A More Personal Description of the GABF Experience

There is something to be said for nursing a pint in a quiet pub.

The Great American Beer Festival is a beast. This makes my fourth festival. Saturday afternoon marked my 13th session – a small number in comparison to some beer writers I know, but still enough to be able to form a few impressions.

GABF is an exercise in pleasurable self-abuse; too much beer, too many too late nights, and definitely too much heavy food. The weekend – or week if you go for all of the surrounding events – will beat you up. But you’ll have a great time taking the whupping.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the GABF. The hall is immense; rows of brewery booths and vendor stalls seem to stretch to the horizon. And then there are the 12,000 people that fill it and the noise that comes from the voices of that many drunken people. As attendees try to hear and be heard they talk louder. This raises the decibels, necessitating an even louder shout. The self-perpetuating crescendo gives one the sense of standing inside of a jet engine. The roar is punctuated by the scolding hoot that moves from one end of the hall to the other every time someone drops a glass. The noise alone is exhausting.  Add buckets of beer and unpleasant yellow light that is always just a bit too dim and you have a recipe for sensory overload, at least to a homebody such as myself.

People talk about having a plan of attack at GABF. Some focus on particular beer styles, others on hitting certain breweries. I made a plan the first year, but found that my plan disintegrated shortly after entering the hall, succumbing quickly to the “empty-glass” syndrome; “my glass is empty, I’ll just fill it at the nearest booth.” I guess I lack self-control. These days I take more of a free-for-all approach. I have some vague notions of places to go and beers to taste, but mostly I just wander the aisles until I see a beer or brewery that looks interesting. I tend to focus on breweries I’ve never heard of in search of undiscovered gems. I avoid the most popular booths – places like Dogfish Head and Russian River. They have perpetually long lines. I don’t believe in waiting in long lines for beer, especially when there are 2690 other beers available.

The most frequent question one gets asked at the fest is, “tasted any stand outs?” This is such a difficult question for me to answer. Pour after one-ounce pour makes it hard to keep track. Along with planning, taking notes was another first-fest casualty. But it’s not entirely a blur. There were a few beers that rose above attention deficit and overconsumption. All the German-style beers from Live Oak Brewing Company in Austin, Texas were great. They make a hell-of-a hefe. La Cumbre Brewing Company’s Elevated IPA paired with a mighty hunk of lamb at Friday’s media luncheon was fantastic. And Founders’ Blushing Monk paired to Buratta cheese with pear brulée and cranberry jam was a definite highlight of the weekend. There were others, but mostly they all sort of blend together – and that’s okay with me. The festival to me is really about enjoying beer, not about picking it apart and checking it off. I’ll do that in other settings that aren’t so mind addling. Or maybe I’m just a bad Cicerone…

I do better at the GABF when I have a task to do there. I’m like that with events in general; I’m more comfortable working an event than just attending one. Without a purpose I tend to feel a bit lost. On Thursday night our task was to shoot video interviews with brewers from the upper-Midwest. We shot a bunch; almost an hour of video. I caught up with Todd Haug of Surly, Dave Hoops from Fitger’s, Gabe Smoly and Eric Blomquist from Summit, Matt Potts the Brewmaster at DeStihl, Joe Barley from Solemn Oath in Naperville, Illinois, and a few others. Those will go on up on this blog at some point. Hopefully this year I’ll get that done sooner than the week before next year’s festival.

After a day of beer lunches and brewery tours, Friday night’s session was all about the Farm to Table Pavilion. This is a little piece of heaven. Off in a side hall, it is a welcome relief from the thunder of the main hall. And it’s all about great beer paired with great food. Brewers and chefs are teamed up to create miraculous combinations. Small plates and small pours – you just stay in there all night and revel in it. Where to even begin? How about Firestone Walker Pale 31 paired to lemon-roasted chanterelles with cannellini beans and chardonnay grapes? Or maybe Sun King Oktoberfest with butternut squash mousse, sesame beer brittle and toasted celery marshmallow is more your speed. And of course there were oysters – lots of oysters.  You couldn’t go wrong with any of the 24 pairings in the room. I didn’t want to leave.

Saturday morning we sat through the awards ceremony and then headed back into the hall. Here’s where that task-less confusion set in. After two solid days of drinking and eating I walked into the crowded hall and immediately thought, “Is this really where I want to be?” Of course after a few samples it was all good. But how to manage this my last session of the weekend? Sample all the medal winners? Without a written list, that was beyond my mental capacity at this point. And so I wandered, tasting as many of them as I could remember or as had signs indicating their medal status. And so it was that the official fest ended for me.

The drinking and eating of course did not. A fancy dinner Saturday night was followed by pints at Prost Brewing, a new Denver brewery specializing in German-style lagers. There I accidentally stumbled upon a meeting of beer writers from all over the US, as well as a couple of scribes from Canada and the UK. Interesting conversations did ensue. Look for a piece inspired by this meeting in the next issue of The Growler.

Ah, Sunday! Sunday is the best day at GABF, mostly because GABF is over. Everyone has left town. All is quiet. We always like to stay this extra day. It’s a day to unwind from the chaos with a long hike in the mountains. That’s always followed by beer. This year we took in Funkwerks in Fort Collins. A number of people who I respect had recommended this tiny brewery that specializes in saison. I had long wanted to visit. The beers didn’t disappoint. Every beer in the sampler was top-notch. An experimental witbier temporarily called Nit-Wit, a Berliner-weiss kind of think called Leuven, and a Green Tea Saison were particularly good. Finally a nightcap of beers and appetizers in the nearly-empty Falling Rock Taphouse.

There is something to be said for nursing a pint in a quiet pub.

 

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