It can be awfully hard to recap a three-day event featuring hundreds of breweries and thousands of beers, but by golly, the Crew will try to review our latest trip to the Great American Beer Festival.
For yours truly, this was my third trip overall, second in a row via the magic of a press pass. Franz Solo also got a press pass this year, while Luke, Shawna, and Andrew all went up on tickets for the Saturday night session (the guys were going for the first time). If those three elect to share their experiences, we will add them to this story.
Franz and I charged into battle Thursday night, Friday night, and Saturday afternoon following the awards ceremony, which we recapped here. The sessions were pretty much the same as my past experiences — well-organized and yet chaotic. The Brewers Association, their volunteers, and all the participating breweries run a pretty smooth ship. The chaos comes from the gigantic crowd, which swarms one way and then the next. Take any crowd you have seen at a New Mexico festival, multiply it by 1,000, throw in some crazy costumes, a full bagpipe marching band, and expand everything over a space the size of seven football fields and … well, you have GABF.
While there were plenty of brewery heavyweights on site, from Avery to Firestone Walker to Founders to Stone, there were also a ton of up-and-comers garnering huge lines and attention. Toppling Goliath, from Iowa, had a huge line, as did Great Notion from Portland, Oregon. We typically do not follow the crowds in most things, but when it comes to beer, and this fest in particular, we know that it pays to hit up the busiest booths.
Breaking down our new favorite breweries by region, to help everyone plan their future beer-cations, and in some cases, our specific favorite beers.
Northwest: Chuckanut (WA), Loowit (WA), Great Notion (OR). In particular, the Vienna Lager at Chuckanut, and the amazing Great Notion Double Stack, a breakfast stout for the ages. For those of you hopheads, Juice Box at Great Notion is arguably the best juicy, hazy IPA outside of New England.
California: Central Coast, Modern Times, Three Weavers. Most of you have probably heard of Modern Times down in San Diego, but dear lord, if you can get your hands on any of the Monsters’ Park imperial stout variants, get them ASAP. As for Three Weavers, based out of Inglewood, we absolutely had to try 2 Minutes to Midnight.
Southwest: Dragoon (AZ), (512) Brewing (TX). I have sung the praises of Tucson’s Dragoon many times before. We hit up the Austin-based (512) on the recommendation of a fellow beer writer. Any variant of their Double Pecan Porter will make your day, month, even year.
Midwest: Drekker (ND), Haymarket (IL), Revolution (IL), Sun King (IN), Toppling Goliath (IA). Yes, Toppling Goliath lives up to every bit of the hype that surrounds it. The Mornin’ Delight rivaled the Great Notion Double Stack for best breakfast stout of the fest. How good are they? Yes, they are even better than Founders Breakfast Stout. Drekker, based out of Fargo (!), created Coconut Killer IPA. There were hops and coconut and somehow they blended it into something truly amazing. The Deth’s Tar from Revolution is another epic imperial stout. We also loved Bear Hug Stout from Bell’s, which lord willing, will be distributed down here at some point.
Southeast: Foothills (NC), Cigar City (FL). OK, yes, you have all probably heard of Tampa’s Cigar City before. Hunaphu gets the bulk of the stout love, but Marshal Zhukov is another worthy must-find beer. Another one to find is Sexual Chocolate, a beer that lives up to its name, from Winston-Salem’s Foothills Brewing.
Northeast: Iron Hill (multiple locations), Southern Tier (NY-PA). Wait, what is a chain brewery doing on here? Well, Iron Hill is of a much higher quality than most, and its Russian Imperial Stout is a medal winner. Southern Tier is another one that a lot of people know about, but Monstrous was an imperial stout we have not had before. It was not available in stores, but we did bring bottles of the decadent Creme Brule.
OK, enough rambling from me. Here is what the others had to say, starting with a certain viking poet who has a lot to say (again, it was his first time).
Franz Solo: On a bright and blustery fall morning, two brothers in the cult of beer and all that is good in this life set out on the quest of Valhalla. How do you quantify something that is legendary, a myth so precious you but whisper the name in hopes that it will not simply vanish as all things at their end? If my hand be true and my heart be honest, perhaps, there, there is the way.
As with all grand events there is the lush tapestry of anticipation and slight jitters that accompany the start. We check in for our press credentials, we wait, and then set loose! The roar grows from a murmur to a full-on assault on the ears as the night growls to crescendo and climax, like some worn-out prize fighter just before he falls. Bagpipes and jovial madness in every direction, beer and our comrades in arms as far as the eye can see. On only very few occasions in my life have I witnessed such overall happiness and enjoyment by nearly everyone we met for the entire duration. That we as human beings can simply come together in positive collaboration around something as old and seemingly simple and pleasurable as beer is certainly heartening in these otherwise uncertain and dark times.
