The 2016 Great American Beer Fest has come and gone, and I am still in serious Fun Withdrawal (it’s a real affliction) just over a week after the final session. This was my first time attending, so this post will largely be a massive recap of “bests” and “favorites” plus my usual illustrative touch.
In case you’re not familiar, GABF is the largest annual American craft beer festival in the United States, held in Denver, Colorado at the Colorado Convention Center. This year was the 35th anniversary of the fest, held from October 6–8, 2016. Considering that the fest sold out in just over one hour, I was very fortunate (not to mention honored & excited!) to receive a media pass for Worth 1000 Beers to the Thursday and Friday sessions! Thanks GABF! Woo hoo!
To help you wrap your mind around the size of this year’s event, here are a few staggering 2016 stats from the GABF website:
- Over 3,800 beers were served
- 60,000 attendees (brewers, judges, volunteers & journalists included)
- A record 780 U.S. breweries poured in the festival hall
Yep, this fest was “UUUGE.”
Just a small sliver of the festival hall on Thursday evening
Determined not to be overwhelmed by the paradox of choice, I used the free GABF app to make a plan for which breweries I wanted to visit. In the app, you could create a custom list of breweries you wanted to hit up, and could immediately click to see where they were located on the festival floor map. Once you visited the brewery’s booth you could check it off in the app. You could even click the brewery name itself and see details on exactly what beers they were pouring at the fest.
Sidebar: My only suggestion for an app improvement would be to include the beer style next to the beer name, or at least within the detailed description for a specific beer. Hopefully that changes next year, but overall the app was a really helpful tool for navigating the enormous fest.
As I mentioned, I attended the Thursday and Friday afternoon sessions from 5:30–10pm (though my magical press pass allowed me to enter at 5pm), but I also went to a variety of events at bars and local breweries throughout the city during the week I was there. And now, I will attempt to recap my personal highlights of GABF week from a slew of ridiculous amounts of fun and good times.
… or, Booths I Went Back to So Many Times I Lost Count
Odd13 Brewing – Lafayette, CO
I kept returning to this booth for their delicious IPAs and tasty sours. Among my favorites was Vincent van Couch, an American session sour with Brett along with Citra and Mosaic hops. I also enjoyed their American IPA, Codename: Superfan made with Simcoe, Citra, Amarillo, and Equinox hops.
Odd13 won the Best Small Booth award for their impressive beer can wall which spelled out “Odd13” in orange, black, white, and blue aluminum that completely covered the front panel and backsplash of their booth. I was also a huge fan of their comic book-esque can artwork, so it was pretty exciting when Kyrie “Ky” Wozab, one of the Odd13 can artists poured my beer from a can that she designed herself!
Odd13 Brewing’s Vincent van Couch, can art by Ky Wozab, taken in front of the booth’s wall of cans.
J. Wakefield Brewing – Miami, FL
Decidedly among the crowd favorites, these guys were pouring brightly colored flavor bombs filled with tropical fruits to a constant clamoring crowd of eager drinkers. Wakefield’s most popular pours were their Berliner Weisses, or “Florida Weisses,” which went down like shots of cold, refreshing juice. Over the course of Thursday and Friday, I probably drank myself an entire pint of the tart and juicy Miami Madness, brewed with guava, mango, and passion fruit. Their DFPF was a shockingly intense magenta color which I can only assume came from the Dragon Fruit & Passion Fruit that went into this delicious bev. And I swear they took Gatorade and fermented it to make Haterade, a bright red Berliner that smelled EXACTLY like Gatorade and tasted like Hawaiian Punch. Crazy delicious, creative stuff!
J. Wakefield’s DFPF Berliner Weisse, a bright pink beer that literally stopped people in their tracks.
Melvin Brewing – Jackson, WY
Where to begin? My first pour of a Melvin Brewing brew was their collaboration 3-Way IPA at Falling Rock on Wednesday night, and I immediately knew that their hop game was strong. Their 2×4 DIPA kept me coming back to their booth time and time again, and their can art was awesome and imaginative. Melvin also won gold in the Fresh or Wet Hop category for their Melvin IPA, an earthy and piney pour with grapefruit and a nice malty presence. Wu Tang!
