Is the Great American Beer Festival worth it — for brewers? Denver craft brewers are split

A half-dozen Denver breweries explain why they are embracing — or skipping — pouring beer at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival.

A volunteer pours a beer sample at the 2016 Great American Beer Festival in Denver.
 (Courtesy of Brewers Association)
A volunteer pours a beer sample at the 2016 Great American Beer Festival in Denver. (Courtesy of Brewers Association)
A volunteer pours a beer sample at the 2016 Great American Beer Festival in Denver.
(Courtesy of Brewers Association)

It might seem like a no-brainer. The world’s biggest beer festival is unfolding right at your front step, with thousands of discerning (and not-so-discerning) beer lovers descending on the Colorado Convention Center with necklaces braided with pretzels and glasses at the ready.

If you’re a Denver brewery, how could you not join the party?

The answer isn’t all that clear-cut. The investment of time, money and effort required to pour beers at the GABF hall is great. Pair that with ever-shifting craft brewing tastes, differing philosophies among a community of brewers with a strong independent streak, and other opportunities to showcase your beers this week and you get no consensus on what to do.

Thirty-six Denver breweries will be pouring at the festival, or about half the city’s breweries. (Coming up with a precise count of Denver breweries is complicated). In all, a record 800-plus breweries will bring more than 3,900 beers to four sold-out sessions Thursday through Saturday.

Most Denver breweries take part in the festival in some shape or form. Few will pass up the chance to enter the prestigious festival competition, even if they don’t have a booth in the hall.

We reached out to a half-dozen of the city’s breweries to get a sense of how they approach the GABF conundrum: Are you in or are you out? Here’s what we found …

IN: OUR MUTUAL FRIEND BREWING

GABF backstory: This is the third consecutive year the five-year-old RiNo brewery has joined the fray in the festival hall. This year, OMF will pour in the “Meet the Brewer” area, where brewery staff alone man the booth, guaranteeing good conversations between brewers and beer lovers. (In the main festival hall, volunteers do much of the pouring, but it varies by brewery.)

Why they’re in: The chance interactions make the effort and expense worth it, says co-owner Brandon Proff. “Breweries turned off by it just think purely of the worst moments … When people are passing by and don’t care what brewer you are, they just know there is alcohol in their glass, and their eyes are glazed over. Or the crowds lined up for the bathroom are so busy you can’t even walk.” GABF is absolutely good for business, Proff says, giving the brewery a chance to invite folks to check out their cozy, often packed taproom. “Maybe the majority of people who drank our beer don’t know they drank our beer,” he says. “But all of the good interactions make it worth it.” Case in point: Near the end of one session last year, the guys from Trophy Brewing in Raleigh, North Carolina, happened to stroll by the booth and let the OMF crew they had visited the taproom and liked it. Business cards and emails were exchanged. The two breweries ended up collaborating on a beer for Beers Made by Walking, a GABF Week event that asks brewers to create beers inspired by strolls through the woods or city streets.

Beer they’re excited to share at GABF: “Saison Trystero,” Proff says. “It’s what I call our ‘utility saison.’ It’s bottle-conditioned, keg-conditioned. The whole idea was to create 750-milliliter cork- and-capped green glass format at $12. The idea is that it’s the beer you love and keep around the house all time. It’s really balanced, not too funky. We put a lot of time and effort into getting that beer where it is, and it’s cool to send it off.” 

IN: STRANGE CRAFT BEER CO.

GABF backstory: Credited with kickstarting the trend of smaller, neighborhood-focused breweries in Denver in 2009, Strange is about to pour in its eighth straight GABF. Strange is going big this year, investing in an “endcap” — a larger booth at the end of a row that gives breweries greater exposure and the ability to pour twice as many beers (Strange will bring eight).

