Scalpers running rampant. Ticketing websites crashing harder than the Hindenburg. Exorbitant admission fees if you’re even lucky enough to get that far. Worthy breweries getting shut out. Spotty cellphone reception. Sloppy, amateur-hour drunks crawling all over the city. It’s easy to complain about Great American Beer Festival (GABF). I, myself, have been guilty of a certain entitled rage when it comes to GABF’s shortcomings, the kind of behavior that invites a “First World Problems” meme. If we allow it, GABF weekend can be a pretty cruddy time to live in Denver.
On the other hand, we could simply dispense with the negativity and opt to look on the sunny side of life. We get out of GABF what we put in, the success or failure of the festival is each our own responsibility. For a moment, let’s put the griping aside, focus on the positive aspects of GABF, and cast a more positive aura over the whole event.
There are a lot of options
Small, intimate beer festivals have their merit but nothing’s quite as awe-inspiring as the main floor at GABF. If you’ve attended other beer festivals, other big beer festivals, but not GABF, you’ve swam Lake Erie but you haven’t swam the Pacific. You’ve climbed Longs Peak but you’ve yet to summit Everest. You’ve street-raced your parents’ Honda Civic but you haven’t competed in the Indianapolis 500. Nothing compares to the rows-upon-rows of booths, all in one consolidated space, pouring beers from across America. GABF offers nothing if not options and, if you can’t find a beer you like at the festival, you don’t like beer.
If you have been to GABF and, against all reason, still believe the choices are too limited, brace yourself for good news: 2014 will be the biggest GABF to date! 700+ breweries. Around 3,500 different beers. That’s up from last year’s 624 breweries and 3,142 beers. Methinks you’ll have plenty of beers from which to select.
What’s more, GABF is going to get a lot bigger in 2015 when the convention schedulers expand the festival floor from 300,000 square feet to 390,000. You’re going to need a map and compass at next year’s GABF.
There’s help if you want it
The festival organizers realize an event of this size can quickly overwhelm. They won’t throw you into the melee unprepared, though; there are resources you can utilize to ensure a relatively orderly GABF experience.
One invaluable tool is the My GABF app, brought back for its second year. Download this handy guide to your smart phone and you’ll be able to find every brewery and every beer at GABF. Not sure exactly what you’re looking for? That’s okay because My GABF will search based on beer styles. Do you like IPAs? Belgian-style ales? Dark beers? Let the app know and it’ll pinpoint every beer that fits the category.
GABF isn’t relying solely on digital aids; new this year, organizers are implementing the Beer Geeks program—in-the-flesh chaperones to enhance the festival experience. The GABF volunteers are the nuts-and-bolts of the operation; they make it all happen and they ought to be commended for their efforts. Without volunteers, there is no GABF. That said, a major complaint from both attendees and breweries has been that volunteers aren’t always knowledgeable on the beers they’re serving. The Beer Geeks, a squad of 50 connoisseurs, will be on hand to remedy that problem. Tasked with mentoring volunteers and providing supplemental information to attendees, this team of erudite beer lovers will ensure you won’t only be drinking, you’ll also be learning.
It’s always evolving
GABF may be a giant but it isn’t a lumbering giant, it can be quite lithe when necessary. It makes changes when such changes are demanded and, even if you went to ten GABFs in a row, they’d be very similar but still retain an ever-so-slight distinctiveness.
Among the more evident changes made are modifications to beer style categories. Last year, brewers competed in 84 categories (plus the pro-am); this year, the number’s getting bumped up with the addition of Belgian-Style Fruit Beer (beer using Belgian, farmhouse, or Brettanomyces yeast with the addition of fruit; Fruit Lambics will remain a separate category), Australian-Style Pale Ale (not quite American-style, not quite English-style, and brewed with hops from either Australia or New Zealand), Historical Beer (uber-localized beer styles popular in a specific region but unknown to most of the world; examples include sahti and chicha), and Wild Beer (anything spontaneously fermented by undomesticated yeast floating through the air).
It defines Denver
Denver and the GABF: they’re a perfect match. Even though the festival began its first few years in Boulder and even though, in 1998, the Brewers Association made the questionable decision to host GABF in Baltimore, Denver and the GABF are inseparable. It’s like Mardi Gras to New Orleans. It’s a motorcycle rally to Sturgis. Certainly, they could host GABF in a different city the same way they could move Mardi Gras to Atlanta but, undeniably, the spirit of the event would be tarnished if not entirely crushed. It simply wouldn’t be the same. GABF is Denver. Denver is GABF. Denver will always have the reputation as a great beer city but GABF helps solidify that image.
So tied-in with GABF is Denver that the days leading up to the event have been designated “Denver Beer Fest.” Honestly, GABF has almost become secondary to the satellite festivals that pop up in its wake. If you failed to acquire tickets for GABF, the consolation prize (perhaps the prize itself) is the many, many parties and specials tappings held at bars and breweries across the city.
It pays Denver
In 2012, Visit Denver estimated the city accrued $7 million due to GABF. Mind you, this is only a three-day event. If you’re annoyed by the booze-guzzlers that inundate Denver this time of year, hordes that clog the sidewalks, crowd the bars, and oftentimes make asses of themselves, just remember that $7 million figure. You can suck it up for one weekend; the local economy depends on it.
The money’s spread around, too; it’s not as if a single, greedy corporation is siphoning all the funds. The Convention Center rakes in a hefty payday but so do hotels, restaurants, bars, breweries, and taxis. Almost all of Denver benefits from GABF so keep that in mind when stepping over the passed-out flatlander who imbibed one too many Barleywines.
This is the most obvious positive quality of GABF yet it’s also one of the most overlooked. The constant din, the jostling throngs, the inebriated dimwits—the things that annoy me at the stadium and in the bar don’t affect me at GABF because, hey, this is the GABF! If you’re unhappy on the festival floor, you’re seeing your taster cup as half empty (technically, the pourers are instructed to fill your cup no further than 1/5 of the way, but you get the idea).
GABF is fun for all walks of beer drinkers. Avid beer geeks may sample from much-touted and far-flung breweries which they cannot normally procure (personally, I’ll be camped in front of Scratch Brewing Co., going through their all-gruit taplist), burgeoning craft beer fans may expand and train their palates without committing to full pours, and those who don’t give a fiddler’s fart about craft beer and just want to party will surely appreciate the silent disco and Anheuser-Busch offerings. Even designated drivers may be entertained by the parade of costumed attendees and elaborately decorated booths. There really is something for everyone.
When all facts are considered, our petty complaints about GABF seem all the more silly. There’s no doubt, the good of GABF far outweighs the bad. It’s only a matter of perspective. Be a pessimist if you must; concentrate on all of GABF’s deficiencies until you’ve dug yourself into a crotchety hole. That’s your prerogative. I choose a different path. I choose to see the festival for all the happiness it imparts. I choose to enjoy myself. If any of you rainclouds need me, I’ll be the guy out on the festival floor having the time of his life.