October 2022 marks the 40th anniversary of the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), and its first in-person event since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. From humble beginnings—the first show in Boulder in 1982 featured just 24 breweries pouring 47 beers—the event has since grown to become the largest ticketed beer festival in the U.S., featuring 2,000 beers from nearly 500 breweries across 46 states when it kicks off this coming Thursday, October 6.

“I think both for the Brewers Association and all the brewers, it’s great to be back,” says Ann Obenchain, marketing and communications director for the Boulder-based Brewers Association. “And it’s a sign that businesses are coming back, beers are coming back, and people are coming back and getting out after two years of being pent up inside.”

This year, the Brewers Association is expecting 40,000 attendees to take part in the festival’s four sessions, down slightly from over 60,000 in 2019, due to construction and space availability at the Colorado Convention Center. However, the festival’s return after a three-year hiatus is still expected to have major economic impact. Through a study conducted with Visit Denver, the Brewers Association estimates the event will generate $15.2 million in revenue for the city over its three-day duration (Thursday to Saturday).

Overview image of GABF 2019. Photo courtesy of the Brewers Association
GABF 2019. Photo courtesy of the Brewers Association

“The impact of the Great American Beer Festival returning can’t be understated, as it impacts Denver’s entire hospitality community—including hotels, restaurants and, of course, breweries,” says Rachel Benedick, executive vice president of sales and services at Visit Denver. “Having GABF back in person is another strong sign of the recovery Denver is experiencing. Plus, Visit Denver is hosting Denver Beer Week (September 30–October 8), which is another great opportunity to visit spots around the city that are celebrating all things beer.”

Those ripple effects are also felt by breweries along the Front Range. “We usually are slammed at the taproom the week of GABF,” says Derek Gold, director of brewing operations at WeldWerks Brewing in Greeley. “We’re fortunate that a lot of people will make the trip up to Greeley to come see us”—including, he says, team members from breweries outside Colorado [such as BlackStack Brewing from Minneapolis and Hop Butcher from Chicago] who come to brew collaboration beers.

WeldWerks itself also has a track record of premiering trend-setting sips at GABF—for the virtual festival in 2021, the brewery made a taco-inspired gose (brewed with fire-roasted tomatoes and green chiles) and poured a savory spaghetti-inspired sour in 2018 as well.

“We definitely have a history of doing fun, over-the-top stuff at the festival to gain some attention to our booth and to our brewery,” Gold says. “And we thought boba this year would kind of be the same as what we’ve done in the past, with some of the other crazier beers.” This weekend, the team will pour Volcanic Planet Boba, a passionfruit-orange-guava beer served with a bursting boba pearl in each cup. “It’s kind of like a Gusher fruit snack, because there’s juice on the inside that comes out when you eat it,” Gold says.

Inventive beers aside, GABF is a chance for beer aficionados from around the world to gather in Denver. Whether you’re attending the show or just watching from the sidelines, here’s how to make the most of this week’s festivities.

How to Experience the Festival

Due to construction at the Denver Convention Center, Obenchain says, the footprint of the festival is slightly smaller than years past (down to 350,000 square feet from the usual 484,000). But there’s still plenty to do, from daily costume contests to live music to silent discos, karaoke, and games.

For Beginners

First time? Here are Obenchain’s top tips for GABF newbies.

1. Visit the Heavy Medal Taproom
“I would say one of the best taprooms or places to go is the Heavy Medal taproom, because that has medal-winning beers from past competitions—both the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival competitions,” she says. “So if you want to taste what the best of a pilsner or the best of an IPA is, you can go there and taste them. All the beers are amazing, but these are the best of the best.”

Other can’t-miss taprooms include the Wish We Were Here taproom, featuring pours by breweries that couldn’t attend in person, and Collaboration Nation, a place to sample dozens of limited-edition beers and collabs between homebrewers and breweries.

2. Go Slow (and Spit)
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Obenchain says. “So take your time, enjoy everything that the festival has to offer. You don’t need to drink every beer that you sample—there are dump buckets all over the place. So you can just take a sip, and you can throw it away. We don’t expect you to drink every beer.”

3. Find a Theme
“Think about [whether] there is a flavor profile that you like best. Or, are you planning a trip to a certain state in the next couple upcoming months? You could sort the website or the app by state or by style, and plan [your route] that way,” Obenchain says. “Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you could say I’m just going to go to this letter of the alphabet [because the beers or the breweries are all organized in alphabetical order]. So you can make it a game if you want to discover [new breweries], or you can make a plan that’s a little more specific to what you want to taste.”

4. Don’t Forget to Eat
Soak up the suds by eating before you come or by visiting one of the four food trucks or vendors on site, she says. And of course, don’t forget to bring your own pretzel necklace for snacking in between.

Photo of a beer being poured at GABF 2019. Photo courtesy of the Brewers Association
A beer is poured at GABF 2019. Photo courtesy of the Brewers Association

For Returning Champs

Seasoned vets can sit in on educational sessions, watch the competition unfold, and hunt for trends in between sampling the 2,000 beers expected at this year’s show.