Why they’re in: You won’t find a much bigger believer in the GABF festival hall experience than Strange. Head brewer Tim Myers poured as a volunteer for years — dating to 1998 — and saw firsthand how some breweries gave their volunteers a helpful rundown of their beers and others were AWOL, leaving Myers to “pour blind,” as he puts it. There was zero chance of that happening when Myers began manning his own booth, pouring his own beers. “GABF is the largest beer festival in the world,” Myers says. “We have the opportunity to pour our beers for 40,000-plus attendees every year. Strange is still one of Denver’s best kept secrets. We still get, ‘Wow! This beer is great! Are you guys new? Where are you out of?’ Even after seven years.” Myers may spend an hour describing his Cherry Kriek, or pour a sample and let the beer speak for itself — while also finding time to roam the hall and connect with other brewers and beer lovers. “The hard part about GABF is getting the one-on-one time,” Myers says. “There are so many breweries to sample, you usually have about 20 or 30 seconds to make a connection.” GABF accounts for a large percentage of Strange’s marketing budget — in addition to the bigger booth, Strange snags 10 brewers badges, buys an ad for the program and raffles out extra GABF tickets at the brewery. Says Myers: “You get out of GABF what you put in.”

Beer they’re excited to share at GABF: “Dr. Strangelove, our award-winning barleywine,” Myers says. “We’ve been brewing Strangelove annually since 2011. It’s an extremely hop-forward American barleywine. We brew it every October but don’t release it until our anniversary the following May. The beer is so big, it just needs that extra time to condition and mature. By May 19, it’s ready to enjoy, but I prefer to drink a 2- or even 4-year-old vintage. As the beer matures, it morphs from a hop-forward quad IPA to a stone fruit and caramel malt extravaganza. It’s a great beer for a vertical flight so you can truly experience the transformation that occurs over four years. At 12 percent, it’s not usually a beer I’d select to pour at GABF. But this year, we’ll crack open three bottles at 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. for folks to enjoy. And since it won a Bronze at the 2016 World Beer Cup, we’re also sending a keg of it over to the Heavy Medal section (a section of GABF where, you guessed it, medal-winning beers are poured). So be sure to get some while it lasts.”

IN: COMRADE BREWING

GABF backstory: Known for Superpower IPA and a rock solid lineup across the board, Comrade Brewing opened in 2014 on East Iliff Avenue in Denver, an area of the city that does not have a heavy concentration of breweries. Comrade has poured at GABF every year since.

Why they’re in: Each year, Comrade owner David Lin is at the computer the moment registration opens for GABF. Not everyone who signs up for a booth gets one but Comrade has won the lottery each year and is happy to pour in the hall. “We do it for fairly selfish reasons,” Lin says. “Every single year, it’s kind of a big family reunion … It’s a good way to catch up with old friends and make new ones. It’s just very recharging to be in that environment.” Though Comrade is tapping a double IPA on Thursday — one that will be entered in the annual Alpha King IPA showdown on Friday — it isn’t staging a bunch of special events to draw people to its taproom. Lin says there are simply too many other events GABF Week, and it would be hard to run a good event when staff is a 20-minute drive away from downtown at the festival. Comrade will open an hour earlier than normal Wednesday through Friday and may livestream the GABF awards ceremony at the taproom at 10 a.m. Saturday, Lin says.

Beer they’re excited to share at GABF: Fresh Hop Superpower (AKA Superdamp). Head brewer Marks Lanham, an IPA master, has brewed this fresh hop IPA for five or six years running. This, Lin says, is the best yet. Considering that previous iterations have won major hardware (including two GABF silver medals, in 2014 and 2015, in the fresh hop category). So what makes this one different? Lin says Lanham dry-hopped the beer a bit extra and, in a first, used Lupulin powder, the fine yellow powder inside of a leafy hop flower.

OUT: SPANGALANG BREWERY

GABF backstory: Spangalang launched in 2015, naming itself after a jazz term for a cymbal pattern in honor of its home in Denver’s historic Five Points neighborhood. Spangalang skipped the hall its first year. As a former head brewer at Denver’s Great Divide, Spangalang co-owner Taylor Rees had experienced the madness and knew that it would be too much for a small brewery just finding its footing. Last year, Spangalang was chosen in the Meet the Brewers lottery, and poured there. Great Divide owner Brian Dunn preached the need for brewery reps to man the booth at all times, so Meet the Brewer fit with that philosophy, Rees says.

