Thanks to its multitude of breweries, stellar beer bars and a Rocky Mountain culture that has long embraced specialty brewing, Denver has established itself as a world-class beer town. It’s no wonder then that for three days every autumn, the city puts on its fancy drinking shoes and welcomes the annual Great American Beer Festival, arguably the most influential happening in American beer.
This year’s event is slated to take place Thursday, September 21 through Saturday, September 23. As Wine Enthusiast’s resident beer reviewer—and a 12-time festival attendee—I have thoughts on how to best enjoy it.
Here’s everything you need to know before booking your flight.
What Is the Great American Beer Festival?
A bucket-list event for many serious beer drinkers, the festival is a raucous affair that caters not only to the beer aficionado, but the curious novice.
Each of the sessions—which this year take place Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings along with Saturday afternoon—begins with a bagpipe procession that leads attendees into the Colorado Convention Center and into the waiting embrace of 500-plus booths. Each is staffed with brewers and volunteers, from breweries big and small, who pour one-ounce samples into guests’ commemorative glasses.
The GABF, as it’s known, is one part bar crawl, one part costume party (groups will often arrive in coordinated outfits) and sometimes teeters on the edge of hot mess. But it’s indisputably a great snapshot of the state of American beer. As trends come and go, the festival reflects them on the convention center floor: From humble pale ales, barrel-aged imperial stouts and barley wines to experimental lagers and the modern-day hazy IPA, the GABF has highlighted them all.
Image Courtesy of Brewers Association
As the craft beer industry has evolved over the last five decades, so has the festival, which was first held in Boulder in 1982, when it brought in about 850 attendees. It would later relocate to Denver, where it has been held annually (except for 1998 when it took place in Baltimore). This year, the Brewers Association (BA), which produces the three-day event, estimates that 40,000 attendees will descend on the Mile High City for it. (This is down from the 62,000 touted for the 2019 event, as crowd-heavy beer festivals around the country continue to struggle since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.)
In addition to highlighting notable beers, the BA has worked to keep the fest in line with broader trends. This year marks the first time the festival will feature hard seltzer, kombucha, cider and non-alcoholic beer offerings.
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How to Make the Most of the Festival
The festival has a searchable list on its website that details participating breweries and what they’ll be pouring. While some attendees like to meander and let the fates decide what’s poured into their glass, it behooves most attendees to have a plan. After all, you have limited space in your stomach.
I recommend whipping up a personal bucket list of breweries that interest you or sticking to certain styles of beers. Alternatively, you can seek out brews that have medaled at previous festivals.
Image Courtesy of Brewers Association
Speaking of medals, a hallmark of the GABF is its annual awards. Breweries from around the country enter beers into more than 100 categories in the hopes of walking away as winners. While not every beer that wins will be available on the festival floor, many will be. Awards will be handed out before the Saturday afternoon session at a theater adjacent to the convention center. Attendance is often limited to brewing professionals, media and members of the BA, but stickers designating a win will be affixed to booths and available to sample after the awards are handed out.
My Suggestions for Beers to Sample
I am a proponent of letting people drink what they like, or what makes them curious. That being said, the GABF offers an unparalleled opportunity to expand one’s drinking horizons and to let loose. Larger and nationally-known breweries often pour familiar favorites and have long lines—that said, everyone should taste Samuel Adams’s Utopias, a 28% abv barrel-aged ale, at least once. You’ll also want to sample California’s Russian River Brewing Co.’s 8.8% abv Intinction Sauvignon Blanc. Finally, don’t skip Sierra Nevada’s barrel-aged 12% Narwhal.
Attendees should also be on the lookout for standout beers from smaller producers, including the following:
Crooked Stave Sour Rosé
A lovely combination of sweet blueberry, tart raspberry and oak that combines a spritzy and lively sipper that is best suited for brunch and warm summer afternoon imbibing. The tart and sweet characters of the fruit compete on the palate while the wood keeps both in check. 94 Points —J.H.
Lakefront La Gosarita
A salty gose with lime that is looking to pay homage to, not replace, a margarita cocktail. The ingredients are right and evoke the boozy drink without being an impostor. Lime zest, salty finish and a touch of citrus in the middle, this is gluten free and an easy sipper. 89 Points —J.H.
Old Irving Scentinel
Pours a burnished gold with a fluffy white head, and immediately releases a pleasing, aged pine aroma that is comforting and warm. Full malt body with some sweetness that adds a candy-like tint to the citrusy hops that come on mid-palate. This has old school DNA in the very best way. 90 Points —J.H.
Von Ebert Volatile Substance
It would be easy to wax poetic about the visual attributes of this beer, from its clear golden color to the cloud-like fluffy head of foam and how it perfectly laces the quickly emptying glass. The grapefruit pith flavors are accented by delicate pine and a caramel malt sweetness that allows just the slightest bit of boozy warmth escape. This IPA doesn’t command attention, it earns it and spending time with each sip reveals the great care and skill on which it was made. 100 Points —J.H.
Rhinegeist Truth India Pale Ale
This IPA is like being punched with an iron fist in a velvet glove. It is fun and engaging, with mango and pineapple hop flavors that are soft and inviting, followed by orange, grapefruit and a finishing touch of pine. It has diversity in each sip and it drinks just a little too easy for its above-average alcohol level. 98 Points —J.H.
Alaskan Brewing Smoked Porter
One of the most awarded beers in festival history, this smoky delight is the platinum standard for the style and has a strong loyal following. —J.H.
Bow & Arrow Brewing Denim Tux
An easy drinking adjunct lager is perfect to refresh the palate in between big, boozy samples. —J.H.
Perennial Artisan Ales Abraxas
A Mexican chocolate state brewed with chilies, it’s sweet, spicy and rich. Balanced and decadent, you’ll want more than one ounce. —J.H.
Nebraska Brewing Wick For Brains
People who love pumpkin beer really love pumpkin beer. For those people, this is a pumpkin beer to love. —J.H.
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