The Great American Beer Festival: One Man’s Attempt to Drink the World


One of the many perks of my job, apart from the groupie sex and three-day coke-a-thons, is a ready excuse to attend virtually any beer festival. I am no stranger to cavernous convention halls with rows of brewers attempting to capture my fancy. I always enjoy them, but these days it takes an event of sizable magnitude to shake me from my been-there-done-that malaise.

Enter the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), arguably the planet’s largest and most reputable beer event. They finally invited me to attend this year, probably as a desperate bid for some legitimacy in the beer world. I was pretty excited about it, despite the cost of interstate travel to attend. I’ve only traveled for one other festival, but it was well worth it:


Over 465 breweries attend GABF, delivering over 2,400 beers to sample. Consider that if you attend only one 4.5 hour session, you would have to consume 8.8 beer samples a minute to work through all of them, representing about 19 gallons of beer. That’s why I recommend you spread it over two sessions, which will only cause you to to distend your stomach to 17.5 times beyond its native capacity.

If you’re new to Denver and unsure how to find the GABF, just keep your eyes peeled for the giant frostbitten bear preparing to impregnate the convention center’s will-call office from outside.


GABF creates quite a stir in downtown Denver. It inspires the rabid fandom usually reserved for international pop stars or food samples at Costco*. This was the line an hour prior to the opening:


Bear in mind there is no special beer served with platinum flakes suspended within for the first 300 entrants. There is nothing fueling the urgency of that line other than pure, unbridled beer love.

As you can imagine, I was really dreading getting into that unfathomably long line. And then I remembered that I work for Hugh Goddamned Hefner and casually strolled into the media entrance leading straight into the festival.

gabf_effyou_long_lineSuck it, regular people

Though no outside food or drink were allowed into the festival, there was an exclusion for any food you could wear. The intention was to allow the traditional brewfest pretzel necklace that folks use to line their stomachs and clear their palates during a marathon sampling session. Some took this more playfully than others:


I also embraced the letter of the law rather than the spirit:


The experience of wandering through the convention hall was like navigating a hive populated with semi-inebriated bees. While the beers were laid out in parallel, allowing for a simple leapfrogging approach for collecting samples:


…most opted for a slightly less linear approach:


This combination of human entropy and elevated blood alcohol content often runs the risk of converting any festival hall into The Octagon, but it never became an issue. Somehow every ounce of alcohol in that room was metabolized into exuberance (despite expectations to the contrary):


The whole affair took on the playful spirit of a comic-con, complete with desperate attempts to be noticed elaborate cosplay:

hop_peopleThose hops plants were real, as were the hop mites now burrowing into their skin
pbr_dudesThe ultimate white trash superheros
tubing_guysThis group won the award for most bulletproof costume

One thing that did surprise me about GABF was the number of women attending, which is to say they were present. I’m not asserting that women don’t drink beer, but usually their numbers at beer festivals are not more than what one might coin “window dressing.” What’s more, they were matching their male associates drink for drink and reveling in it. Needless to say my marriage vows were constantly tested. And just as in high school, scoring 90% on a test is still an “A”, right?

drunky_chicksYou have to appreciate any conference where the girls are drunk enough to pose for the creepy guy with the camera
bitches_love_waldoBitches love them some Waldo

Those who attended GABF sessions across multiple days like myself soon discovered that it left 19 hours of each day woefully beerless. I highly recommend making some supplementary morning plans while in Denver. Luckily there’s no shortage of tours and special events during the festival week, each more eager to seize your sobriety/wallet than the last. Without such plans, I wouldn’t have captured precious memories like these:

OB_degenerate_oclockIt’s gotta be Degenerate O’Clock somewhere…
timestamp_beersI’m pretty sure someone will be showing me a copy of this picture at my next intervention

For those in the malt beverage industry, GABF is also a fantastic place to network. Just remember that you’re competing with the thousands of other people for attention. It’s critical that you distinguish yourself and leave an impression. I attempted to accomplish that with my newly designed business card. It’s a little non-traditional and the printing costs were brutal but I thought it was worth it.


In summary, this is certainly an event to behold. Not only did I gain access to beers I’m unlikely to encounter again in this lifetime, but I was able to visit world-class breweries like Oskar Blues and meet some fun people. At least I think I did. I was drinking a LOT.

* I know this isn’t really the forum for it, but why are people double-parking their massively overstuffed grocery cart for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to sample a fucking dixie cup of applesauce? This is not the marker of a society with its priorities intact.

Ian Cheesman is the proprietor of TSJ’s “Draught Picks” column, currently running every Thursday. You can follow him @iancheesman or by waiting for him to leave the office around 5:15. He drives a green truck that is very conspicuous.