I kept a reasonably thorough log of what we tried in each of our four-and-a-half hour sessions, and these were some of the highlights for me, beginning with beers not locally available to us in New Mexico. The Mexican Lager from pFreim Family Brewers (Hood River, Oregon), was simply wonderful, with a solid malt base and delightfully tart, but not overbearing hops. Double Stack from Great Notion was one of many great beers in their lineup for the festival. In particular, this double breakfast stout tasted like, well, f***ing pancakes and syrup in beer form. I wholeheartedly embrace this addition of maple flavor to one of my favorite stout variants, and was quite happy that this appears to be somewhat of a trend as I will enumerate later on.
Chicago’s Revolution Brewing brought an imperial oatmeal stout called Deth’s Tar, which was as dark and devilish as a vat of molasses being used to encase Han Solo in carbonite. A pure monster of a stout that I thoroughly enjoyed. From the far north in Fargo, N.D., we happened upon Coconut Killer IPA, which was like the lighter side of Double Stack and tasted just like vanilla ice cream in IPA form, clean, crisp, and refreshing enough to warrant a second tasting.
Hailing from Deborah, Iowa, Toppling Goliath had our second pancakes with syrup tasting breakfast stout called Mornin’ Delight which well, tasted like f***ing pancakes. Of the two beers we tried from Dark Horse Brewing Co. (Marshall, Mich.), Oil of Gladness was a wonderful collaboration with Three Floyds, and had so many layers of nuanced flavors from the barrel. It is to my knowledge the first black barley wine I’ve ever tried and I will certainly seek more of these out.
A visit to the booth for Destihl Brewery (Normal, Ill.), scored us a taste of Dosvidanya, which was a classic and hoppy take on the Russian imperial stout variety. In contrast, Comrade Brewing’s Wet Hop Superpower IPA certainly lived up to our high expectations for this past NIPAC finalist. After a good number of samples, Superpower blasted straight through the pancakes, the Russian imperial stouts, and the other IPAs alike. I look forward to trying a pint of this one at some future date.
Our visit to Modern Times (San Diego) Brewing’s booth yielded a plethora of choices in the vein of special barrel-aged imperial stouts. My personal favorite was the Monsters’ Park Aged in Bourbon Barrels Mexican Hot Chocolate variant, which was spicy and delicious just like our own native holiday drink.
On a wholly different edge of the spectrum, though no less delicious to my taste, was the 2017 gold medal winner from Little Machine Brewing (Denver), Razz Against the Machine. The name was awesome to begin with and this beer was a wonderful tart raspberry delight of a beer.
Funky Buddha’s Maple Bacon Coffee Porter was well, just as the name says with loads of fantastic flavor and extremely well balanced throughout. Clare’s Thirsty Raspberry Imperial Bourbon Stout from Haymarket Pub and Brewery (Chicago) tasted just like a slice of raspberry blackout cake from our local Flying Star. There was the initial wave of barrel and chocolate malt blend, followed by a wonderful wave of raspberry to finish of this wonderful dessert of a beer.
Avery pulled out all of the stops and had hourly from-the-barrel tastings of some of our favorite brews featuring Rumpkin, Tweak, and Effin’ Teamwork (an imperial stout collaboration with Odell Brewing) which were simply divine all around.
There were many more outstanding beers that we tried which I could speak to, but for a little brevity’s sake, the finisher for the festival that we stumbled upon at the end of a row was Cigar City’s Marshal Zhukov aged in cognac barrels. A true liquid poem to the glory of stout and barrel-aged beers, no sooner had it passed our lips and we knew we would not find a better finishing beer for our GABF experience.
On the local front, our New Mexico breweries did us quite proud, and I encourage you all to go out and enjoy the medal winners and the rest of what is an extremely strong lineup for our state, blessed with many outstanding breweries and beers.
On one final note, I’ll leave you with a quote from us after our first GABF session: “Our palate is pancakes, bring us all of your breakfast stout!”
Andrew: This weekend’s visit to Denver for GABF was a true beer-cation. I feel no shame in saying that all activity focused on and revolved around beer … even more so then usual. My first GABF on Saturday night was the crown jewel of the weekend. I should have planned more, but I’m convinced that it wouldn’t have changed anything. Entering the convention center and finding myself surrounded by 800-plus brewery booths was both surreal and overwhelming. The scale of this event is staggering. Lacking any sort of method or strategy I proceeded to bounce back and forth between booths for hours. Fortunately the beer gods led me on a path to many delicious beers from around the country. Other highlights of the trip include: (1) bumping into members of the Marble crew, and Nexus head brewer Kaylynn McKnight at the Falling Rock Tap House the night before they won gold medals… which is also where (2) I enjoyed some Pliny the Elder Imperial IPA on tap from Russian River Brewing; and (3) drinking Yeti straight from the source at Great Divide Brewing. But, the best part was seeing NM breweries bring home some medals!! Congrats!!
