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This year’s Great American Beer Festival (October 3–5) is almost upon us, and members of the craft brew industry aren’t the only ones getting ready. You, too, need to prepare for the epic, 800-brewery, 4,000-beer-strong party at the Colorado Convention Center. (We say, start hydrating now.)
For foodie attendees, PAIRED is the don’t-miss event of the festival, during which award-winning chefs from around the world pair dishes with craft brews. Expect chefs from as far as Mexico City and Melbourne, as well as toques from our own backyard, including Sheila Lucero, Alex Seidel, and Josh Niernberg, among others.
For beer nerds, the GABF has upped the number of competition style categories to 107, adding six new ones for this year—fresh hop beer; India pale lager; Franconian-style rotbier; juicy or hazy strong pale ale; emerging IPA; and contemporary Belgian-style gueuze lambic. (Want to really geek out? Read the 61-page guide to each and every style.)
But whether you’re a seasoned GABF veteran or an unpickled first-timer, the festival floor can be overwhelming. With thousands of beers to sample spread across a space the size of 10 football fields, you need a game plan. Here are our top tips to help you prepare:
1. Study the map and download the My GABF app before you go.
While the festival was organized alphabetically last year, this year the event has gone back to organizing breweries by region. Anthony Martuscello, founder of WestFax Brewing Co, is excited about the change. “I find it much easier to find a brewery with the region layout, and I think it’s easier to have a focused exploration on a region of breweries that maybe I’ve never been to,” he says. The free My GABF app—which you should download and spend time on before you go—allows you to stick a pin in regions you’re interested in so you can easily scope them out at the event, as well as access a series of self-guided beer tours.
Want to taste some of the latest style trends, like the brut IPA, fresh-hop brews, or rosé-style beers? Create a list of breweries and beers on the app to strategically map out your route. Jake Goodman, Director of Marketing at WeldWerks, had this to say about the new beer styles at the festival: “In general, I think [these styles] fill in gaps, specifically the fresh hop, India pale lager, and emerging IPA categories. It shows that the Brewers Association is interested in keeping up with, and capturing, the evolving tastes of the American craft beer drinker.”
Another pro tip: Scope out some of the GABF first-timers, like Golden’s CODA Brewing. It’s going to be pouring six beers, including its first-ever Pro-Am, a Brett saison called Wallonian Drams, in the Brewer’s Pavilion.
2. Check out the calendar of events for the session(s) you are attending.
Each session has special features and mini-events, so it’s smart to know what’s happening during each ahead of time. If you and your friends are dying to don togas, the Friday Festival Flair costume contest may be your jam. (Bonus: Your creative ensemble could even win you tickets to GABF 2020.)
Saturday afternoon is the Brewers Association and American Homebrewers Association members-only session, following the award ceremony. If you were lucky enough to snag one of these tickets before they sold out, you’ll enjoy sampling the medal-winning beers before anyone else. And Saturday evening is when festival guests, volunteers, and brewers really let loose. Kegs are starting to empty, and attendees are eager to get in their final pours as the event winds down.
Other highlights include three sets of live music presented by WinterWondergrass; the Jameson Caskmates Barrel-Aged Beer Garden, featuring nearly two dozen craft brewers serving limited-edition Jameson barrel-aged beer; and oodles of silly activities, including a silent disco, karaoke, hotdog and bun races, a funhouse, and, rumor has it, a visit from Santa Fe Brewing’s own legend—Pepe Loco himself.
3. Enjoy responsibly (and don’t drink everything).
Take regular breaks to hydrate and eat some food truck fare, and don’t hesitate to use the swill bucket if a sample doesn’t put a smile on your face. Pouring out a beer isn’t frowned upon in the festival hall, it’s encouraged. GABF is the ultimate “choose your own adventure” scenario, and if you don’t like what you’re drinking, turn the page and try something else. And by all means, use a rideshare to get home.
If you go: Ready to put on that pretzel necklace and lace up your walking shoes? Get your tickets here.
Editor’s note, 9/27/19: The original version of this article stated that there are six competition categories at this year’s GABF. There are 107 total, six of which are new. The article has been updated to correct this error.