GABF—A Far Cry From Humble Beginnings 29 Years Ago

By John Holl

By now, the last of the kegs have been emptied and cleaned. The wacky costumes are tucked away and photos downloaded. The souvenir tasting glass has likely joined others on a shelf at homes across the country.

For those who attended the Great American Beer Festival from September 16 -18, 2010 the bragging rites live on, as do the memories of tasting some of the most innovative, flavorful and complex beers the American craft brewers have to offer.

This year’s GABF was a far cry from the festival’s humble beginnings 29 years ago. What started out as an afternoon event tacked onto the end of the National Homebrewers Conference has morphed into a true festival. It attracts roughly 50,000 people to the Mile High City where they seek out the best beers and the people who make them. Amid the one-ounce pours and general sense of happiness among attendees, the GABF is one of the few events that captures the passion, loyalty, creativeness and hope surrounding the growing craft beer industry.

Three Days in Denver

It begins with bagpipes. For a brief moment before the doors officially open, the convention center is mostly quiet. Brewers and the orange shirted volunteers stand behind the pouring tables while the staff makes last minute checks. Then, it seems, everyone takes a collective breath, waits a beat, and exhales. Then comes the announcement from above that the session has begun. Doors open, a crush of wide-eyed revelers enter and the wail of bagpipes and boom of drums rise above the growing noise. As the pipe and drum band marches throughout the cavernous convention hall, many join in for an impromptu parade.

Nearly as soon as the bagpipe wail subsides it is replaced with a cacophony of laughter, shouting,  announcements, conversation, music and, of course, the near-constant dropping of lexan tasting glasses that skitter across the cement floor causing an eruption of jeers along the way.

Many, it seemed, arrived for the sessions with a game plan. For some it meant only trying beers from breweries they had never tasted before. Others lined up at the better-known breweries for a taste of a rare beer. Still others relied on word of mouth.

On Thursday, when Brewers Association founder and president, Charlie Papazian sent out a Twitter message (@CharliePapazian) asking if Shorts Brewing Company was the new Dogfish Head, the response was immediate and massive. People queued up as soon as sessions began. Shorts, of Bellaire, Michigan made a strong impression with their quirky brews, including the Key Lime Pie that took home a gold GABF medal in the experimental beer category.

There are four sessions during the GABF weekend, one on both Thursday and Friday evening and two on Saturday. Each offers their own unique vibe, with Saturday afternoon more focused on the 245 medals and awards handed out for achievements in beer. Thousands gathered around the main stage as categories were announced and winners read aloud. The West Coast, as usual, dominated the awards, with strong showings from the state of Colorado. Other areas of the country were represented, but in the craft categories the movement’s birthplace still reigns supreme.

The Saturday evening session, by comparison has the feeling of Bourbon Street combining with Duval Street during Oktoberfest in Munich. It’s a classic party of the first order.

While most of the 450 plus breweries had a modest presence at the festival, the regional craft breweries really pulled out the stops. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. captured the attention of most by bringing their eight-seat beer bike to the GABF. The bike, which weights several hundred pounds and is about as long as a SUV, is powered by people facing a bar who pedal, while a driver at the front steers the vehicle. There is room behind the bar for a second person who readily serves drinks. A fun feature of their Chico, CA brewery and regularly used by their Beer Camp attendees, this was the first time the bike made an appearance outside the brewery. People lined up for a chance to spin the pedals (the clutch was not engaged, keeping the bike stationary) and taste samples from the impressive Sierra Nevada lineup. The bike did hit the roads of Denver on Friday for an event at the Falling Rock Tap House that was described as either exhilarating or terrifying depending on the person telling the story.

For even the seasoned GABF attendee it is impossible to do it all. Best thing to do is just simply enjoy the experience.

Building a Better Pairing

GABF Farm to TableAs much as the GABF celebrates what is in the glass, this year organizers tried to put some focus on the plate as well. The Farm To Table Pavilion at the rear of the convention hall was a separate ticket event and offered carefully selected beers from a dozen or so celebrated craft breweries. Beers from New Holland Brewing Co. Rogue Ales, SweetWater Brewing Company and others were paired with gastronomic delights like a roasted vegetable napoleon on a spent grain crackers with sweet onion jam and micro greens. Or a smoked trout, corn cake and tomatillo chutney. Even dessert was covered with a house made buttermilk panna cotta, honey tuile and fresh Colorado berries.

This pavilion was similar to the annual SAVOR: An American Craft Beer & Food Experience hosted by the Brewers Association each spring in Washington D.C. The idea is that a beer with dinner does not simply mean burgers and pizza. Chefs around the country have begun to feature beer—not wine—as a suitable and preferred adult beverage companion to high-end food at linen tablecloth restaurants.

