A few months ago, two WA brewers who are enjoying the adventure of a lifetime through the American craft beer industry featured in our Blog of the Month series. Steve Brockman (formerly of The Monk) and Steph Cope (formerly at Gage Roads) (both pictured above) are documenting their travels at their Two Brewers Abroad blog. They attended the recent Great American Beer Festival in Denver, both working and sampling, and have been kind enough to send us this envy-inducing write up on their experiences.
“You’ll never do anything you want to. It’s too big. The best bet is to go in with a plan; drink a style or a region – but you’ll never get to all of them.”
We listened to the advice from Jon Graber, Country Malt Representative, long time Great American Beer Festival (GABF judge), and close friend after we lived with him and his wife Teri Fahrendorf, in Portland, Oregon.
We were discussing tactics at dinner on the eve of the Great American Beer Festival kick off on Thursday night. We’d already been in the great hall and volunteered to help set up beer lines for the festival that day – and there were plenty there. The GABF lays claim as the biggest beer festival in the US, with close to 50,000 people attending over four sessions, with 600 plus breweries in attendance and almost 3000 beers to sample. Jon was right, we’d never get to all of them.
We weren’t due ‘on the floor’ until Saturday, as we were busy with other commitments during the week. Due to the popularity of the festival tickets sell out quickly (20 minutes this year) and plenty of beer people are looking for other events to wet their whistle while they wait for their one or two session of tickets to come around. And Denver definitely makes sure they put on a show.
Denver, Colorado, is the perfect place for the event. Not only are the headquarters of the Brewers Association close by in neighbouring Boulder, the city itself is a beer lover’s dream. So many brewers attend, it’s not uncommon to see people high five-ing while crossing at traffic lights and brew pubs and craft bars heaving at the seams during the week.
Thursday night we attended some of the satellite events- Country Malt Group hosted a brewers meet and greet at Black Shirt Brewery in the trendy RiNo (River North) area of Denver. Sitting amongst the brewhouse tanks we chatted with brewers from around the globe about their different projects.
Our next event was a beer product launch for Left Hand Brewing, based in Longmont, Colorado. GABF is a perfect time to launch new products, and for Left Hand it was a double celebration, choosing the event to celebrate their 20th year anniversary. Sparing no expense, they hired the 38th floor ballroom of the Grand Hyatt and launched their Nitro range of beers – three styles nitrogenated in bottle and dispensed without any nitrogen widget. It was a popular event, people were jammed in shoulder to shoulder, full of enthusiasm and good cheer.
Our last event of the evening was Epic Brewing’s First Fifty Firkin Tapping Fiasco. Epic Brewing, based out of Salt Lake City, has just opened a new tap room and brewery in Denver and decided to celebrate by coming up with fifty different firkin combinations – the Clam Stout, Kiwi Fruit IPA, Lavender & Lime American Strong Ale, Early Grey Amber were all great and we celebrated with them late into the night.
Friday morning was the GABF Week Pink Boots Society meeting at the Vine Street Brewery and Pub. Pink Boots is a professional association dedicated to the advancement and support of women in the beer industry by women in the beer industry, and we encourage all women earning a dollar from beer to join.
Our awesome lineup of guest speakers included:
- Jessica Heidrich, head brewer of St Eriks Brewery in Sweden and GABF judge, who spoke of her PBS scholarship funded experience at the Siebel Concise Course in Brewing Technology;
- Jenn Coyle and Lindsey Herrema of The Can Van in the San Francisco Bay area, who spoke of their mobile canning business;
- Keynote speaker Kim Jordan, Co-founder of New Belgium Brewing.
It was an inspiring session, and great to meet up and share a beer with the many wonderful women in the US brewing industry.
Friday evening rolled around and one of the hottest tickets in town was about to start. The very first What the Funk festival, a brainchild of Funk'n Wild’s Chandra Ruiz and brett whisperer and founder of Crooked Stave Project, Chad Yakobson. The line up was one of the best we’ve ever seen – the complete who’s who of barrel aged and sour beers was in attendance, including Cascade Barrelworks, in their only GABF week appearance.
