*Phew. I'm back. And partially recovered.
I've been to a lot of beer festivals but the Great American Beer Festival is world class. If you've never had the chance to go and want to experience the quintessential celebration of beer, then start booking your flights to Denver, Colorado. There truly isn't another one better.
My festival experience started with some really good advice from the locals: do not wait in the queue beforehand. In order to be towards the front, it's best to get there a good two hours before the doors open. That means waiting in line for two hours when you could otherwise be enjoying the great city of Denver. We decided to get in line just after the doors opened at about 5:40pm. After a very efficient entry process (which included ticket scan, ID check, and wristbands) we had glass-in-hand by 6:03. So all of those people that sacrificed two hours of their lives just to be first had about 15 minutes of bliss before they had to wait in all of the lines inside.
Once inside, we were greeted by the beautiful sight of hundreds of America's best breweries that stretched throughout the conference center as far as the eye could see. A great GABF iPhone app helped me pick out some of the not-so-well-known breweries as the more than 400 breweries and thousands of beers made it necessary to do some research beforehand. I made a conscious decision to seek out some of smaller regional superstars as opposed to the juggernauts. Organized by region--Pacific, Great Lakes, Southwest, etc.--it was quite easy to navigate towards the breweries that I had pre-selected. Crowds of toga-clad men and Storm Troopers notwithstanding.
I headed directly towards Wicked Weed Brewing of Asheville, North Carolina: a brewery I didn't know much of but had read a good bit about beforehand. As with all of the other breweries there, Wicked Weed had brought along with them about six of the beers that THEY wanted to show off to the crowds. Deciding to bestow upon them the prestigious award of "My First Beer at GABF, " I selected their Serenity 100% Brett Saison from choices ranging from a double red ale to an IPA. It was a beauty; beautifully dry, funky and refreshing, it was a fantastic saison and one I'd routinely seek out.
After enjoying my first beer, I made my way over to the Beer and Food Pavilion for one of the fest's most impressive offerings: a free 30-minute beer and food pairing courtesy of Green Flash Brewing's Director of Beer Education, Dave Adams, and Chef Lon from Denver's great ChoLon Bistro. A beautiful braised pork cheek with celeriac purée and Asian pear salad was paired with Green Flash's Flanders Drive--a gorgeous Flanders red with notes of vanilla, cherry, and sour earthiness that had been aged in a charred American oak bourbon barrel. The pairing was absolutely spot-on while the presentation of information to an obviously well-educated beer audience made it a fantastic experience. For free!
I could go on and on about all of the great beers that I tried--from San Francisco's Almanac Beer Co.'s Farmer's Reserve Citrus Wild Ale to Russian River's Pliny the Elder to Firestone Walker's Opal Saison--but I'll save you from the
jealousy inanity. You'd be safe in assuming that all of the beers were on form and with 1oz tastes it was so easy to make your way around testing as many beers as time allowed. The best part was that--for the most part--the brewers were behind the bars! From the great guys from Holy City Brewing Co. to the monks from New Mexico's Abbey Brewing Company (who made a GREAT dubbel, by the way) it's so great to have the opportunity to talk beer with the people behind it.
I feel that the Great American Beer Festival is a fabulous celebration of all that is great on the American beer scene. Fun and laughter could be heard from every corner. Grown men dressed as babies. 15,000 people got along fabulously. One of the festival traditions is to mockingly yell at anyone who dropped their plastic tasting glass. Indeed, that happened a lot more regularly as the night went on. No more than 15 seconds would pass by without hearing a crowd from some corner of the center embarrassing those who dared drop their glass. I may have mocked one or two people myself. While white-knuckling my glass.
Everything that could've been thought of, was thought of. Designated Drivers had their own lounge. The drunkest among us could make fools of themselves at the Silent Disco. Beer education was abound. While the lines to the toilets were no shorter than those of any other beer festival I had ever been to, the sense of conviviality and being a part of something great didn't make it seem so bad.