At the pavilion, students from the Culinary School of the Rockies and chefs from around the Centennial State were on hand to answer questions about food and beer pairings, suggestions for at home meals and to educate on the flavors in various beers and how they play with the dish’s ingredients.

Based on feedback from the people lucky enough to get a ticket to the sold out pavilion, this will be an even tougher ticket to score next year.


Another cause that has been of great importance to American craft brewers is preserving the environment. Many brewers go to great lengths to reduce their carbon footprint, recycle, encourage their customers to do the same, and this year the GABF continued its eco friendly trend.

Partnering with ZeroHero, the GABF sought to become a zero waste event. Initiatives included compost piles for cups, utensils, plates and other items. All glass and plastic bottles, cans, paper and cardboard were recycled. Styrofoam containers were banned during the festival and the house lights were kept at 50% during the sessions.

It just makes sense to take these and other steps to preserve the planet. Because, as the famous tee-shirt reads “it’s the only one with beer.”

Honoring the Roots of Craft Beer

Smelling Hops at GABFFor the last three years the GABF has been honoring the homebrewers, who are the bedrock of the craft beer industry. With the Pro-Am Competition, craft breweries from around the country select recipes from local home brewers, and create a batch to be entered against other homebrewers at the festival.

This year, the Red Velvet from Donny Hummel and Eagle Rock Brewery in Los Angeles took home gold. Ryed hard & Put Away Wet from Adam Glaser and Rockyard Brewing Co. of Castle Rock, CO took home silver. And the Robust Porter from Keith Antul and Wormtown Brewing Co of Worcester, MA took the bronze.

With a station located towards the front of the convention floor, the Pro-Am was one of the more popular attractions, serving as an inspiration to the aspiring, novice and even accomplished home brewers in the crowd.

More Than a 1oz Pour

More than just beer, the GABF is a chance for vendors to outfit every person in brewery attire, a fashionable hat, and make sure they have all the necessary accoutrements from bottle openers to glass holders.

This year had no shortage of unique vendors. There were artisan chocolates made with whole leaf hops, homebrew kits, personalized web searches and information on worthy causes like Pints for Prostates.

The enormous 30-foot wall of t-shirts was the place to outfit ones self with the latest in brewery fashions. The Beer Enthusiast Bookstore was on hand with tomes of all kinds. From travel adventures to homebrew books and histories, there was no shortage of great craft beer writing, and a chance to meet the authors.

For those with a greater thirst for knowledge there were seminars featuring many of the celebrities of craft beer and others that delved deeper into topics like collaboration beers and home brewing.

Promoting responsibility, there was a designated driver’s lounge where attendees could watch beer themed short films, get a massage and even enjoy some specialty sodas.

Continuing the party vibe, at the back of the convention hall, dancers of all ages got into the spirit of the Oskar Blues silent disco, where dance music was piped into wireless headsets from a DJ booth. For the folks on the dance floor, it just made sense. And then there was karaoke, too. For those on the outside, it made for a good laugh and healthy outlet during what is referred to as the Granddaddy of all beer festivals.

Visit the Beer and Beyond section of the GABF website for details on all the areas of the festival.

Beer Breeds Romance

Pouring Beer at GABFTo the untrained eye, the group of people standing near the Russian River booth during the Saturday afternoon session could have been anyone, just standing around talking beer. But, in fact, it was a wedding. Dave Keene, owner of San Francisco’s Toronado bar married his longtime girlfriend Jennifer Smith in a small gathering, comprised of craft beer personalities. Journalist Jay Brooks gave away the bride, while Russian River owners Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo served in the best man and matron of honor roles. The brief ceremony was presided over by Brett Joyce of Rogue Ales.

Love and craft beer is a beautiful thing.

Everyone Leaves Happy

The Great American Beer Festival celebrates everything that a person loves and respects about the wonderful fermented beverage. It is a real chance for consumers to connect with brewers and the others who encompass the beer world. It’s a chance to expand horizons, gain knowledge, try new things.

The GABF is about promoting American ingenuity and the entrepreneurial spirit. It’s a chance for people to gather, put on a fake mustache or lederhosen, shake the doldrums of a nine to five life and cut loose a little. It is about friendship, laughter, good food and better memories.

And it is, of course, about beer.

Finally, there is one question that most asked, after last call, as they left the GABF session. The answer?
September 29 – October 1, 2011.

John Holl is the editor of All About Beer magazine and author of The American Craft Beer Cookbook: 155 Recipes from Your Favorite Brewpubs and Breweries.

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