We’d had the honour of helping out Cascade Barrelworks during our summer stay in Portland and as we were in Denver for GABF week went along and represented the brewery (see photo at top). While we had a line of people fifty long for most of the night, everyone was super stoked to be there, and very much geeking out on all the details we could supply. Check out Denver Post’s review of the ‘geekiest event ever in Colorado’ here.
Finally Saturday was upon us, and the big show was ready to amaze. Saturday morning marks the annual GABF awards, this year held underneath the main pouring floor in a separate pavilion. We were lucky enough to score passes from Kris and Mark Latham, long time volunteers for the GABF Competition Stewards. Kris and Mark live in Fremantle and have started to work with CBIA recently which can only mean good things.
The awards are huge – both in size and stature. A crowd of about 4,000 attend to find out the medal winners across 82 categories of beer styles. To take a GABF gold means that you were the best of the hundreds of entries in each category. Over 4,200 beers were entered this year and judged by over 200 judges, including some Australians – Dr Chuck Hahn, Brennan Fielding of Burleigh Brewery and Warren Pawsey of Lion. To win a medal in this competition is often considered the highest accolade in American Craft Brewing.
Having just travelled up the West Coast of America and met a whole bunch of brewers, we were stoked to cheer on some of the great brewers we’ve met as they won medals.
Personally, a Gold Medal to Monkey Paw Brewery for their Bonobos American Strong Pale was satisfying as we’d collaborated while in San Diego.
We were also stoked that Bend Brewing Company and 10 Barrel took out Golds for their respective Sour Ales (two different categories) as we’d become friends with both of their crews when in Bend.
We also cheered on crowd favourites Firestone Walker, Left Hand, Avery, Crooked Stave and Dogfish Head and successful Oregon breweries The Commons, Ninkasi and Baker City. You can read which of your favourite American breweries won here.
And then the moment came when we finally made the floor. The raucous crowd can be heard as you enter the Convention Center, and once you enter you truly get the phenomenal scale of this event. There’s beer being poured for as far as the eye can see, and everyone is in a great mood.
We’d be graciously given Brewer’s passes from the BJ’s Breweries crew, and this allowed us to sneak behind the tables to congratulate our friends on their victories. Halfway during the first session we caught up with Mike ‘Tasty’ McDole of The Brewing Network and he toured us around and had us meet a couple of brewers we’d yet to make contact with.
In very exciting news, we talked to a very big name in American craft brewing, and they confirmed will be coming down to Australia for next year’s Australian National Homebrewing Conference. The announcement is on November 1, so we won’t spoil the party, but all home brewers should get on to getting tickets as soon as they’re released.
Our second session on Saturday consisted of us tasting beers we hadn’t tried and winding down in the Brewer’s Studio, an area set aside for guest speaking brewers and experts on all matters of subjects. We listened to Steve Gonzales, from Stone Brewing in San Diego talk about barrel ageing and maturation, before sticking around with the Brewing Network crew for one of the most fun games I’ve seen.
Brewer’s Feud, a version of Family Feud, was hotly contested between San Francisco’s 21st Amendment Brewery and Colorado’s Bull and Bush. A drunk and excited crowd really got into the game, which 21st Amendment took it out in close and somewhat controversial fifth round.
After a long week, the end of the festival was a welcome call. We’d met so many great people, made contact with a bunch of our favourite brewers and had an absolute blast, but the week of beering had taken its toll on both of us.
If you’re serious about your beer, then the Great American Beer Festival is a must go. Nowhere else will you find the camaraderie and celebration of good craft beer in such volume as Denver in early October. There are more than enough events and attractions to wear out even the geekiest of beer geeks. It truly is the perfect place to chat, drink and celebrate!