Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Jason Jewett. Jason is a 27 year old regular guy in Denver, CO who happens to be a media, beer, books and politics addict. He likes long walks on the beach, a quiet sunset, and stouts that you have to chew to swallow.
I saw a guy dressed as Captain America. I saw a group of men and women dressed as monks. I saw a few beer wenches, I saw walking hot dogs, I saw a group of girls dressed like hooters waitresses, and I saw a group of guys in velvet track suits with wigs, headbands and wristbands. I know what you’re thinking, “That sounds like the best Tea Party Convention ever!.” Oh, my sweet sweet friend – it was the Great American Beer Festival!
It’s 29th iteration, and 10th in its current location at the Denver Convention Center, the Great American Beer Festival, or GABF, as it’s more colloquially referred to, has expanded since it’s first ever appearance at the Harvest House Hotel in Boulder, CO in 1982. The 2010 GABF featured more than 2,200 beers from 450+ breweries across the country, just waiting to fix that unfortunate condition known as “sobriety” for an estimated 49,000 attendees.
I’d been before, with the sole purpose of sampling as many fine beers as I could. I’d been before with the intent to attack a particular style or region as well, but I decided this year that I’d try my hand at the GABF from the other side of the table: Volunteering for the Brew Crew, the folks who pour the beer! Volunteering is easy, it’s satisfying, it’s charitable, and you get some free stuff. But best of all, you get plenty of breaks to walk around and try beer.
Taking public transportation downtown, I encountered more than a few people assembling their pretzel necklaces during the trip. Some went above and beyond, to create a bit of an appetizer sampler necklace, including string cheese, slim jims, and a little baggie with wheat thins. Seems like one would need a sherpa to lug around that much snackfood, but having experienced the GABF with little to no food in the gullet, understand the necessity of being your own food truck.
Volunteering at GABF
Arriving at the Convention Center I hurried through volunteer check-in as quickly as possible, wanting to stake out a great spot, and a great beer to pour all night. Instead, I found a Coors table. A friend convinced me to join him there, and I thought, why not — we’re each going to disappear for a half hour at a time to drink, so it’s best to have someone that I trust to come back and cover for me when it’s my turn.
Pouring for MillerCoors wasn’t nearly as bad as it sounds, as my pitchers were full of their pre-prohibition lager Batch19. A hoppy nose, but a balanced malt character to finish it off made it better than the average Coors. Outside of what’s made by AC Golden (Batch19 is being made & marketed under MillerCoors new craft brew arm called 10th and Blake Beer Company) Batch19 is probably the best beer from MillerCoors I’ve ever had (excepting Leinenkugels of course.)
Night two was a great night for Odell Brewing, a local craft brewery out of Fort Collins, CO. Distributing only in a nine state region throughout the Rocky Mountains & Midwest, the majority of America hasn’t had the beergasmic pleasure of Odell and their multitudes of hoppy heaven. With 7 beers on tap that night, a Friday, it was a hectic evening. Lots of pouring, lots of explaining the beer, and lots of…pouring one for me! Three of their brews stood out, a Bourbon Barrel Stout. It’s a stout that’s aged in Makers Mark barrels for several months to help impart the flavor. A classic sweet stout, with just that little hint of smokiness and sugar that comes from a great whiskey. Another was Woodcut #4, a regular offering (each edition is different) #4 was a double-marzen style lager, that’s aged in hand coopered virgin American Oak barrels for 6 months. It’s sweet, spicy, has a great malt bite right in the middle of the body. And at over 10% ABV it’s exactly the kind of thing I want to warm me up on a fall or winter day. Their third was another special edition called Deconstruction. It’s a special blend of three pilot beers and a production beer, with the pilots all barrel aged (in oak, burbon, and wine barrels) to a different degree, then combined at differing ratios to complete this Belgian style sour. An inspired flavor, slightly fruity, slighty sweet, but easy to drink and something I’d prefer to take via IV than from a glass, Deconstruction was the highlight of my night with Odell Brewing.
For my third pouring shift I attended the afternoon session for Brewers Association members “only.” While more people at this session definitely knew the difference between an IPA and an ESB, there were still a fair number of the “Oh awesome! Schlitz!” crowd. Undeterred, I pressed on. I was back at Batch19 due to the brand manager’s request. Apparently I was one of the few able to pour beer and talk to people without tripping and falling, starting a fire, and running the convention center into an iceberg. To be honest, I was appreciative and glad for the opportunity to pour a second time for what turned out to be a pretty decent beer. It was an uneventful shift, with more beers sipped, more sights seen, but my head wasn’t in it. I needed to tell my diary all about it.