#3 Chanterelle Biere de Garde – Scratch Brewing Company
This French-style farmhouse beer was made with 50 pounds of chanterelle mushrooms that the brewer and staff foraged from the woods surrounding their Ava, Illinois brewery. This beer was earthy, fruity, and malty with hints of mushroom, and there was nothing else like it at this – or likely any other – fest. I’ve been intesrested Scratch and their incredible process since visiting the brewery a few years ago, and they still continue to kill it with unique, resourceful, and imaginative concoctions that no one else on Earth can reproduce.
Scratch also won a bronze medal in the Experimental Beer category for their Oyster Weiss, a slightly sweet & earthy Berliner Weiss brewed with oyster mushrooms. I did not get a chance to taste this one, but according to Mushroom-Appreciation.com, these fungi can have a “mild anise odor … a little sweet like licorice,” and a slightly sweet taste, too.
#2 Ejector – Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales
While their Cherry Oxcart, a gueuze-style beer fermented with cherries, consistently kicked first, I was drawn to the hoppier side of the booth. Ejector was both hoppy and fruity, but all very balanced and subtle despite the immense hop bill. According to Black Project’s website, the beer is first dry-hopped with Citra, Mosaic, Equinox and Mandarina Bavaria, then it gets a second dry hop just prior to bottling with more Citra, Kohatu, and a small amount of Centennial hops.
Black Project was another fan favorite, as they ran out of beer well before the end of both sessions I attended. And the hype is well-deserved; they won GABF medals in 2014 and 2015, and continue to create delicious wild and sour ales fermented with 100% Colorado microbes.
#1 Sexport Stout – BrainDead Brewing
Sexport Stout is a red wine barrel aged export Oatmeal Stout made with added sherry yeast and fresh raspberry puree. This was a delicious, slightly syrupy concoction that was rich, roasty, and stout-like until a sweet and delicious raspberry fruitiness popped up on my palette to finish it off.
I will admit that I am a bit partial to this Dallas-based brewery; head brewer Drew Heurter and I know each other from our college days, and I’ve done some label artwork for their brewery. However, I believe I’m being totally objective in describing this beer as a decadent dessert, and I just wanted more.
The Best of the Rest of the Fest
As I mentioned above, this fest is enormous. If you’ve ever been to a marathon expo it’s a lot like that, but multiply that by 5 and add a bunch of happy drunk people. But much like an expo, there are a lot of other activities that don’t involve beer-tasting and considering the size of this festival, it’s not a bad idea to take a break every once in awhile to visit these non-beer treats. For example, this year there was a whole section of backyard games including bag-tossing and old-school arcade games. My favorite sideshows were as follows:
Cyprus Grove Cheese Booth
I have maybe never eaten so much cheese in one sitting before, and I have zero regrets. The Cypress Grove booth featured complimentary samples of a variety of their goat cheeses including the subtly, tangy, creamy and floral Humbolt Fog (my favorite) and an aged, dense, and slightly crunchy cheese called Midnight Moon. I made at least 7 trips (that I recall) to this booth and I am not ashamed to say it!
The premise: A DJ is playing music into a bunch of wireless headphones worn by people who have been drinking all the live long day. This idea is genius, and after a few hours of imbibing beer samples I participated with joyous enthusiasm, and took this video while dancing to music only we could hear:
Celebrity Sightings (and Non-Sightings)
It was exciting to spot the forever-tanned craft beer celeb, Sam Calagione of Dogfishead Brewing, who could often be found pouring at the popular Dogfish booth. Since they’re distributed widely throughout the Midwest, I did not stand in line to taste his brews or get a picture with Sam, though this was a popular move by many fest-goers.
