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Cigar City shines, beer nerds delight at Denver's Great American Beer Festival

Some people will go to great lengths to enjoy good beer.

I'm one of those people.

This year I decided to take great lengths to a literal level and travel to Denver, Colo., for the 31st annual Great American Beer Festival.

The GABF is a much-loved tradition among craft-beer enthusiasts, pitting breweries against each other in more than 80 categories, encompassing a range of nearly every beer style in existence.

The competition is one part of the appeal, but the main reason the event so big is because the beers in competition are available for sampling throughout the festival's three-day run, giving beer-lovers a chance to taste some of the best beers America has to offer. Attendance has doubled over the past 10 years, with this year's festival drawing 49,000. Tickets to the festival sold out in 45 minutes online.

I planned on attending the Friday night session and the Saturday afternoon members-only session. The latter was open only to members of the Brewer's Association, the American Homebrewers Association and scalpers who paid for a membership just so they could sell the coveted Saturday pass.

To a GABF first-timer, the scene Friday night was incredible. Tens of thousands of beer nerds strolled the aisles of the massive Colorado Convention Center, downing 1-ounce samples from the booths of more than 580 breweries in competition. Broken pretzels coated the floor like peanut shells at a Texas Roadhouse. (If a drinker accidentally dropped their cup, especially on the Saturday session, when tasting cups were actually tasting glasses, the people surrounding them would cheer loudly.)

This was a chance to try the best brews this country has to offer, including many that we deprived Floridians have a tough time getting our hands on, like New Belgium and Russian River. The latter was responsible for the longest lines at the festival behind … Cigar City Brewing! That's right, Cigar City, which took home a bronze medal this year in the Field Beer or Pumpkin Beer category for its Cucumber Saison, consistently had a line a few dozen long throughout both sessions I attended.

Another Florida brewery also medaled — Melbourne's Florida Beer Company took home bronze in the Classic English-Style Pale Ale category for its Hurricane Reef Pale Ale — and several others were in competition, including Dunedin's Seventh Sun. I ran into Barley Mow's Jay Dingman and Colleen Huffman but like me, they were just there to enjoy the beers.

The GABF also tends to be a barometer for the future of the craft beer scene.

Sour and barrel-aged beers were everywhere this year, with special tappings such as Russian River's Toronado 25th Anniversary Ale and Firestone Walker's Velvet Merkin creating some of the longest lines and biggest word-of-mouth hype at the festival.

The new category added this year was the Fresh Hop Ale category, indicative of both our continued love affair with heavily-hopped beers as well as a desire for newer, ever-fresher flavors. Sierra Nevada took the gold in that category with their Estate Homegrown Ale.

And then there was the case of a brewery most attendees had never heard of — Tap It Brewing from San Luis Obispo, Calif. Nearly 20 percent of the competing breweries were first-time entrants, guaranteeing that many fantastic new beers would be discovered, but many were surprised when Tap It took home gold in the most hotly-contested category of all — American-Style India Pale Ale, a category with more than 200 entries.

Whether the momentum of the craft-beer revolution can last at this current pace is up for debate, but if record ticket sales, crowds in the tens of thousands, an impressive gold-medal underdog story and the scores of strange and wonderful beers I sampled are any indication, things are just going to get a lot more interesting. — jg@saintbeat.com

Cigar City shines, beer nerds delight at Denver's Great American Beer Festival 10/18/12 [Last modified: Monday, February 18, 2013 9:55pm]

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