Great American Beer Fest: Durango breweries bracing for the spectacle

by Patty Templeton

Ye, gods! Over 60,000 people will descend like soon-to-be tipsy locusts on Denver for the annual Great American Beer Festival (GABF). If you don’t got a ticket, you probably ain’t gettin’ one. The fest, which runs Oct. 5-7, is sold out. It’s not surprising. Who wouldn’t want to communally soak in over 7,000 unique beers from near-800 American breweries, plus, ya know, PARTIES!

GABF is America’s largest, most important beer fest. This year there are 98 beer categories being judged (not including subcategories!) for gold, silver, and bronze medals. The fest is open to industry folks stacking their beers against one another and the general public, who get to taste ’em all.

Being as we can’t drop the StubHub hundos for tix, DGO talked to the four local breweries headed to Denver to compete. Patrick Jose, head brewer at Carver Brewing Co.; Ken Martin, director of brewing operations at Steamworks Brewing Co.; Tyler Brewer, head brewer at Durango Brewing Co.; and Kurt Randall, head brewer at Ska Brewing Co. gave insight into the festival and what they’re bringing for judging.

What’s the Great American Beer Festival like?

Carver’s: (Laughs) Imagine about three football fields-worth of people and beer crammed between them. It’s massive, it truly is. They’re getting to the point where they’re running out of room.

It begins on a Thursday evening, then a Friday evening, then all day Saturday.

For brewers, it’s great because it gives us a chance to reconnect with people we may not get to see from out of state or people we used to work with who have moved out to other breweries. It also gives a chance to interact with the drinking public. GABF brings people from all over the world. Granted, you’re kind of one brewer in a sea of breweries, but you get to meet people you normally wouldn’t, especially for us because we don’t distribute. People come and see what we’re all about and we get to meet and greet and shake hands.

Steamworks: It’s a little overwhelming at first. It’s a lot. There’s a din to the whole place when you walk in the door. There’s bagpipes going. A lotta beer. A lotta people. Some of them misbehaving. But it’s a pretty cool, awe-inspiration place.

Thursday night is a little tame and Friday it ramps up. There’s a midday session on Saturday that’s almost entirely industry folk so it’s much quieter, but Saturday night is almost like a frat party.

Durango Brewing: You get inside and there’s any style of every quality that you could have ever imagined. It’s grown so big that it takes your breath away the sheer size of it all. Other than the World Beer Cup, which takes in beers across the globe, GABF is the nation’s largest beer competition.

Ska: It’s busy. (Laughs) It’s a full-on zoo. There’s a ton of people, a ton of great beer.

Why is the festival important to breweries?

Steamworks: It’s the highest level of competition we have as brewers. It’s a big honor in our industry to be able to go onstage and collect some hardware.

Durango Brewing: There’s tons of competitions for professional and homebrewers alike, but this is one of a handful that has worldwide recognition. If you walk away with a medal from GABF, everyone knows exactly where it came from and the underlying meaning. You are going toe-to-toe with virtually every microbrewery in America.

GABF has so many categories, what’s the deal?

Carver’s: Every beer is going to fall into some category from white lagers all the way through barrel-aged barely wines and experimental sour beers … Instead of having just an IPA category, there are subcategories of American IPA, English IPA, International IPA, and you break it up beyond a general label. There’s 100 entries or more in every category.

Durango Brewing: There’s categories so big, like the IPAs. There are tons of rausch beers (a smoked beer). There are categories that used to be small but have grown in popularity, like sour beers. Barrel-aged beers are now almost as popular as IPAs in this competition. There’s so many different styles.

Steamworks: There’s very few, if any, lonely categories anymore that have only 30 or 40 entries. Those are a thing of the past. Almost 8,000 beers get spread out over 90 categories to be judged.

Do the same breweries wind up winning every year?

Durango Brewing: Yes and no. There are some breweries that consistently make good product and you always see them elevated in the ranking of things, but it is not like a professional sport where a dream team can’t be beat. It’s all blind tasting; it comes down to subjective opinions of judges across the board. Every beer is judged on the style guidelines and it opens it up. Every year there’s always an unknown brewery that has never been heard of that will win a gold. It makes it exciting. Whoever produces a good tasting beer, true to style, has just as much chance to win a gold as Avery or any of the other big names.

