Lessons learned at Great American Beer Festival

by Robert Alan Wendeborn

I think when a lot of people hear the phrase Great American Beer Festival, or GABF, they imagine scenes from the 2006 film “Beerfest,” with festival-goers drinking lots and lots of beer with the sole purpose of consuming as much beer as possible. While perhaps not the true intention of every festival participant or attendee, GABF is a little different. It’s a yearly festival held in Denver each fall that features beers from hundreds of craft brewers from all over the country, and it gives beer-lovers a chance to try a metric ton of different beers while visiting with the brewers who make that beer.

It’s also a competition to see who makes the best beer in each style, and this year, there were 102 categories and over 8,000 entries. I knew going into my first GABF, as both a participant and attendee, that I’d need to pace myself and that I couldn’t try every beer, but I had a list of beers I wanted to try and brewers I wanted to visit. I also really needed to keep my nerves down about the competition.

I was going into GABF for my first time with a significant disadvantage: I was coming from a mere 709 feet of elevation, yet projecting 3.5 days of constant drinking in Denver. To be able to hang for the duration of the festival, I would need to pace myself and use any competitive tool to my advantage. I committed to drinking plenty of water (that’s impossible, btw), getting plenty of sleep (lol), and to eating like a normal human (bahahaha). Thing is, there’s no good way to drink “plenty of water” at the festival. The best I could do was take shot after shot of water in the provided sample cup. I felt jet-lagged the entire time, and the near-constant consumption of alcohol did nothing to help me sleep through the night. And, I ate like a hungover 25-year-old version of myself, which my current 35-year-old self couldn’t handle. I ate so much fried food that as I type this on Sunday morning, I can almost smell the hot grease.

Best Food: Grilled Cheese Sandwich from Lady Jane.

Best Night’s Sleep: On the plane into Albuquerque.

Best Advice for Next Year: Bring a Camelback to maintain adequate hydration.

I didn’t really have a big list of brewers I wanted to see or beers I wanted to try, but with so much to do, see, and drink, it was hard to hit it all. I got to meet Lauren Limbach, the head of the sour and wood beer program for New Belgium. She just happened to be around, and it was a great experience. I saw Garrett Oliver pouring beer at the Brooklyn Brewery booth (doesn’t he have minions for this?), but it wasn’t a surprise to me, because I met Garrett pouring at an event in New York City the same way. Just a best-selling author and head brewer of one of the most respected breweries in the country, standing behind a jockey box, pouring Brooklyn Lager. I also got to taste beers that I’d only heard about: half liters of helles and Slow Pour Pils from Bierstadt Lagerhause, Saison Trystero, a brett saison from Our Mutual Friend, and though I didn’t seek it out, I found myself in line for Weldworks, trying all of their weird concoctions. There were still so many places I didn’t get to, even though I tried so hard.

Best beer: Tie between Slow Pour Pils and Trystero.

Coolest Brewery Person: Gary Valliere at Bierstadt Lagerhause; he’s just a really cool old school guy.

Biggest Miss: Another visit to Denver, and I didn’t make it to Trve or Ratio…

The competition was the most nerve wracking, mostly because I was stewing in a mix of no caffeine, too many liters of helles the night before, and not enough breakfast burritos. Oh, and this was the first time I had my own beer in the competition. I sat next to some old friends and texted veterans who were not present for advice. As the names got called, I would let my nerves go when a good friend won (congrats to my former homies at Tin Roof for the win! The first gold medal for the state of Louisiana ever!), and got out of my seat and hugged people when best friends won (way to go, SKA!).

Need to visit brewery: Lewis and Clark Brewing in Helena, Montana, took home three medals!

Most visited brewery: Grateful Gnome – the sammys are so, so good, and Bess is making killer beer.

Biggest “WTF” moment: Firestone Walker collaborated with themselves to win a collaboration medal?

In the end, I didn’t take home any hardware, but I am taking home some excellent memories and leaving behind some brain cells as a consolation prize.

Robbie Wendeborn is the head brewer at Svendæle Brewing in Millerton, New York. He is also a former beer plumber at Ska Brewing.


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