1. Catch the Competition
This year’s GABF competition features approximately 10,423 entries—the largest number to date. Tune into the live-streamed GABF Competition award ceremony on Saturday, October 8, 10 a.m.–12 p.m., on the Brewing Network. Then, go seek out the winners.

2. Visit the Brewers Studio
Relax and sip your way through pairings, stories, and fireside chats at the Brewers Studio. Each session lasts just 30 minutes and covers topics such as pretzel-and-beer pairings, homebrewing trends, and more (including a session with Betsy Lay, co-founder of Denver’s Lady Justice).

3. Hunt for Trends
WeldWerks’ Derek Gold notes that a variety of IPAs are still on-trend, so event goers can expect to enjoy a full spectrum of styles. “But smoothie sours and pastry-inspired sours in general still seem to be a pretty big hit, so I’m sure we’ll see plenty of that,” Gold says. “Lots of imperial stout as well. But more and more, I think people are kind of trending toward either lighter styles or non-alcoholic beer as a whole.” In fact, Obenchain says that there will be 22 different non-alcoholic beers from 10 breweries at this year’s show.

A photo of the crowd at GABF 2019. Photo courtesy of the Brewers Association
The crowd at GABF 2019. Photo courtesy of the Brewers Association

How to Celebrate GABF Without a Ticket

Many Colorado breweries are hosting parties and events throughout the week. Even without a ticket, you can get a taste of the fun at these local pour houses.

Wednesday, October 5

Westbound & Down Grand Opening Celebration
Where: Inside Free Market at the Dairy Block, 1801 Blake St.
When: 4–9 p.m.
What: Enjoy fresh beers, grilled food from Brutø, and live music to celebrate the launch of Idaho Springs–based Westbound & Down Brewing Company’s new Denver popup.

Celebration of Sour at Baere Brewing
Where: Baere Brewing, 320 Broadway, Ste. E
When: 12 p.m.–close
What: Pucker up at this celebration of sours featuring pours by Baere Brewing, Our Mutual Friend, Purpose Brewing, Crooked Stave, Novel Strand, and more.

PorchDrinking 10th Anniversary Beer Festival
Where: York Street Yards, 3833 Steele Street, Ste. 1332
When: VIP session 5–6 p.m., general admission 6–9 p.m.
What: PorchDrinking.com celebrates a decade of storytelling with a beer festival featuring over 40 breweries, distilleries, and cideries. A portion of proceeds will go towards Youth on Record and the PorchDrinking Mental Health Fund. Purchase tickets here.

Hops & Pie GABF Kickoff Event
Where: Hops & Pie, 3920 Tennyson St.
When: 11:30 a.m.–close
What: Hops & Pie kicks off GABF week with guest beers from Sante Adarius, pFriem, Jester King, Toppling Goliath, and more to an all-vinyl playlist.

Thursday, October 6

TRVE Third Annual Bottom Feeders
Where: TRVE Brewing, 227 Broadway, Ste. 101
When: 2–10 p.m.
What: This annual lager showcase brings together some of the best lagers in the game, from TRVE, Burial Beer, Tripping Animals, Cerebral, Bierstadt, Our Mutual Friend, and more.

MobCraft Dee Tacko Beer Week Bash: Thursday Brewed for All
Where: MobCraft Dee Tacko, 2403 Champa St.
When: 12 p.m.–close
What: Join MobCraft and Lady Justice Brewing in celebrating diversity and inclusion in the beer industry with a focus on beers brewed by brewers from underrepresented communities.

Friday, October 7

Denver Rare Beer Tasting
Where: McNichols Civic Center Building, 144 W. Colfax Ave.
When: 12–4 p.m.
What: Since 2009, this can’t-miss event lets guests sample some of the world’s best and rarest beers to support Pints for Prostates. Tickets are limited and can be purchased here.

Call to Arms Drumline
Where: Call to Arms Brewing, 4526 Tennyson St.
When: 6–8 p.m.
What: Members of the Colorado Avalanche Drumline join select members of the Guerilla Fanfare Brass Band for an evening of live entertainment.

Saturday, October 8

GABF Tap Takeover at Finn’s Manor
Where: Finn’s Manor, 2927 Larimer St.
When: All day
What: Sample taps from WeldWerks, Casey Brewing & Blending, Tripping Animals, Outer Range, and Resident Culture at this neighborhood pub.

Great Mexican Beer Fiesta
Where: Cerveceria Colorado, 1635 Platte St.
When: 2 p.m.–close
What: Visit this annual Mexican street fiesta to sample south-of-the-border-inspired brews, Lucha Libre, Folklorico dances, food trucks, and a mercadito featuring local artisans.

Sunday, October 9

Hangover Brunch
Where: Jagged Mountain Craft Brewery, 1139 20th St.
When: Starts at 12 p.m.
What: Soak up your GABF hangover with beermosas and breakfast burritos from Max Market.

Riane Menardi Morrison
Riane Menardi Morrison
Riane is 5280’s former digital strategy editor and assistant food editor. She writes food and culture content. Follow her at @riane__eats.