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Lessons from the Great American Beer Festival

The off-site What The Funk?! event featured sour, wild and funky beers.

Photo by Justin Grant

The off-site What The Funk?! event featured sour, wild and funky beers.

I returned last week from the Great American Beer Festival, Denver's annual celebration of beer. It's the largest beer festival in the United States and according to the Brewer's Association, this year boasted the largest collection of domestic beer ever served at a public tasting. Almost 3,000 beers from nearly 600 different breweries, over the course of four days. This was my second year attending the festival, and I learned a few things this time around. For example:

The Great American Beer Festival is much larger than the festival itself. Although I did make it to some off-site events last year, most of my time was spent in and around the Convention Center. This year, I devoted more time to events at restaurants, breweries, and tap rooms, over 200 of which were scheduled between Monday and Sunday: "GABF Week." Some of these events, like the four-course vegetarian brunch at City O' City restaurant, featuring pairings with exclusive beers from New Belgium and Jolly Pumpkin, were among the highlights.

Although the main sessions at the Convention Center are still a crucial part of the GABF experience, some off-site events proved to be wildly popular, such as What The Funk?!, a "small" tasting directly competing with the official GABF Friday evening session. WTF?!, organized by Denver's Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project, featured around 50 breweries and just several hundred attendees, as opposed to the five-figure crowds at every GABF session. Like GABF, tickets for this event sold out in minutes. The focus? Sour, wild and funky beers.

Sour and wild beers are ridiculously popular this year. While it's not news that sour beer has been steadily on the rise in the domestic craft-beer scene for a long while now, the sheer number of wild yeast and bacteria-fermented beers — à la Belgian lambic and Flanders-style ales — poured during GABF week was astounding. Some of the most sought-after beers at the GABF sessions were sours from breweries like the Lost Abbey, Almanac, Russian River, and, of course, Crooked Stave. In fact:

Even MillerCoors is making lambic-style beer. One of the most impressive beers I tried over the course of GABF week — and I'm not kidding — was one brewed at AC Golden, a subsidiary of MillerCoors, if you can believe it. The beer was Colorambic, an American wild ale closely reminiscent of some of the best gueuze lambics from Pajottenland, Belgium. Many beer fans will undoubtedly turn up their noses at a beer brewed by a corporate giant, but from an objective standpoint, I feel that AC Golden is a name well worth remembering.

At GABF sessions, it's important to have a strategy. Drinking 3,000 beer samples in less than four hours would be a bad idea even if it were possible. Therefore, it's important to pick your battles. Sure, you can just use a freestyle approach, but you'll be missing a lot.

As such, I present you with my GABF Basic Strategy: Make note of beers you absolutely don't want to miss and sample a quarter of that list every hour. Make note of special tappings and set phone alarms for 15 minutes prior to the tapping time so you can get in line. Between "priority" beers, be adventurous: Try beers from small breweries and brewpubs in tiny towns you've never heard of. Many of these breweries are introducing their beers to such a large audience for the first time, and you may discover a hidden gem.

Finally, Florida beer is still hot. At the WTF?! tasting, the biggest consistent line was for the Miami Madness and Passionfruit Dragonfruit Berliner Weisses brewed at Cigar City by J Wakefield Brewing. Boca Raton's Funky Buddha Brewery created a big buzz at the Saturday afternoon GABF session with its Last Snow porter, and Cigar City took home a gold medal in the Pro-Am competition for its Poblano Wit. Seven Florida breweries were represented in all, including Dunedin's 7venth Sun Brewery and Sarasota's Darwin's Brewing Company. Florida is pumping out some seriously good beer.

This year's GABF was by far the largest to date, and there's no doubt that next year's will be even more massive. I'm excited to see what I learn next time around.

— jg@saintbeat.com

Lessons from the Great American Beer Festival 10/23/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 23, 2013 11:28pm]
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