There are some awesomely weird beer styles judged at GABF, like “Historical Beer.”

Carver’s: Every brewer tries to find their niche and experimentation is a big part of everything we do. Historical beers are interesting. Dogfish Head is a prime example of a brewery that would enter that category. They make a habit out of finding old beer recipes that were written on walls in pyramids or on parchment somewhere and try to recreate them purely because they’re interested in knowing what beer tasted like back then versus now.

Ska: One of the more entertaining categories is the Field Beer category. It’s about as vague as you can get. That’s what Pink Vapor Stew is going into. It’s supposed to not be overly hoppy or malty and a strange category. There’s no specific target or ABV, it’s wide open. Judges want to know and recognize ingredients in a beer that doesn’t fit in any other category.

What category would you like to enter and haven’t yet?

Carver’s: Next year, the plan is to enter a barrel-aged beer. Any time you brew a beer destined for a barrel you’re about a year out before you can do anything with it.

Steamworks: We would love to get something in one of the sour beer categories. We’ve tried and made it to the medal round on some of them and not on others. As they limit your number of entries, which they’ve done increasingly over the years, it’s a little harder to throw in a wild card category if you don’t even know it fits that category in terms of what judges expect.

What breweries are you amped to see at the fest?

Carver’s: The former head brewer at Carver moved to a brewery in Fort Collins called Jessup Farm Barrel House. He makes experimental fermentations all in barrels and really delicious beers.

I have a good friend at Comrade Brewing. They make incredible beers. I love hanging at their booth.

There’s some breweries from out east. The ones I don’t get to try ever that I’ll never see. Those are the gems. You hear about Russian River and you hear about Rogue but you don’t hear about some of the most amazing breweries out there because they’re just a little pub making incredible beer in quantities only enough for their area.

Ska: I’m looking forward to trying a friend’s brewery, Scofflaw Brewing out of Atlanta.

I enjoy getting to taste beers that I don’t have access to – smaller breweries. I did a trip to Boston a couple years ago and I’d love to check some of those breweries out again. Trillium was one of them and Night Shift.

Steamworks: I try to hit ones we don’t see in our market. Like Chuckanut out of Bellingham, Washington. They make solid beers and all sorts of styles, German lagers and traditional style beers. Great job of it.

Saint Arnold out of Houston always does a good job and I like to see what they have cooking.

Durango Brewing: Over the years, my thing is to focus on one or two styles of beer that I want inspiration from and I’ll walk the line and find breweries that are making very specific styles of beer, like gose.

I always try to find the obscure beers in weird categories. A lot of breweries aren’t production breweries and you can’t find in bottles or maybe they’re only distributed locally or regionally. It gives you the opportunity to taste these beers without going on a fanatical, expensive road trip.

What beers are you bringing or categories are you going for?

Steamworks: For categories, we’re entering the Kölsch, Munich Helles, Oatmeal Stout, and German Wheat Beer subcategory Dunkel Weizen.

Carver’s: We are bringing four beers that are ours and a fifth that is a Pro-Am style beer … The Pro-Am Competition is for homebrewer recipes that have been brewed on the professional level. The local homebrewers, Animas Alers, got together with us to hold a homebrew competition and a local guy, Jeff Titus, won best of show with a rauchbier, a smoked beer. It’s like an Oktoberfest brewed with malt that was smoked with Cherrywood. It’s delicious. That’s one that we’ll enter.

Outside of that, we entered our Colorado Trail Nut Brown Ale, Garden Brau Hefeweizen, and our Lightner Creek Lager, which won silver last year at GABF, and our Fresh Hop.

Ska: True Blonde is going in, Buster Nut Brown Ale, Mexi, and Pink Vapor are all going up.

Tyler: We’re gonna bring our India Red Ale which is like an IPA but a red ale. We’re gonna submit our IPA, the Vienna Lager, which is a seasonal style lager, and our Saison.

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.Patty Templeton


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