After a long Saturday afternoon, riding the train home, I got to reflect on three 4-hour shifts of pouring beer, and while it had some moments: it was full of drunk people, cute girls (Don’t let my girlfriend read this, but let’s face it, it’s a target-rich environment,) and fun costumes, but the real star of the show was the incredible amount of beers.
Sampling Beer at GABF
During breaks I of course got the opportunity to wander & sample. As I said before, on previous occasions I had plotted a course around the convention center looking for particular styles, or with a pen and pad stalked breweries I’d heard about word of mouth, or went region by region to sample brews from places I’d never been to. This time I decided that with only quick 20 minute laps available to me, I’d simply look for the craziest sounding brew I could find. Why not?
A Jalapeno Cream Ale started me off, from Wasatch Brewing. With a nose like a breath full of salsa, it was definitely spicy, though a kind of spicy that felt like it floated just off the top of my tongue. I talked with the head brewer for Wasatch and he was quite proud of the way it finished just like a cream ale. I had to disagree, and asked for some tortilla chips. We didn’t see eye to eye.
In another area I found the Smoke Stack Lager from Maui brewing company. According to their site on the interwebs the Smoke Stack Lager gets its smokey flavor from the addition of a special malt. Special is definitely one word to describe it, but I’d go more with “awful.” I’ve never licked the inside of a fire ring after camping or anything, but I’m fairly certain they did then bottled it.
At this point I was beginning to question the wisdom, and potential sado-masochism of seeking out the weirdest beers I could find. I deigned to stop in at Blue Moon for the refreshing taste of their summer brew, Honey Moon to refresh me, and perhaps reinvigorate me. I was stopped in my tracks, though, as I saw their sign for a peanut butter beer. Huzzah! Something that sounds palatable, let us continue to freaky-beer-quest. I expected something Jiff, maybe Skippy, with a hint of Smuckers perhaps. Not even close. With a very slick and heavy mouthfeel it tasted more like old peanut shells, with nary the refreshing bite I expected from a blonde.
Appropriately soured, I moved on. And while appropriately soured I appropriately found a sour. Stopping by New Belgium brewery, the famous makers of Fat Tire (I live in Colorado, I guess I gravitate towards CO Brews). I tried Eric’s Ale, which ended up winning a Silver Medal in the American Style Sour Ale this year. I can only presume that the awards are given out for the most terrible, puckering beers, as I found yet another weird sounding beer that I would do well to never drink again. Discouraged I wandered, seeking something to turn my frown upside down and make me feel better about my quest for quirky combinations.
I sipped a plethora of beers that tasted ungodly, a few that were surprising (bacon beer, who knew?) and many that faded into obscurity. Once or twice I tried an Amber or a Porter or a Double IPA just because there were literally thousands of beers, and I’d be missing out if I didn’t sample as much as I could. But soon enough I came upon what some are considering to be the new Dogfish Head (Charlie “JesusBrew” Papazian himself tweeted that this was so) Short’s Brewing, from Bellaire, MI. Due to Charlie’s tweet the line was no fewer than 75 people deep. I put on my best Mission Impossible face, and used my volunteer status to simply walk behind the tables like I was serving beer there, and walked up to the people at Short’s. I asked them for a quick sample of…shit…I have no idea what they’re serving! “Something good!” I said. “How about the Key Lime Pie?” the gent asked. Key lime….pie? Could this be? What I’ve been searching for? I thrust my cup under his pitcher and he poured. I swirled, I sipped, the angels sung. Well, not really. But it was pretty tasty. The beer that won gold for Best Experimental Beer in 2010 tasted just like Key Lime Pie. A nice dark color, if a beer could taste fluffy, this one did. Clean, smooth, drinkable with a delicious bite of lime but full of sweetness, no wonder this beer won.
I felt vindicated, I felt victorious, I felt drunk. After trying somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 beers throughout the festival during breaks from my wonderful volunteering shifts I felt content. My weird beer mission, the one real thing I wanted to accomplish this year, was complete.
The GABF is such that no matter how prepared you are (many attend with notebooks and pens and schedules) it will be overwhelming. Some lines will be short, some lines will be long. There will be breweries you’re dying to try and never get to go. There will be fantastic beers you try that no matter how hard you try you’ll forget what they were and who made them. For anyone that’s been there, they know — the GABF is a wild ride, but one of the best ways you can spend four hours. If you get the chance, come to Denver, CO for the experience, because the Great American Festival truly is the most incredible showcase of zymurgic talent, success, experimentation, creativity and skill you’ll ever experience.