The Brewers Association’s annual Great American Beer Festival (October 5 – 7) is as synonymous with fall in Colorado as the changing of the leaves and the dearth of pumpkin beers hitting brewery and shop shelves at this time of year. And if you’re one of the lucky drinkers who snagged a ticket to the epic three-day event, a little strategy and insight will go a long way toward making the most of your experience. After all, there will be more than 800 breweries serving samples of over 3,800 beers, so you’ve gotta have a plan. Here’s our insiders guide to this year’s GABF:

Get there early. If you think showing up as the doors open is the fast-track to getting inside, you’re sorely mistaken. Not only does a very, very long line form outside of the Colorado Convention Center, but if you find yourself at the back of that long line, you’ll most likely also encounter even worse waits inside. The early bird gets the brew at this beer fest. So, arrive at least an hour before the doors open. You can spend your time waiting outside by making a list of the beers you absolutely must try. Once you’re in, make a beeline for those breweries to ensure that you’ll get to taste your favorite bucket list beers.

• Dress to impress. Whether you choose to be a drunken dinosaur, the lederhosen-clad life of the party, or (Where’s) Waldo for the fifth year in a row, break out your favorite costume duds and join thousands of others embracing the funky, fun spirit of this festival. Who knows, go all out and your photo might even end up in our post-festival photo gallery…

• Meet the producers behind your favorite brews. If you really geek out on beer, be sure to visit the Brewers Studio Pavilion to shake hands and chat with the artisans who make it. Not only will you have the opportunity to meet some of the biggest celebrities in the craft beer world, you’ll also have the chance to listen to them speak about everything from beer trends to barrel-aging techniques to colorful stories on how they got into the business. Sessions start at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday and 1 p.m. on Saturday. 

• There’s free food at the Beer and Food Pavilion. Yep, you read that right. Free food and beer pairings do exist at GABF, and they’re a great way to refuel while picking up tips for your own home pairings from the experts who know best. An ice cream social, charcuterie, cheese, a tea party, and a palate trip with Julia Herz, Craft Beer Program Director at the Brewers Association, are all on the menu this year. Keep a schedule handy for these delicious demos and tastings, which run all three days of the festival, and be sure to get to each event early. A seat, and more importantly, expertly paired treats, are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

• Learn to homebrew. While the unparalleled line-up of beers poured at GABF vaults this festival into its own category, so too does the fest’s commitment to education. There are myriad opportunities to learn a thing or two about beers you can buy, but if learning how to make the popular beverage yourself is of interest, head to the American Homebrewers Association booth. There, avid homebrewers can pose questions about the brewing process and garner techniques from some of the most accomplished and dedicated homebrewers in the country.

• Cast your vote in this year’s “Hop The Vote” competition. Back for a third year, the Colorado Brewers Guild’s popular contest—which pits a collaboration brew by 4 Noses Brewing and members of the Colorado State House of Representatives against a collaboration brew from Renegade Brewing Company and members of the Colorado State Senate—will once again play out at the CBG’s booth in the Protect Craft Guilds Pavilion. Both beers will be available to sample at the booth during the first three sessions of the festival. Attendees can vote for their favorite, and the winning brew will be announced on October 7.

• Enjoy rare brews (and shorter lines) in the Protect Craft Guild Pavilion. Whether you check out the CBG booth collaboration contest (above) or not, a stop at this laid-back section of the festival should be on your list. Here you’ll find 19 state brewery guilds serving up 178 different member beers, and most importantly, shorter lines equates to more drinking.

• Taste award-winning beers at the Heavy Medal Booth. Decorated beers tend to be some of the most popular to sample at the GABF, which is why this year, festival-goers can find them all in one place. The Heavy Medal Booth will be stacked with the beers that have earned coveted hardware at the GABF competition or the World Beer Cup.

• Don’t miss the cheese. A sprawling spread of dairy delights in the middle of the largest craft beer festival in the country? Yes, please! That said, this table tends to empty out quickly. If you’re looking for a free snack to pair with the many samples you’ll be enjoying, then pay a visit to this table early on.

Didn’t get tickets? (Then why are you reading this?) It’s okay. Deep breaths. If you had your heart set on attending the festival this year, we suggest you spend the next week stalking the Facebook pages of your favorite breweries and beer bars for chances to win a pair of tickets. If that fails, check back in soon for our roundup of stellar non-tickets GABF events around town. We got you.

For a list of breweries pouring at this year’s festival, along with a schedule of events, panels, and beer and food pairings, go here.