4 ways to conquer the Great American Beer Festival

The 35th edition of the Great American Beer Festival opens Thursday with the depth and breadth of U.S. craft brewing on display. Now what? Now this.

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(Kevin J. Beaty)

It’s big, beautiful and daunting.

The 35th edition of the Great American Beer Festival opens Thursday with the depth and breadth of U.S. craft brewing on display with 3,800 beers poured by nearly 800 U.S. breweries of all sizes.

In recent years, beer drinkers of the snob variety have turned up their noses at GABF, complaining that it’s too big and rowdy, and looking down on ticket-holders that don’t look like them. Don’t buy into it.

The festival remains the only place in the country you can sample so many different beers under one roof. For every brewery that snubs the scene — and it seems to be happening more — five others step up. GABF is the only time Coloradans will get a taste of many of these breweries without leaving the state.

Festival organizers have improved the experience by adding square footage, paying more attention to activities that don’t involve drinking and, last year, introducing the 30,000-square-foot Meet the Brewer area. There, booths are staffed entirely by breweries’ employees rather than volunteers. One of the big draws of craft brewing is access — being able to share beers and conversation with the people who make what’s in your glass. This is a welcome addition.

So don’t be daunted, but do have a plan. We’re here to help with suggested paths to follow, survival tips and a list of can’t-miss breweries.

Path #1: Make your brewery list and stick with it.

It’s the safe, smart play: Make a list of some 25 or 30 breweries you don’t want to miss and follow it. This doesn’t mean closing the door to spontaneity. By all means, keep your eyes and ears open and explore accordingly. It’s fun to ask brewers and fellow drinkers what they’ve liked or what they’re excited about, and to pay it forward with what you’ve discovered. It’s unwise, though, to wander aimlessly and randomly walk up to booths. The craft beer industry has preached the gospel of quality to the country’s ever-growing ranks of brewers, and it’s harder to produce mediocre to bad beer these days in a competitive market. It’s still out there.

It’s also a good strategy to prioritize hitting breweries that aren’t available in Colorado. (Some examples are cited on the brewery list below). Our list of 27 must-hit booths — look for it in today’s 3:03 newsletter — is just one to check out. The internets are crawling with other worthy recommendations. The Denver Post this year continues its go-to series of regional GABF previews penned by beer writers who know the latest places to check out in their own backyards. Always best to ask the locals.

The official pour list is not made public until the day of the first session, but we do have a partial list, thanks to the legwork of the folks at PorchDrinking.com, who have been hitting up breweries one-by-one asking them to share their festival pour lists. When I’ve mentioned specific beers here, it’s because those guys ran them down.

Path #2: Own a style, any style

We all have our weaknesses. If the list below seems heavy with breweries that make killer IPAs and sour beers, that is explicit bias at work. You don’t want to blow an entire evening chasing one style — drinking IPAs for four hours will destroy your senses — but make it a mini-theme.

The beauty of GABF is you can choose a pretty darn narrow category of beers and still have enough choices to put together a pretty good taste test. Take a run at brown ales, French-style saisons, barrel-aged beers, foraged beers, pumpkin beers, cucumber beers or dessert beers. How about a peanut butter challenge? There are likely to be 20-plus breweries pouring a peanut butter beer, including two from Colorado (Ursula Brewing and Liquid Mechanics).

Path #3: Fabulous Beers from 49 states

A beer from each state? It’s possible, although in a handful of cases you will be choosing from a party of one. Here’s our pretty random but still informed list. Who is missing? West Virginia.

Path #4: The medal winners — past and present

It used to be hard work to sample all the past GABF medal winners. You needed quick fingers on your mobile (and good luck getting that phone to work in the network-strained hall) or time to research and build a cheat sheet. The Boulder-based Brewers Association, which stages GABF, has you covered. This year brings the introduction of the Heavy Medal Booth (in Hall B near Section Y) featuring a variety of 2015 GABF medal-winning beers.

On Saturday, grab a printout of the beers that medaled at the ceremony that morning. Or look for brewers with hardware draped around their neck. Just keep in mind that it’s more likely than not that the winning beers aren’t the ones the brewers brought — if the winning breweries are pouring in the hall at all. You don’t have to pour at the festival to enter the competition.