24 Hours in Denver for the Great American Beer Festival

If you're just here for the bike giveaway, you can find that at the end of the post. Otherwise, stay tuned til the end for details on how to win an awesome customized bike. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I have gone to the Great American Beer Festival and have lived to tell about it. 50,000 people, 3,500 beers, 750 breweries, and 0 dropped beer glasses later, and I’m here to tell you that it lives up to its name of being very great and very American.

For those not familiar with the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), it’s the foremost beer festival in America. When it started in 1982, there were about 20 breweries. This year there were more than 750. There are beer tastings, there are beer festivals, and then there’s Great American Beer Festival in Denver. Let me repeat: There were more than 3,500 beers there. And I would say that of those 3,500 beers, I tried about 1.5 to 2 percent of them.

But as much as the Great American Beer Festival is the beer festival for the craft beer lover, it’s also the Academy Awards of craft beer. Every year a panel of judges awards more than 250 medals for every type of beer you could imagine. And for many craft breweries, a single medal does for a new craft brewery what an Oscar or Emmy does for an actor or actress. Take Alaskan Brewing, for example. They won their first Great American Beer Festival medal in 1987, just one year after opening. Now Alaskan Brewing is the most award-winning craft brewery at the Great American Beer Festival.

I was stoked to be invited to this year’s Great American Beer Festival by Let’s Grab A Beer. However, I’m not sure if it was crazy or badass that I was doing the Great American Beer Festival in Denver in less than 24 hours. A beer festival in its own right is risky, and especially a beer festival with 3,500 beers. But a beer festival at one-mile elevation with 3,500 beers in 24 hours is borderline kamikazing. Yet I’m witness that it can be done.

Being my first Great American Beer Festival, I didn’t want to go in unprepared. But there was one thing I was hearing time and time again from those who had been before: Don’t forget your pretzel necklace (and, don’t drop your glass). And a pretzel necklace is just as it sounds, a necklace made out of pretzels. And I understand that you have to sop up that beer somehow if you want to walk out of a beer festival standing up, but I wasn’t going to do it with a stack of pretzels wrapped around my neck (more power to those who do go the pretzel—or donut—necklace route). I, however, adopted a different strategy.

My intake strategy for GABF was to sandwich it between two large meals. I kicked off my Great American Beer Festival with food first and foremost, downing a Reuben sandwich with fries, before walking over to the convention center. I kept a bottle of water and a couple granola bars on me, while picking up a couple small bags of pretzels every time I walked by the complimentary pretzel table, drinking water and noshing throughout the 5 hours of the festival. And then immediately following the festival, I had another big meal. That’s a hella lot of food and drink intake, I know, but if I were to do it all over again, I’d adopt a similar strategy, as I never felt like I had drank too much, even when I woke up the next morning.

From there, my strategy at the Great American Beer Festival was to simply walk around at a slow pace, sampling beer that were in the styles that I preferred (a lot of IPA and blondes, because blondes), while trying the occasional beer that simply sounded interesting, such as the Berger Cookie Chocolate Stout. Furthermore, I sampled a total of about four West Coast beers. I can largely find many of the West Coast beers available, since I live in Los Angeles, so I wanted to use this as a time to sample Midwest and East Coast beers.

Of the approximately 2 percent of beers that I sampled at the Great American Beer Festival, there were a few standouts. I’m not saying these were the best in attendance, because that’s like saying that there’s a particular wine or food that is the very best in the world, when people have different tastes and interests. But these were the five that stood out to me the most.

  • Dry Dock Brewing, Apricot Blonde (Aurora, Colorado). It’s smooth, it’s balanced, it’s blonde, it’s sweet (more of a subtle sweetness), and it uses one of my favorite fruits, apricots. Dry Dock Brewing's Apricot Blonde is much like I prefer my women cocktails, too. I’m not one to typically drink fruit beers, but this is seriously a solid beer, and not sweet like many fruit beers.
  • Great Lakes Brewing Company, Christmas Ale (Cleveland, Ohio). You don’t exactly think Ohio when you think craft beer do you? But I’m here to profess that not only does Ohio have craft beer, but it’s damn good craft beer. Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Christmas Ale was actually on my short to-drink list, since my East Coast friend Christina Saull, had recommended it. It’s got spice, it’s got honey, and it’s got pop. It’s delicious, and pairs well with ugly Christmas sweaters.
  • Peticolas, Velvet Hammer (Dallas, Texas). Texas, y’all! This came recommended from my craft beer friend Paul Thompson, who both hails from Texas and knows craft beer. So I figured I couldn’t go wrong with the Velvet Hammer, and I didn’t. It’s like a couple of my favorite beer styles, IPA and red ale, shacked up and out popped this burgundy, caramel bastion of a beer.
  • Firestone Walker Brewing, Easy Jack IPA (Paso Robles, California). I’m going to just come out and say that I drink more Firestone than any other beer. Firestone Walker’s 805 Blonde Ale is my go-to beer in the summer, and every single one of their lion & bear series of beers (pale, IPAs, pilsner) are spot-on. However, my favorite is the Easy Jack IPA, which I even recommend for people who don’t drink IPA beers, since it’s a session IPA (essentially a lower ABV IPA) and such a nice drinking beer. It’s only appropriate then that Firestone Walker was awarded the Mid-Size Brewing Company of the Year at the Great American Beer Festival.
  • Full Tilt Brewing, Berger Cookie Chocolate Stout (Baltimore, Maryland). You guys, I don’t even like stouts! So you know it must be good if a stout makes my list. This was one of the last beers I had once everything was starting to taste the same, and it was basically like my dessert beer, which the name presumes. The name actually comes from a famous, longtime cookie that’s made in Baltimore, Berger, which is characterized by its thick layer of fudge. Y’all, they actually add Berger Cookies to the beer. Thank you bartender, I’ll have another, and then curl up for a nap.

If you see any of these beers, make sure to pick some up. And then send them to me for Christmas, since it’s hard to find any of these my way (except for the Firestone Walker).

Last, but not least, I’m doing a giveaway following my trip to Denver for the Great American Beer Festival! No, it’s not beer. Actually, it’s better. I’m giving away an awesome, customized bike! I teamed up with Let’s Grab A Beer and Pure Fix Cycles for a little “Pimp My Bicycle,” except you get the bicycle. All you have to do to be entered to win the free customized bicycle from Pure Fix Cycles is take a photo that has a bicycle and beer in the photo, post it to Instagram, and include the hashtag “#beerandbikesweeps” in the caption or comments. That’s it! Just do so by Sunday, October 11. You can read the full terms and conditions here.