Last week, I traveled to Denver for four days to cover the 2017 Great American Beer Festival.
As with past festivals, this year’s event is being held at the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver. Over three days, an estimated 60,000 people will be able to try close to 4,000 beers being poured by more than 800 breweries. While the vast majority of beers being served are from kegs, there are a number of breweries that serve exclusively from bottles, or a combination of both.
Since this is a consumer event—i.e. consumers are allowed to purchase tickets to attend, as opposed to a retailer or brewery exclusive event—there are any number of reasons breweries attend the show. First and foremost, it is a chance to have your beer sampled by an enormous number of people from every walk of life, all within a very short timeframe.
Secondly, quite a few of the breweries that attend also enter beers into the annual Beer Competition, where beers are judged by the festival’s Professional Judge Panel. The judging takes place over five different three-hour judging sessions during a three-day period, and there are 96 beer styles that breweries can enter.
Finally, as with any event where a number of people get together, there is the social aspect. A large number of the breweries pouring at GABF have attended multiple years, and the show is sometimes the only time during the year that people can see each other in person.
We decided to cover this year’s festival in a daily blog format, so I took photographs and am describing the events I cover, the beers I try and the general mayhem that goes along with the largest craft beer festival in the world.
My day on Wednesday started with an uneventful plane ride into the Denver airport, followed by picking up my rental car and driving the 50 minutes into Denver proper. Since my flight landed at 11 a.m. and my hotel room would not be ready until 3 p.m., I decided to hit up a couple of the well known craft beer stores to see what they had in stock before the hoards of people attending the festival got the same idea.
My first stop was Mr. B’s Wine & Spirits, an extremely popular store in the downtown area. Having opened in 2009, the store is known for not only its selection of some of Colorado’s most popular breweries—it is one of the only stores in the area that gets Casey beers regularly—but also for the large number of collaborations it has done with various companies over the years. Walking into Mr. B’s was like visiting nirvana with less personal enlightenment, and I was quickly overwhelmed with the number of beers that were available. However, I did manage to pick up some gems, including the store’s collaboration with Casey Brewing & Blending named West Slope Connection Vol. 2, a 6 percent ABV sour ale aged in freshly dumped pinot noir barrels sourced by Mr. B’s conditioned on whole, fresh Primitivo grapes from Palisade, Colo.
Next, I drove about 12 miles to the west to visit Argonaut Wine & Liquor, another craft beer store with some interesting bottles in stock. While it does not have the history that Mr. B’s does, it has made a name for itself by getting continuously getting some pretty hard to find beers, and today was no exception.
After I was done at Argonaut, my hotel room was ready, so I went and checked in before turning around driving the 30 minutes to the What the Funk!? 2017 Invitational. Billed as “a celebration of all things barrel-aged from boozy and strong to wild, sour, and funky,” the event has been sponsored by Denver-based brewery Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project since 2013, and features close to 30 breweries from the United States and around the world.
The event was being held at The Studios at Overland Crossing, a fairly large indoor/outdoor facility, with the brewers on the inside and chairs, tables and a couple of food trucks in the outside courtyard. When I arrived about 45 minutes before the event was scheduled to start, there were already close to 20 people in line, and it quickly grew from there. When it was time to be let in, each person was given a bracelet and a glass with the What The Funk logo on it, and allowed to walk into the building where the brewers were.
Said building was basically two large rooms with tables along the walls, each holding two different breweries. I noticed a couple of things immediately. One, the vast majority of breweries were pouring their beers out of bottles instead of from kegs. Second, looking at the list of beers being poured, it seemed as though quite a few of the breweries had really brought their A-game to the event. Another cool thing was the fact that either the owners or brewers were pouring the beers for most of the assorted breweries, including Jeffery Stuffings for Jester King Brewery in Austin, Troy Casey for Casey and Chase Healy for American Solera in Oklahoma, just to name a few.
My first beer of the night was the one that that vast majority of people got in line for right off the bat: Boulder, Colorado-based Weldwerks Brewing Co.’s Medianoche Reserva, a 14.2 percent ABV imperial stout that is a blend of two different stouts: one aged in freshly-emptied barrels that previously held Breckenridge bourbon for 17 months and another batch that was aged in barrels that previously held Woodford Reserve Rye Whiskey. The blend was then conditioned on approximately 25 pounds of freshly toasted coconut, 1 1/2 pounds of Madagascar vanilla beans and two pounds of cacao nibs sourced from TCHO Chocolate per barrel. The beer lived up to the hype, and was easily one of the best stouts at the event for me.
Second, I visited Side Project Brewing’s booth, where I tried Pulling Nails #7, a wild ale that is a blend made up of several different beers, including 42 percent that is composed of an beer that was both fermented and aged in Chardonnay barrels for more then two years while conditioning on chardonnay grapes from Missouri. The rest of the blend is made up of several different wild ales, all of which were aged in oak for three years. Funky, fruity and quite sour, it was a hit with just about everyone I talked to about it.
I then visited Jester King, where I asked for a pour of the brewery’s Atrial Rubicite, a sour ale conditioned on raspberries that I honestly believe is one of the best raspberry sours on the market today.
There were many other beers that I tried, of course, including Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project’s 2012 Nightmare on Bret Port, Creature Comforts Brewing Co. Curious No. 10, Supreme Clientele 2017 from Casey Brewing & Blending, American Solera’s Cranbarrel and Oakshire Brewing’s Hellshire Double Barrel Especial, which I think was probably one of the best stouts from an up and coming brewery at the event. In addition, right before the event was ended, Shelton Brothers Brands brought out bottles of both Cantillon’s Kriek and Drie Fonteinen’s Oude Kriek, both of which were big hits.
After a bit more than four hours, the event ended and a few of us decided to head to the famous Falling Rock Tap House, where we eventually decided to spilt a bottle of Isabelle Proximus, a 2011 collaboration between five different brewers: Sam Calagione (Dogfish Head), Tomme Arthur (The Lost Abbey), Adam Avery (Avery), Rob Todd (Allagash), and Vinnie Cirulzo (Russian River.) It was a great way to end the first day in Denver, but I could not wait to get to the actual festival itself.