The count of beer choices that the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) presents to the world are just a bit staggering. Festival-goers this year will be faced with choices from 690 American breweries, offering nearly 3,000 different beers to sample, one ounce at a time. The GABF judging competition ratchets that up even higher, exceeding 2018’s 8,500-beer count and pushing it to around NINE THOUSAND different brews to evaluate. 120 judges are required for just IPAs alone. The fest begins Thursday, October 3 at 5:30, with four total sessions through October 5.
For attendees on the floor, the choice is no less intimidating. Here’s a tip: you aren’t gonna make it through 3000 ounces – that’s more than 23 gallons – of beer in four GABF sessions. You’re forced to pick and choose. You can start with a look at the list on GABF’s web site. You can also download the app on your iPhone or Android smartphone. You can go to MyGABF.com and use the planner. You can spend maybe a little time being maybe a little bewildered.
You’d think it would be easier. 690 breweries? That’s not even ten percent of the USA’s operating brewery count in 2019. You’re going to encounter the familiar right alongside the new entrants, ones you’ve never heard of. You’ll find the OGs alongside the hot new buzz brewers, and you’ll find nearly every style of beer currently brewed on earth in some form or another.
How do you choose? You try a divide and conquer approach. Focus on styles that matter to you, on what seems intriguing, on what you know to be good, and most importantly, the brewers that actually are pouring. Since more than 7,000 of the country’s breweries *won’t* be there, you won’t have to worry about looking for beers from, say, Anchorage Brewing, Midnight Sun, De Garde, Block 15, Upright, or Reach Break. Hazebros won’t need to seek out The Alchemist, Treehouse, Trillium, Toppling Goliath, or Matchless. See? It’s already easier than you thought it would be. The reason these breweries won’t be there vary: some don’t see any point in being there because they’re busy enough already. Some are in the judging competition, but not out for sampling on the festival floor. Some just didn’t get an application in on time.
The GABF floor layout helps a little bit, dividing breweries by region. It also helps to know your limits. Three Floyds, out of Munster, Indiana, has a reputation that reaches well beyond the Great Lakes region, but while Pillar of Beasts barleywine looks intriguing, it’s a strong drop of beer. One ounce won’t seem like much, but how many other 14.5% beers are you going to neck down? Maybe the brewery’s malt-forward Märzen, Munsterfest, might be a more reasonable choice.
Une Anneé, based in Illinois just outside of Chicago, has been generating buzz for its emphasis on wild ales and barrel-aged stouts. In the mood for a refreshing fruit beer? Their Péche has been well-received. Another sour specialist? Indiana’s Upland Brewing Company will be there. Their Sour Reserve series gets everything from rants to raves, and it’s available only in limited quantities. There might be a long line here, so get another beer to make the wait more bearable. The brewery also makes a pre-Prohibition-style lager, Champagne Velvet, which might help with palate cleansing. The real surprise will be Brewdog’s line, available at GABF because the Scotland-based brewer has a USA-based brewing operation in Columbus, Ohio. They’ll have Hazy Jane NEIPA for the hazefans visiting their stand, and a Cosmic Crush Boysenberry sour for lovers of the tartness.
The Mountain states will feature the likes of Nevada’s Revision Brewing, already pretty well-known for its popular line of IPAs, hazy and not-so-hazy. Get yourself a hop dose of Revision IPA, or throw caution to the winds with a barrel-aged Finite Madness imperial stout. If it’s spontaneous and wild that turns you on, Denver’s own Black Project has won bronze and silver medals in judging, and will likely have a line of tartness fans patiently waiting for their one-ounce pours, be it a one-off fruit beer from their Magic Lantern series, or a gueuze-inspired Oxcart. Freshen your palate with a German-style lager from Denver’s Prost Brewing – but you’ll have to wander over to the Meet The Brewer stands to do that.
The West Coast is divided into Pacific Northwest and Pacific regions, and by Pacific, they mean California, now home to one in every eight breweries in the USA. Perpetually popular Russian River will have classics like Pliny the Elder and STS Pils, alongside the likes of Temptation and Beatification. Wild Barrel, a two-year-old brewery based in San Marcos, will be there with hazies and fruited sours. Wild Barrel is also known for having “Doctor” Bill Sysak at the helm; before starting his own brewery, Sysak was near-legendary for the bottle shares he organized in the cellar of the Falling Rock, Denver’s singularly excellent beer bar. The Pacific Northwest at GABF includes Alaska, and Alaskan Brewing will pour its ever-popular Smoked Porter, alongside lighter refreshment like its popular malty Amber. Grains of Wrath will bring IPAs and lagers. Pfriem will bring Kölsch and Pils to cleanse the palate; Druif Rouge and Barrel-Aged Saison to challenge it.
From the opposite corner of the USA, Florida’s J Wakefield will keep things interesting, with a couple of imperial stouts, Miami Madness Berliner Weisse, and No Mas fruited Gose. Cigar City has joined the big leagues as part of a brewery consortium that also includes Colorado’s own Oskar Blues; both of these breweries have special status as Sponsors, with their own section on the floor. As you explore more breweries from the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions, you’ll find another surprise: Ireland’s Guinness now has operations in Maryland, and will feature their beers at their own stand. You’ll probably find the Guinness take on IPA to be pretty mild, but a Coffee Stout might be a good wake-up call. Oozlefinch Brewing’s weird name alone generates curiosity, but its range includes a hazy IPA, saison, and sours, so it just might be worth investigating. New England’s Night Shift Brewing will refresh your palate with Nite Light lager or All The Peels wheat ale with orange peel, or sour it up with fruited Rickey Weisse. Maine’s Allagash will feature its range of Belgian-inspired ales, including a Coolship spontaneous sour and refreshing White ale.
This is not to
ignore goings-on all around Denver, with numerous special events at the Falling
Rock, and dozens of other happenings all around town. Jim Koch of Sam Adams and
Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head will likely appear together at the annual Sam
Adams Saturday brunch to talk about the merger of their two brewing companies.
recommendations are made with the awareness that tastes vary as widely as the
beer selections on the GABF floor. You’ll have an exhausting but fun time
savoring the full Denver beer experience that includes the Great American Beer
Festival. Try to keep your wits about you. In spite of the ounce-at-a-time
pours, it’s pretty easy to get more than a little crazy, and losing half a day
to a beer-induced hangover isn’t much fun.
Don Scheidt has been into good beer since before the dawn of craft brewing in the Pacific Northwest. He created the Northwest Brewpage, a regional guide to good beer in Oregon and Washington, back in the mid-1990s, but has since retired it. Don started writing the Washington state “Puget Soundings” column for Celebrator Beer News in 1998, and continues to do that today. Don also wrote about beer for the Seattle Weekly in 2005-2006.