Luke: I was warned GABF was overwhelming, and perhaps the festival itself was. But, Denver and the whole scene was certainly large enough to handle the extra 60,000 bodies, 900-plus breweries, and do it all with grace. At no point did it seem like the locals were upset that something big had come to town. At no point were we overcrowded on the streets. Ubers and Lyfts were only ever 3 minutes away. There was no waiting for a table, which wasn’t out of the ordinary for any given Sunday. The only overwhelming part was the sheer number of beers to sample. But, that’s the point. For fellow Crew member Andrew and I, it was our first GABF. Once we got into the festival, our plan and brewery list went out the window. But, that happens to GABF first-timers. I almost wouldn’t do that differently.
GABF wasn’t overwhelming, but not because it wasn’t big. It wasn’t overwhelming because we found New Mexico friends at the right time, and the Dark Side shirt was as recognizable as if we were in Albuquerque. Andrew and I didn’t make it to Bierstadt Lagerhaus, Crooked Stave, or Prost, but that’s for next time, and there will be a next time. It’s not about what we didn’t get to do, or sample. GABF, for us first-timers in the Crew, was about all the things we still did right. There were many of them — TRVE, Banded Oak, Falling Rock, to name a few. Huge thanks to Julie Ruth and Nichole Breihan, for without them, my first experience would not have been possible. Congrats to our New Mexico winners!
Shawna: Jerrad and I hit the road on Saturday morning to attend the Saturday evening session of GABF. To say that we had an exhausting day was a gross understatement! Was it worth it? Hell yes! We arrived in Denver on Saturday afternoon. We checked in, got a bite to eat at the nearby 16th Street Mall, then we were off to stand in the already long line. Last year, the line wrapped all the way around the convention center, so we knew we had to get there reasonably early, an hour and a half recommended for general admission ticket holders. To our surprise, they moved the line this year — and opened it up to the indoor waiting area right away, helping keep the madness of not only the GABF crowd, but a zombie crawl nearby, off the busy Denver streets! Whoever made that logistical decision is all right in my book! Once the gates opened, it was more or less a free-for-all, with the exception of the line block queue. We had just about every brewery in the nation at our disposal. I had several on my list that I was excited to check out. I couldn’t begin to try to give you a list of favorite beers at this festival, but here is a list of the most memorable (which seems appropriate haha):
- Avery (CO) Old Perseverance (whooooaaaa 18.5% ABV)
- Crooked Stave (CO) Petite Sour Raspberry
- Revision Brewing (NV) Dr. Lupulin 3X
- Melvin Brewing (WY) Hubert MPA
- Victory Brewing (PA) Sour Monkey
- Lewis and Clark Brewing (MT) Miner’s Gold Hefe
- Little Machine (CO) Razz Against the Machine
- Great Lakes Brewing (OH) Edmund Fitzgerald Porter
- Modern Times Barrel House (CA) Mexican Hot Chocolate
- Snake River Brewing (WY) Coffee Milk Stout
One learned lesson this year was to definitely try to go on Thursday or Friday in the future. They sell out first for a reason. The Saturday crowd is very rushed. From what I hear, the Thursday and Friday crowds are a bit more jovial. One thing that I can give the Saturday crowd — they sure know how to party! Everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time. We were all mutually in beer heaven, even if it seems a bit of a blur now. We woke up early on Sunday and grabbed a coffee with fellow Crew member Luke, then we hit the road back to with a stopover at Trinity Brewing in Colorado Springs for some unique bottled brews before the long trek to Albuquerque. We will definitely stay longer next time. One day in and out is not nearly enough time to take in the wonderful city that is Denver, or even its downtown area, for that matter. See you next year GABF!
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That is all from us. If you have any awesome GABF stories you would like to share, please send them to us and we will post them.
And, if you could not surmise from all our ridiculous praise, if you have never been to this event, you gotta go at least once in your life.
We are, however, glad to be home. Now it is time to go seek out all the medal winners from New Mexico. We will have to wait for the next batch of Rod’s Steam Bitter (bronze) at Second Street (it was not on tap when we stopped for dinner on the way back), but of course there is still plenty of Sierra Blanca Cherry Wheat (gold), Marble Pilsner (bronze), Nexus Imperial Cream (gold), and hopefully there is still some Marble Cholo Stout (gold) and Boxing Bear Featherweight Session IPA (bronze) on tap.