No, this is not a joke. Zac Hanson, baby brother of famed 90’s boy band trio Hanson was there, representing Hanson Brothers Brewing Co. They are based in Tulsa, OK and produce a pale ale called Mmmhops. Again, I am not kidding. The line to get a picture taken with Zac was longer than the line to try their punny beer. In other words, I walked right up and got a pour of Mmmhops with no wait, and took this voyeuristic picture of him from off to the side:
Zac Hanson takes a photo with an adoring fan who used to be a teenage girl.
Charlie is largely considered the godfather of American homebrewing – he authored the very first homebrew book that Matt and I bought – and he’s the founder of the Brewer’s Association. I spotted him signing books at the Beer Geek Bookstore section of the fest, but didn’t take the chance to go talk to him. Little did I know that we would share a fist-bump on Saturday morning at the GABF Awards Ceremony!
Coolio: A Non-Sighting
Coolio, where were you? When I was on the street, I felt your beat, but you were no where to be found. Yes, it was strongly rumored that Coolio would be in attendance at the fest this year, possibly to promote his book Cookin’ With Coolio, a collection of recipes where all measurements are in dime bags. Maybe next year we’ll slide, slide on the Silent Disco floor together, but he’s gotta gotta get up to get down.
Lucky for me, my media pass afforded me entry into this separately ticketed section of the fest, but I’d absolutely recommend buying a pass to this unique event. 21 breweries were paired with 21 pro chefs who created a dish to go with a specific beer in this unique section of the festival hall. More often than not, the beers in this section were pretty special creations, such as:
• The Lost Abbey‘s Avant Garde + a whole wheat puff with talleggio and membrillo by Alla Spina (Philadelphia, PA) that I should have just popped entirely into my mouth but instead bit off half of it and it disintegrated all over my dress but it was so delicious that I didn’t care, omnom nom nom nom nom.
Grand Teton Brett Saison with oysters at the Paired portion of GABF.
Saturday: The Awards Ceremony
Matt and I anxiously anticipate the award announcements
Again, thanks to my media pass, I was allowed entry into the GABF Awards Ceremony along with all the brewers on Saturday morning. Yes, GABF is also a beer competition, and just like the festival itself, 2016’s contest made history with record participation numbers:
- 96 categories of beer were judged by 264 beer experts.
- 1,752 breweries entered 7,227 different beers into the competition, representing 50 states and Washington, D.C.
- And since I’m from Chicagoland, a special shout-out to the 13 Illinois breweries that medaled this year:
The ceremony had some exciting moments. Colorado Governor Hickenlooper made an appearance to give GABF Founder Charlie Papazian a celebratory plaque and medal for his contributions to the American craft beer community, and I am 99% sure some tears of joy were shed on stage.
But the most thrilling moment (for me) came when Horse Thief Hollow was announced the bronze medal winner in the European-Style Dark Lager/Munich-Style Dunkel category! My husband Matt is the Assistant Brewer at this South Side brewpub in Beverly, and he and I went up on stage to accept the award along with Head Brewer Dave Williams and his wife Kelli. They won for Prunkle’s Dunkel, a delicious Munich-style Dunkel. Charlie Papazian’s congratulatory fist bump was just as glorious as rumored.
Myself, Kelli, Dave, Matt and Charlie Papazian himself, as the Horse Thief Hollow crew accepts the bronze medal for Prunkel’s Dunkel.
As I continued to watch winning beers flash across the ceremony screens I realized that, not knowing which beers had medaled, I’d spent most of my time during the fest on Thursday and Friday seeking out my own personal “whales” or following the crowd. While I had an awesome time celebrating at a handful of local breweries on Saturday with the award-winning Horse Thief Hollow gang, I do wish I had gotten a ticket to one of the Saturday sessions so that I could have sampled the award winners. Yet another goal for next year!
I had an amazing time and as my Fun Withdrawal symptoms slowly continue to subside, I know they will be replaced with more and more anticipation and excitement for next year’s celebration in Denver. If you ever get a chance to fly out to the Mile High city for GABF, take that chance. It’s definitely a beer-fan’s bucket list must.