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Food & Drink

Inside the Great American Beer Festival

I almost felt like I was cheating on my husband.  My night out was not a rendezvous with another man, but instead at the Great American Beer Festival.

After I guiltily left my American IPA-loving mate at home this past weekend, I made my way to Denver’s Colorado Convention Center for what’s been touted as the world's largest commercial beer competition and the country's largest ticketed beer festival. 

"The American craft beer public is looking for flavorful, drinkable beers. The bizarre is fun, It's not the long haul."

- RD Johnson, owner and operator, High Noon Saloon in Leavenworth, Kansas

The Great American Beer Festival (GABF) is indeed massive.  GABF spokeswoman Barbara Fusco says about 49,000 people attend each year –and an average of 12,000 pack into each of the four sessions.  There's no shortage of drink choices -- 700 breweries pour several beers each.

Fusco says more than half of ticket holders are visitors from out of town.  "It would be hard to book a hotel room or buy a bag of pretzels anywhere near the convention center," she says.

Regardless of where they come from, most get dress up to partake in the festivities and could give the ornate hats and outfits of Kentucky Derby parties a run for the money. 

Some wear costumes, hats and wigs that make for rewarding people watching. 

Many come prepared to soak up all this beer by donning pretzel necklaces.  The edible accessories range from the simple, with small pretzels, to heavy duty pretzels interlaced with beef jerky, cheese sticks and other goodies hooked on for variety sake

Whatever the attire, a critical beer festival "don't" is getting so tipsy you drop your plastic tasting glass on the cement floor.  That noise is like tipping over a domino setting off a chain reaction or hoots of disapproval that roll through the hall like a tsunami.  

It would be easy to get overwhelmed with so many suds (almost 3,000 beers) which are doled out in 1-ounce pours.

Come with a game plan.  Troy Robinette who has attended a number of times, says his strategy amounts to "being prepared in the morning. Have a good breakfast, the earlier the better.  And then have a variety of selections to eat during the beer fest."

Fusco's pro insider tip is to "follow your palate." 

GABF offers My GABF, a free smart phone app.  You can pick your beer style tour and the app lists the breweries, beer names and booth locations, so you can ping from location to location in the massive hall, sampling your preferred type.  Or, as Robinette puts it, "You gotta find whatever takes your taste buds."  

The hall is primarily laid out by regions, i.e., New England, Pacific, Mountain, etc.  One of the longer lines at the festival (besides bathrooms):  a buffet of cheese samples from the American Cheese Society.  Nearby, is a silent disco.  Dancers and a D.J. rock out beneath a disco ball, listening to music on headsets, an amusing sight since bystanders had no idea what they were dancing to.

A store hosts book signings.  Titles cover a wide range of subjects for those wanting to soak up beer knowledge:  learning to brew, beer history, cooking and pairing, travel and the business of beer. 

Another option is to sit in on a seminar.  I attended "Beer & Food Cookout with the Beervangelist" Fred Bueltmann.  The audience was treated to small gourmet bites and tips on pairing cookout foods with beer.  Samples included grilled Halloumi cheese with corn salsa, brisket sliders with Pale Ale blue cheese sauce and grilled peaches with Balsamic reduction and salt. 

Colorado, which has seen the GABF get bigger and bigger each year, has been described at the Napa Valley of beers.  It is believed an average of three new breweries open here every two weeks.  With so much happening in the craft beer scene, it begs the question, what is trending?

Ed Sealover, a brewery guide author who covers brewery news and writes the Beer Run Blog, says he's seeing an emphasis on barrel aged beers.

"People want to see what happens when you're going to throw a beer into a whiskey barrel, a wine barrel, a tequila barrel, what it does to the flavor, how the aging goes along."  Sealover adds, "You see new breweries that are now setting aside space to barrel age their beer, whereas before that used to be the providence of a 10 year old brewery.... now people are starting up with that idea."

RD Johnson, owner and operator of the High Noon Saloon in Leavenworth, Kansas, just marked his 18th year at GABF.  A retired Army officer who spent most of his career in Germany, he home brewed before buying his brewery.  He says he thinks IPA's, while a good thing, are a trend. 

"They're not going to go away, but I think they'll move on to another style.  There's a lot of Belgian sours and stuff... The American craft beer public is looking for flavorful, drinkable beers. The bizarre is fun, It's not the long haul."

More than 220 judges evaluated 5,500 beers at the competition this year.  Bringing home a medal is viewed as prestigious and bragging rights can help sales.  Even if they don't go home with medals, brewers say they come away with other benefits. 

Check out a full list of the winners here

"We get the opportunity to meet a lot of new potential customers.  We get a lot of ideas from other breweries and from the customers themselves. We get good feedback on our product that enhances our product," says Johnson. 

Fusco says it’s the annual event that brings the beer community together. "Think of it like an oversized family reunion. Brewing is a very collegial industry.  It's kind of old home week here, everybody getting together here in Denver to catch up."  

GABF sells out minutes after tickets go on sale.  With festival tickets in so high demand, Robinette says he has found "astronomical" ticket prices on alternate sites such as Craigslist.  He attends each year as a tradition with his nephew and plans to join the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) in order to get a leg up on tickets next year.

If this is a bucket list item for you, the next one is September 24 to 26, 2015 in Denver, but you better act fast.