Great American Beer Festival Ultimate Survival Guide

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So you’ve never been to a beer festival before? Or maybe you have. But there is no other beer festival in the world that brings the shock and awe of the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. Even if you’ve been to GABF before, our Great American Beer Festival Ultimate Survival Guide can help you not only survive this massive undertaking, but get the most enjoyment out of it.

Over the three days and four sessions of GABF, more than 800 breweries will be pouring more than 4,000 beers to more than 62,000 people. That’s a bit overwhelming, especially once you walk through the doors and see the mass of humanity – and beer – before you!

The Great American Beer Festival Ultimate Survival Guide
(Photo courtesy of the Brewers Association / Great American Beer Festival)

Great American Beer Festival Pre-Game Prep Guide

If you approach GABF more like a sporting contest that simply a beer fest, you’ll enjoy it more and get a lot more out of it. So prepping for GABF is a must. And that’s why we created this GABF Ultimate Survival Guide.

Eat Before You Go and Stay Hydrated

Be sure to put some food in your belly an hour or two before you go. Even drinking one ounce at a time (that’s how the beers are served at GABF), an empty stomach will betray you quickly.

And like any athletic endeavor – trust me, GABF is really an athletic endeavor – hydration begins well before the game. Especially if you’re coming from out of town to the Mile High City, you need to drink plenty of H2O. Unless you’re already on a strict hydration regiment, start the day before, drinking a good bit more than normal. When you get to the festival, be sure to have some water in between every four to five beers. There are water stations throughout the festival, so it isn’t all that difficult. Plus, it helps reset your palate when you’re constantly trying new and fun creations.

Are you a Beer Bucket Lister? Make a plan.

Are you an uber beer geek or a bucket lister? Then make a plan. Many people who attend GABF have a hit list of specific beers or breweries that they’ve just got to try while there.

If that’s you, make a list. There is a web app at MyGABF.com that can help or you can go on the Great American Beer Festival web site and scroll through the list of breweries and beers and then sync up with the map. The festival is arranged by region, so if you know where a beer or brewery is from, you can find them rather quickly.

Pro Tip: Don’t wait too long in line, even for the golden goose. There are a lot of amazing beers at GABF, but many of them won’t be on your radar until you try. Some of the unknowns and lesser knowns will shock you and you won’t waste 15-20 minutes for a sip of liquid gold that you’ll quickly forget after about an hour into your session. Then just keep a sideways eye open for the lines to die down a bit.

Sam Calagione pouring at GABF
(Photo courtesy of the Brewers Association / Great American Beer Festival)

If you’r not a bucket lister or too freaked out that you’ll miss something you’ve always wanted to try, meander around a bit and walk up to some of the shorter lines and try some things. Ask some questions. Enjoy the beer.

If there are simply certain specific styles that you want to go all-in on, check out our friends over at PorchDrinking.com. They’ve done a wonderful series of articles that will give you a ready made guided route to some of the best beers in specific styles.

Surviving and Thriving at the Main Event

When you get through the door, it’s easy to go gonzo right out of the gate, especially if you’re not worried too much about waiting in line for those golden geese. But it’s all too easy to go buck wild and lose yourself and your dinner before you’re even halfway through your session.

GABF Do’s and Dont’s

Pour it out: I’m usually the last one to let the server pick up a glass with even a drop or two of beer left in the bottom, but at a beer festival, particularly at GABF, you’ve got to be okay pouring out a beer that you don’t like. Even some that are just average should probably go in the pour buckets that are widely available.

You will be blitzed before you know it if you follow the “no beer left behind” ethos at this monster beer fest. It’s okay to pour out something you don’t like and the brewers and servers at GABF expect it. You’re not going to hurt anyone’s feelings, and you might just save yourself from the night from hell.

Stand in line: For the bathroom! This is one line you don’t want to sleep on. You are sharing this festival with several thousand other people. The bathroom lines can get loooonnnnggggg! So think ahead… and if you see a short or non-existant bathroom line, take advantage of it. If nothing else, trust me on this one!

Hang Out: There is a lot of opportunity to hang out at GABF. There are areas like The Backyard. There is live music, cornhole and other brewery-type games, and yes, beer! You can sample several past GABF medal winners in The Backyard, so you can enjoy a little bit of a breather.

Jameson is a sponsor again this year, hosting a Caskmates Barrel-Aged Beer Garden, where you can sample a variety beers from around the country that were aged in Jameson Whiskey Barrels.

There is a WinterWonderGrass music stage this year, a Silent Disco, and other hangout opportunities if you don’t want to spend the entire night running from booth to booth.

There are also food trucks! Don’t forget to stock up on stuff for your belly as you go.

Jameson Caskmates DJ at GABF
(Photo courtesy of the Brewers Association / Great American Beer Festival)

Get Beer Nerdy: If you are a beer nerd and like to know all there is about beer, you should chat up some of the folks at the booths, many of them are brewers, owners, or brewery staff. In addition to that, be sure to check out the Meet the Brewers section, which is a section of booths from all over the country that is required to have brewers and key staff on hand so you can chat them up.

In addition to simply chatting at the booths, GABF has a number of educational opportunities if you really want to know more. The Brewing Network hosts a number of Brewers Studio sessions, where you can hear industry pros talk about their beers and the behind the scenes magic that goes on in the breweries, which often includes some beer sampling that accompanies the topic.

You can go to Camp CraftBeer.com and do some Sit & Sip sessions with some of the new innovators in brewing and other industry professionals. Again, many of these sessions are paired with beer, while you listen and learn.

There is also a unique Protect Craft Guilds section. Brewers Guild reps from across the country will be pouring samples from their state’s members, including some of the breweries that weren’t able to make it to the festival to set up a booth. So you can try a lot of offerings that wouldn’t otherwise be featured at GABF.

As you can see, there is a lot going on at the Great American Beer Festival, whatever it is that floats your boat. And after years of attending, I can tell you that, while the last few minutes of your session are usually filled with FOMO (fear of missing out), four-and-a-half hours is a decent amount of time to slow it down a bit and truly enjoy yourself and not worry about tasting every last beer on your hit list.

GABF Server with pitchers
(Photo courtesy of the Brewers Association / Great American Beer Festival)

Don’t forget about getting home… safely!

Just like you planned for enjoying the festival, make a plan for getting home from GABF. In this day and age of light rail, Uber, Lyft, taxies, designated drivers, etc., it isn’t worth the risk to hurt yourself or someone else by driving home. This is a difficult festival to not get drunk at. Four and a half hours of one ounce pours and too much goodness to pass up are still not worth a dodgy drive. DO NOT DO IT. Get home safe, so you can do it all again next year!

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