A Look Inside Denver's Great American Beer Festival

Great American Beer Festival  | Twitter, GABF

Great American Beer Festival | Twitter, GABF

By Justin Dolezal, Foodable Contributor

As the American craft beer movement has advanced and grown, a slew of festivals and competitions have been founded to meet beer lover’s demands for events to judge, celebrate, and advance the cause of artisan beer in this country. The king of these festivals is Denver’s Great American Beer Festival, an annual fall celebration of American beer that takes place this year from September 24-26th. The event draws over 700 of the country’s finest breweries and thousands of craft beer aficionados to the Denver Convention Center.

For brewers, the festival offers an opportunity for exposure, providing artisans access to beer fans across the country, eager to experience new and novel brews. The event’s competition, in which hundreds of beers are judged according to style, can add legitimacy to under-the-radar breweries looking for a way to increase their public profile. For the beer lovers who attend the event, it provides an opportunity to revel in the exciting, ever-evolving world of American beer.

Humble Beginnings

The Great American Beer Festival was founded in 1982, three years after the legalization of home brewing began the American craft beer movement. The first festival was held in Boulder at the Harvest House Hotel, and featured 22 breweries pouring 40 different beers. Despite the relatively small number of breweries in attendance, the event drew 800 attendees, a promising sign that portended the enthusiasm for American beer that has grown to this day. To accommodate rising interest in the festival, the event was moved to Denver in 1984.

The Festival

Craft Beer Pairings  | Twitter, GABF

Craft Beer Pairings | Twitter, GABF

Today, over 49,000 beer lovers attend the event each year, and tickets often sell out within hours of being released. The event consists of three public 4-hour tasting sessions (as well as a private session for members of both the Brewers Association and American Homebrewers Association), during which attendees can sample unlimited one-ounce pours of over 3,500 beers available at the event. Brewery booths are organized geographically, with each brewery pouring a selection of their favorite beers. It's a unique opportunity for beer enthusiasts, allowing them to try a wide range of beer styles with like-minded enthusiasts, in a setting in which discussion and analysis are encouraged. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Great American Beer Fest represents the largest number of on tap beers available anywhere in the world.

Recent additions to the festival format include a Meet the Brewer event, in which attendees can meet and interact with brewers and brewery employees from over 100 different breweries, ranging from established industry players like Boulevard Brewing, Founder’s Brewing and Great Divide, to exciting new emerging breweries, like San Diego’s Societe, Minnesota’s Surly Brewing, and Chicago’s Revolution Brewing.

Craft beer fans who also appreciate delicious food can also check out the Farm to Table Pavilion, where the new “Paired” program showcases the possibilities that beer and food offer when paired together. Attendees are offered a selection of beers not poured elsewhere in the festival paired with thoughtfully crafted small bites from some of the country’s most innovative and exciting chefs and restaurants. Both chefs and brewers will be in attendance, discussing their pairings and the process that goes into selecting high-quality ingredients and formulating recipes for both beers and meals alike.

Great American Beer Festival participants  | Twitter, GABF

Great American Beer Festival participants | Twitter, GABF

The Competition

In addition to the celebratory public tasting sessions, breweries are encouraged to submit their beers to the event’s competition, in which a professional beer judge panel conducts a blind tasting and analysis of hundreds of submitted beers in 90 different beer-style categories. Classic styles such as American Pale Ale and German Style Pilsner are judged, along with newer, non-traditional styles such as Field or Chili Beer. Professional judges judge the beers that are submitted within their particular fields of expertise, refraining from judging their own products or beers in categories they feel uncomfortable judging.

Per the Great American Beer Festival’s website, the goal of the competition is, “to identify the three beers that best represent each beer-style category as described and adopted by the Great American Beer Festival.” Judging is not based on personal taste, which is subjective, but rather on how the submitted beers adhere to the style guidelines adopted by the event with regards to taste, aroma, and appearance.

Once the judges have determined the three best examples of each style, Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals are awarded. These medals are extremely respected within the beer community, and displaying them inside breweries or on product packaging (as many brewers choose to do) can greatly enhance a breweries appeal and market presence as a whole.

The Great American Beer Festival, in many ways, is the kind of event that exists in many industries, an event in which products are celebrated, awards are given, and enthusiasts can gather to revel in the thing they love. The difference, of course, is that the Great American Beer Festival deals in the greatest industry on earth. An undercurrent of love, respect for tradition, and excitement for the future runs through the Great American Beer Festival, making it a must visit for beer lovers everywhere. Though this year’s event is sold out, make sure you follow the festival for info on next year’s ticket release. Attendance is a choice you’re not likely to regret.