My first full day at Great American Beer Festival 2017 began early, with me getting up and doing some work as well as visiting another store or two. I then traveled to the Colorado Convention Center to get the lay of the land—as well as my press credentials—before the madness of the show started.
The organizers of the Great American Beer Festival are nice enough to supply journalists with a secure room to work from downstairs from the main hall, and that is where I spent an hour or so before heading up to go through the metal detectors and see the crowd.
The setup inside was fairly straightforward: each table held either one or two breweries, with a line of about 15 breweries on two separate sides forming a section, all of which were from the same general area of the country. Each section was labeled with a letter from A-Z, with between two and six sections making up different regions of the country like Pacific, Mountain, New England, etc.
Some of the larger breweries—think Avery, Dogfish Head and Samuel Adams—were located on the ends of each section, with still other larger breweries located in-between different sections. In addition, there was a “river” running through the middle of the convention center that was made up of other supporting booths like The CraftBeer.com Pavilion, the Beer & Food Station and the Brewer’s Studio. Finally, there were bathrooms and food vendors along the outside edge of the convention center, while certain other parts were held just outside the main doors, like Paired.
While the general public was put into lines as they walked in and went through security, the press was allowed to enter with the brewers and people working the booths, and we were able to go in 15 minutes early, although booths were not technically allowed to start pouring until the event officially started.
My first stop was to the Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. booth, where the brewery was pouring a multitude of beers including one of the most popular stouts in the world, Morning Delight. I assumed that there would be a number of people that would take off running to get in line first when the flood gates opened—and perhaps fall down in the process—so I staked out a spot and waited.
Sadly, the people who came around the corner were more restrained than I expected, but on the good side, I still managed to get a decent pour of the beer, and found it to be a wonderful stout that smelled and tasted strongly of maple, coffee and cinnamon that—while a bit overwhelming for a stout—really lived up to the hype that it has garnered.
As I continued walking around, I ran across a local DFW brewery, The Collective Brewing Project, which produces mostly barrel-aged sour and lambic-style beers. It was pouring a number of great beers—including one of my favorites, Woodfolk—but I decided to go with Pink Guava Funky Thunder, a 5 percent ABV farmhouse saison brewed with guava. It proved to be an excellent choice, as it took what I loved about the base beer and bumped it up a notch, increasing not only the creaminess on the palate, but also the complexity of the overall profile.
After trying a number of other samples, it was time to stop by the Brewers Studio Pavilion, where some of the various seminars were held. In fact, Blaine Landberg and Thomas Vo of Calicraft Brewing Co. were holding a talk discussing their thoughts on creating a new style of beer. According to them, this new style would be called a California sparkling ale, and it is produced using wine yeast and ingredients to impart flavors that are associated with wine.
It was an incredibly interesting to hear what they were thinking about when trying to form a new style of beer, a process they began by asking one simple question: What if beer was invented in California? Their contention is that since California had a multitude of different ways to ferment and age wine, those same techniques would be used with the production of beer, leading to an entirely new product than what we have today.
After the talk, it was time to attend one of my most anticipated events of the Great American Beer Festival: Paired. As the name suggests, Paired features 21 celebrated chefs with 21 brewers, meaning that there were 42 unique pairings of beers and food that could be tried. Chefs and brewers were encouraged to collaborate on beer and food pairings that create a unique experience for attendees. Each brewery supplies two special or rare beers that are not offered in the festival hall and each chef creates two small dishes to pair with those beers.
While I tasted a number of combinations, one of my favorite combinations was from Tampa-based Brew Bus Brewing and chef Sean Clark from El Moro Spirits and Tavern in Durango, Colo. The brewery supplied its Bourbon Barrel-Aged Curb Check, an 11.5 percent imperial porter, and it was paired with a sous vide bourbon barrel-smoked pork belly, butternut squash puree and a molasses demiglaze. The combination was quite good with the meatiness of the pork belly pairing nicely with the sweet bourbon notes coming from the porter.
As I moved on, I came across another combination I enjoyed: Hudson, Mass.-based Medusa Brewing Co.’s No Prison Can Hold Me imperial IPA paired with a beef cheek horseradish pot pie from Kevin Nasnan of Sidney Street Cafe in St. Louis, Mo. The IPA easily quenched the heat from the horseradish, and the flaky pot pie crust was excellent.
There were other combinations I tried, but none were as good as the two above, and it was getting late enough that I wanted to see what other beers I could try before it was time to leave. I went here and there before landing at Tampa-based Cigar City Brewing’s booth, whose line took me just under five minutes to get through, which was not bad considering the number of people that were in the line when I showed up.
At the head of the line, I was forced to make a choice between Life Is Like, a bourbon barrel-aged imperial sweet stout brewed with cherries and cacao nibs or Cognac Barrel-aged Marshal Zhukov’s. Being a sucker for Cognac, I went with the Marshal Zhukov’s first, then decided to go back through the line and try the Life is Like as well to compare the two. While both were excellent in their own way, the Cognac Marshal Zhukov’s was more complex and had more body than the Life is Like, and I enjoyed it quite a bit more.
It was then time to leave and find some food for a late dinner and get back to the hotel, as I had another early day—and an early drive—in the morning.