Why they’re out: Last year’s GABF was a glass half-empty, half-full experience, “a great but stressful week,” Rees explains. It was a success in that Spangalang poured a lot of beer, everything went well, and the brewery got some media coverage for its cucumber gose. At the same time, “We felt like we were white noise,” Rees says. “There were so many breweries there, and our budget is so small …  We gave away a lot of beer. We had to be there the whole time. It was a good experience, but in the end we felt like we made a teeny impact for how much work it was for us.” By sitting out the festival, Spangalang can focus more attention on its lifeblood — the taproom. That means more staff on hand and more special releases, including a wild and sour night on Wednesday and an imperial stout series Thursday. “There is a potential to make a big impact,” Rees says of pouring at GABF. “But you need a big budget, a fancy tent, an endcap, a staff who is really energetic, or someone who wants to dress up. That’s not us.”

Beer they’re excited to share GABF Week: “Our Barrel Aged Espresso Nightwalker Imperial Stout,” Rees says. “We took our beloved Nightwalker Imperial Stout and aged it in a Mile High Spirits Whiskey barrel and then added fresh brewed espresso to the mix. The result is a wonderful mix of coffee, chocolate and dark fruit. Complex yet familiar and satisfying at the same time.”

OUT: STATION 26 BREWING

GABF backstory: Station 26 opened in late 2013 in a renovated former fire station near where Park Hill meets Stapleton. The brewery’s slogan — “for you, for all” — conveys that anyone can find something to enjoy here, no matter your taste or style preference. Station 26 manned a booth in 2014 and 2015, sat out last year and will do the same this year.

Why they’re out: When Station 26 opened, joining the brewing fraternity on the GABF floor brought a rush of excitement, founder Justin Baccary says. “It was fun to see our brewery there and pour our beer for festival-goers,” he says. “That excitement wore off a little bit.” Above all else, the staff investment in pouring at the festival proved too much. “I don’t think the festival floor is a very good stage for trying to put our brand in front of new people,” he says. “The setting isn’t right for that. It’s a big party, and it’s a super fun event. But I don’t think you are doing a lot of brand-building with a giant menu when people are drinking a lot of beer and interacting with a hundred breweries.” That is especially true for a brewery like Station 26, which prides itself on its Juicy Banger IPA and solid lineup of beers but doesn’t get the kind of beer geek buzz that generates huge lines at their booth. With staff liberated from the GABF hall, Station 26 will focus strongly on events around town this year, including a tap takeover at LoDo beer bar Freshcraft and an all-out blitz over a beer it’s calling Same Day IPA.

Beer they’re excited to share GABF Week: Same-Day IPA. With so many events around the margins of GABF, it’s increasingly tough to be heard among all that noise, too. How to stand out: be original. Station 26 has that with Same Day IPA. The plan is to finish brewing the beer, package it, deliver it, tap it and kill the kegs all on the same day. Folks from the brewery will load kegs into their cars that morning and fan out to 10 accounts around town. The beers is hopped with Citra and Galaxy and has the big hop aroma, flavor and clarity of a Station 26 IPA.

OUT: CEREBRAL BREWING

GABF backstory: Cerebral opened in late 2015 on East Colfax Avenue, bringing a geeky science approach to brewing great hazy, New England-style hoppy beers, stouts and more. It’s one of the strongest breweries to open locally in the past couple years and has never poured at GABF. Cerebral made a splash last year winning a silver medal in the Brett beer category.

Why they’re out: This might be starting to sound familiar … “Pouring at GABF clearly provides great exposure, but it would require us to bring kegs of our beers that are more likely to make an impression on festival-goers that are trying dozens upon dozens of other beers,” says brewer and co-owner Sean Buchan, a former award-winning homebrewer with a background in biology. “It also requires us to staff our booth if we truly want to take advantage of everything we have to gain from pouring.” Last year, the brewery felt it didn’t have the staff to be able to both be in the festival hall and handle the taproom, Buchan says. That remains part of the equation, but this year Cerebral decided to throw all its energy into attracting more people to the taproom. The brewery opened on Monday — a day it is typically closed — and packed the calendar with events all week, concluding with a “Work from Home Recovery Brunch” on Sunday. Here’s a full list of what Cerebral has planned.

Beer they’re excited to share GABF Week: “Trophy Hunt (to be released Friday) is tasting fantastic,” Buchan says. “We brewed it when we were just a few months old and patiently let it sit for 18 months in Woodford Reserve Bourbon barrels before adding a blend of Madagascar and Ugandan vanilla beans and Haitian cacao nibs. It’s like liquid brownie batter, but at 14 percent alcohol by volume.”