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The Expert’s Guide to the Great American Beer Festival

We consulted two pros to see which beers and breweries should be on your radar at the 2015 GABF. 

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There are more than 800 breweries showcasing their classic and specialty brews on the floor of this year’s Great American Beer Festival. Don’t attempt to try them all—instead, follow the advice of two local brewers and long-time GABF denizens.

We picked the brains of Jeff Mendel—a Left Hand Brewery owner and 12-year veteran GABF judge—and Paul Ogg, an associate professor in biology and brewing (yes, that’s a thing) at Colorado School of Mines. Ogg has participated in the festival as a volunteer for more than a decade, and this year, he steps into a new role this year as a one of the head honchos behind Declaration Brewing, a seven-month-old Denver outfit tapped as one of the buzziest new breweries on the festival docket this year. Here, their tips for a successful night of beer sampling.

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Best Colorado Breweries: Durango’s SKA Brewing, Boulder’s Avery, and Centennial State classic Great Divide come highly recommended by Mendel. “They always bring some neat things to the festival,” he says.

Best Out-of-State Breweries: Mendel’s non-Coloradan favorites include Anchor Brewing out of San Francisco and Victory Brewing Co., from Downingtown, Penn., a tiny town 30 miles east of Philadelphia. Ogg swears by Michigan-based Short’s. Both pros suggest Wisconsin’s New Glarus Brewing Co. Pro tip: Try their Raspberry Tart.

Oldies But Goodies: GABF is a great place to discover your new favorite beers, but lots of old standards bring their A-game to the festival, as well. Ogg’s veteran favorites include Brooklyn BreweryAllagashBell’s Brewery, and Coronado Brewing Co.

Mendel recommends a visit to craft-beer forerunner Sierra Nevada. “They put out some interesting specialty beers at the festival that you can’t find in stores,” he says. “Sierra Nevada is a great example of great craft beer.”

Rookie of the Year: Declaration Brewery is expected to be one of the best first-year entrants in the festival. The insider suggestion? Try their Electric Silk oatmeal IPA. “Oatmeal IPA is going to become very popular,” Ogg says. “We’re doing it, a few other places are doing it, and people find it really interesting. I think oatmeal IPA will be a new category of competition within a few years.” You heard it here first.

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Trend Watch: “Sour beers are becoming more popular,” Mendel says, and you’ll be able to find plenty at the festival. Another strategy is to look for trends in new varieties of hops. “See if anyone is using them at the festival and making really good products,” Ogg says. “A few people came to the festival last year with mosaic hops, and now that’s all the rage.”

Expert Tips: Ogg’s best suggestion? Avoid the long lines. “If a booth has a super long line,” he says, “That’s not worth my time. Skip it and look around. You can find similar varieties from other companies with no line, which allows you to stop and talk with the brewer about the product.”

If you’re looking for the very best way to tackle the festival like a pro, try a tip that both Mendel and Ogg swear by: stick to lagers. “Anyone can make a stout,” Ogg says, “and stouts cover flavors. With a lager or a mild beer, you can actually tell if a brewer is good. There’s nothing to hide the flavors.”

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