GABF Hangover 2017: AKA Dispatches From The Biggest Beer Festival in America
Another Great American Beer Festival (GABF) is in the books! The biggest beer festival in North America brings 60,000 people from all over the globe for unlimited samples of 3,800+ beers. With only 4 hours and having limits you can only do a small smattering of the available beers on tap. Every year I plan a battle plan of where to go….which usually falls apart after a hour or so of sampling. However I do find myself visiting a lot of favorites and looking up buzzworthy beers to taste. As I often do, I like to report on what my takeaways were from “America’s answer to Oktoberfest” (aka the 2nd biggest beer festival in the world)
Much like last year, I think my big concentration skewed to the barrel aged groups of beer. Big bold beers that spent some hard time in oak barrels were like a magnet to me. I also leaned towards mouth puckering sours as well and tried to hit up some lambic style beers (which are currently in the middle of a debate with the country of Belgium on what to call this style).
The best beer for me on the floor was Toppling Goliath’s Mornin Delight. This stout really had the wow factor for me. I had to go back and make it the fitting final beer of GABF 2017. Also at the table was King Sue which was a VERY good imperial IPA.
Another line well worth waiting for was Gentle Notions. Having heard some buzz for their hazy IPAs I wanted to try them. I found that I liked Ripe IPA more than Juicebox but the beer at the booth that wowed me the most was their Blueberry Muffin which is a delicious wild sour ale that is made with real blueberry muffins and fresh blueberries. Brewery Omnegang did a special preview of their upcoming Game of Thrones beer Winter Is Here which is a imperial double white ale (get it?….Night King?) and while I think a dark winter beer would be tastier this was still a great entry for the series.
While tappings of rare and monsterous beers such as Sam Adam’s Utopias and whatever Avery is pulling from the barrels usually get the biggest lines, I found that I was able to just walk up and try a taste of The Bruery’s Black Tuesday which rings in at a whopping 20% abv. Similarly while I did want to try 2 Road’s “Jambic” after developing a taste for Lambic style beers after visiting Belgium a few years ago, I wasn’t close to the booth at the allotted pouring time but did find the nearby booth of Boneyard Brewing’s offering of Gooze Cruz to be just as delicious as The Lost Abbey’s Duck Duck Gooze (which I hear is a helluva white whale to apprehend outside the festival halls). Another delicious sour for me was actually from New Belgium which is just a hour away from my home. Their Oscar aged in Blackberry Bourbon barrels was definitely a very memorable beer that I found myself grabbing each time we swung by the Red Robbin booth for some delicious frites and aoli.
Last year no gold medal or silver medal was awarded for a pumpkin ale in 2016, it had some beer fans see it as a sign of a waning style, however St Arnold’s Pumpkinator showed that the style was ready for a comeback by snagging gold in the category followed by Schlafy’s Pumpkin Ale with a Silver. While Pumpkin Ale appears to be coming back up from a slump (some stores had last year’s stock still sitting a few months back) it’s hard to argue that IPA which is the style sitting at the top is having a challenge in the form of the juicy hazy New England variant. If the lines at Great Notion and Weldwerks were any indication, it would seem that the great IPA style Civil War is upon us. While it seemed the classic styles won hardware, kegs of Weldwerk’s Juicy Bits didn’t last very long before kicking.
Being born and raised in Texas but Colorado has been my hom home the past for 9 years, I like to see when both states bring home hardware. For some of my favorite Texas breweries I was glad to see Pinthouse Pizza, Austin Beerworks, Saint Arnold, Deep Ellum and Freetail Brewing bring home medals.
Locally I was very pleased with my go-to Local Homebrew Shop Co-Brew scoring a bronze medal. Other Colorado breweries I was pleased to see win some medals were some of my favorite stops around town or nearby: The Black Project, Lone Tree Brewing, Little Machine, Jessup Barrel House, Weldwerks, Our Mutual Friend, and Baere Brewing.
After a bit of time on the floor I find out that I am all about that SWAG!! Most booths have buttons that’ll make a fine addition to my collection but there were a few booths that brought the A-game on giving out swag. Blue Point brewing probably brought the most useful item: A taster cup carrier. However without the cup it sort of looks like a S&M ball-gag but it prevented those using it from being on the receiving end of the dreaded and highly irritating OHHHHHHH!!! that fills the halls when a cup is dropped. Fossil Cove had lime green hats with a triceratops cove if you answered a trivia question. I think they also won the coolest booth for me…but that’s probably because I’m a dinosaur fan. Melvin not only had a rocking school bus, but on Thursday night WWE Hall of Famer Hacksaw Jim Duggan was posing for fan photos (I got him to let out his trademark HOOOOOOOOO with me). Another notable photo op was with Elvis himself but I believe due to the convention center’s spotty WiFi, that photo has left the building. In addition to photos, a few booths had some contraband (aka stickers which aren’t allowed) which I plan to add to my keg, a few coasters for the wall next to it, Founder’s booth had some stylish red shades that I rocked and Brewdog may not have had founders and Brew Dogs TV show hosts James Watt or Martin Dickie present but I did walk away after trying Elvis Juice with a pretty stylish lanyard to wear at work.
A CHANGING LANDSCAPE
Usually the festival brings a lot of news to the beer industry but this year the biggest item had to be that a definitive line has been drawn in the sand in the ever present battle between craft beer and brewing giants such as InBev, MillerCoors and Heineken. The adoption of the Independent Craft set the bar this summer and that seal that can be adorned on any brewery that is a small brewery and less than 25% of the brewery is owned or controlled by an industry member that is not itself a craft brewer. The Brewers Association says that this will help customers know whether the beer they are drinking is a truly independent business or if it’s part of a global entity. In recent years previously considered craft breweries such as Lagunitas, Goose Island, Ballast Point, Revolver, Elysian, Breckenridge Brewery, and Wicked Weed among others have been acquired by Corporate Beer Giants and are no longer considered a craft brewery. To further the distinction, reports surfaced heading into GABF that that many of these breweries would not be attending the festival this year. Lagunitas claim that they were not invited while the Brewers Association which organizes the event said that the festivals lottery system has changed to make breweries acquired by large companies only get one entry for all their brands rather than individual entries.
While the festival certainly leans more towards a showcase of the craft breweries of several regions across america, there would usually be a Big Beer presence with both the festival and the awards ceremony. While Coors appeared as did their other offshoots like AC Golden, their “crafty” brands of Revolver, Leinenkugel, Terrapin and Blue Moon, which the latter had long held an endcap sponsor booth did not appear this year. Anheuser-Busch (Budweiser) would usually be found in the Midwest region with a booth to replicate their St Louis brewery but this year the only AB-InBev acquired breweries that appeared was Blue Point and Four Peaks.
In addition to the festival itself, some of the country’s most popular craft brewers were not on the floor or competition BUT were still in town. Jester King for example still had a presence in a limited bottle release around the Denver metro area while they attended some taping events such as Crooked Stave’s What the Funk? festival that typically runs in the same week as GABF featuring a few breweries that are in town but choose to not attend GABF for various reasons (Cost, beer that has to be donated, they are insanely popular on their own, and other reasons) . Other local locations found within Denver that has garnered buzz over the last year such as Cerebral Brewing elected to host special tappings at home as an off-site party location.
With these exceptions, the Festival was just as big as ever with lines at times wrapping around the Colorado Convention center. So while the battle lines may have been present clearer than ever, Tickets not selling out quite as fast as prior years it would seem that despite the surrounding news, this festival is still no doubt the king of beer festivals on this side of the globe.
Next year’s festival will take place September 20-22.