop on our itinerary, but when other plans were thwarted by long lines, we stopped by this bar we had eye-balled walking to brunch earlier that day. Inside Union Station are a number of local eateries, a bakery, a cocktail bar, the aforementioned Snooze AM Eatery and lounging areas of couches and comfy seats. Most seats even had a USB port for phone charging (more on that momentarily). Grab a pour from one of The Terminal’s 30ish taps and walk around the train station like you own the place!
5) Keep your phone charged.
Back to the festival itself. I’d spent all day roaming Denver for great beer and great food. Now it’s time to line up and get inside my first GABF session. Unfortunately for this noob, I headed in with a 19% charge on my iPhone. With the amount of social media activity that’s part of my every day, this is about 19 minutes of battery life. I had a cord, but no battery pack to charge from nor knowledge of where I might find an outlet inside.
As an avid Untappd user (don’t judge me), this was the scariest moment of my life.
Not only was I unable to track the beers I enjoyed (and earn sweet Untappd badges like a BAWSE), but I found out that 13+ acres of beer on a single convention floor is a great place to get completely turned around and lost. I spent a lot of session one just trying to re-locate my party. If only I could have texted them.
How did GABF-goers in 2002 even do it? I can’t imagine.
6) That big line? Get in it.
I’ve been to dozens on dozens of beer festivals all over this great country. When I see a line at a beer festival, I get a bit bummed out. I know the line is because there’s great beer at the front of it, but I also know that I would rather enjoy 4-6 other beers in the 20-30 minutes it may take to get through a gargantuan file of thirsty people.
This is NOT the case at GABF. Somehow, these event planning wizards have crafted a way to move 40 people through a line in the time I would expect 8-10 to get through. And sometimes those long lines are in front of breweries you’ve never heard of and are about to fall in love with (here’s lookin’ at you, Speciation Artisan Ales).
How do they do it? I have some thoughts. First of all, the pours at GABF are just 1-ounce tasters. So, we’re shaving off a few seconds per pour there, right? Well, it’s probably even more so that each line typically splits into 4 or sometimes as many as 10 volunteers pouring once you reach the front of it. However, I think the greatest time-saving impact is that each line is for a brewery, not just one beer. The team captains over the volunteers do a great job of having not-too-foamy pitchers ready to pour. When a particular beer isn’t pouring properly, it’s simply removed from availability and the line is forced to take another option from that particular brewery’s offerings.
This happened to my cousin and I as we waited in arguably the longest perpetual line of the festival – Portland’s own Great Notion. I had my heart set on Blueberry Muffin, but when I got to the front of the line it wasn’t available at that moment. No bother, I happily enjoyed my pour of Juice Box and my cousin from Sacramento got the Double Stack Breakfast Stout he’d been craving since his last visit to Portland.
The line may seem long, but it’s not. And the reward at the front of it is likely well worth it.
7) Don’t be one of the last to leave (or stay and watch the show).
On my first night of GABF, I closed the place down. Taps were shut off. Volunteers were walking out. I had to pee. As I got in line for the restroom, I realized that all of the happy-go-lucky beer lovers who make GABF so great had already hailed their Lyfts and Ubers. I was in line for the International Bathroom Convention of The Dude Bros. These rapscallions were ready to fight over stalls, stumble into walls and slip & fall onto whatever it was that made the floor wet.
This may be a show you want to skip on your itinerary. Or maybe you’re a fan of the inebriated performance arts.
Either way, I’ll see you afterwards at Illegal Pete’s.