Monday, October 06, 2008

A Beginner's Guide to the GABF

I don't fashion myself an expert on the Great American Beer Festival; Charlie Papazian is the world's one great expert on the GABF he created. But after seven years of attending it like the very life of my taste buds depended on it, I feel I at least have a few things to offer. And so, for anyone who wants a few tips, here are some that I have discerned to make your three-day tasting fest the best experience it can be.

Know the Set-up
The GABF is laid out in one giant, cavernous hall in the Denver Convention Center. Stumbling blindly around there and coming upon random beers can be fun for a while. But two hours into it, when you keep asking yourself "Where the @#$! is the Russian River booth?" you'll wish you had done a little more planning.
Each ticket comes with a program at the door that lays out the entire hall by regions of the country (northwest, Rocky Mountains, Midwest, etc.) Figure out what region is where and at least get a general area of where your favorite brewery is. Even better, know a couple of specific breweries that you want to try and make sure your path wanders by them. Then at least you won't miss anything for which you're really dying.

Hit the Popular Ones First
This is not to say you should have a high-school-style go-with-the-flow mentality. I suggest it because if you don't get to a couple of the most sought-after breweries in the first 90 minutes the doors open, you may not get anything from them at all. For the Thursday, Friday and Saturday afternoon sessions, Wisconsin's New Glarus will get crowded fast. After getting my first sip during the Saturday afternoon session last year, I went down the line and counted 91 people waiting in it. That sounds like a pain, but trust me, it's worth it. You won't taste anything in America quite like the Raspberry Tart, and if you miss it, you'll just end up wondering what everyone else is talking about.
I have found four other breweries tend to get the longest lines: Russian River, Stone, Alaskan and Dogfish Head. Dogfish Head usually sets up a giant booth at the head of the aisle, but it tends to serve about a dozen beers at once. Again, I say hit these early for fear that they - or at least the signature brews like Russian River's Supplication - may be gone. I'm not sure whether the increased local availability of Russian River and Alaskan will bring lines down this year.

Don't Just Go with What You Know
Over the years, I have found some amazing beers by just randomly stopping at booths on my way between planned stops. I have also found some liquids that should be buried in the ground and never dug up. But more times than not, some small brewpub from a different part of the country will offer you a treat.
I'll discuss in the coming days some of the ones to look for if you like particular styles or if you just want to impress your friends by pointing out a hidden gem. But I always recommend looking for the small breweries making more experimental kinds of beer. Yeah, maybe you don't want the chai stout. But if a brewer's got enough guts to make one and then show it off to America's biggest beer crowd, he must be confident enough in his other styles that they're sufficiently good.

Know the Night You're There
My personal favorite is Thursday night because that is the one time you can usually be assured that the guys and gals serving you are the actual brewers of the beer, or at least brewery representatives rather than untrained volunteers. Talk to them. Brewers are the coolest people in the world, and they're happy to share their thoughts not just on their beer but on others that they love in the show.
Friday night is crowded and loud and most apt to follow the pattern: Award-winning rare beers go first, beers you've heard of and love go second and the smaller pubs typically don't run out until after 9 p.m. Learn to text your friends; it's hard to hear the phone ring in the crowd.
Saturday afternoon is less densely packed because it's the more expensive connoisseur session. This is when the lines at certain breweries get really long (the longest lines you'll see all weekend at gems like The Lost Abbey and Brooklyn Brewing) but a lot of smaller breweries do less business because the beer snobs don't feel like visiting them. Festival awards are given away in roughly the middle of the session. The fun thing is that as soon as a brewery wins a medal, they'll note that at the table. The last hour or so of this session can thus be spent doing nothing but tasting award winners.
Saturday night is complete amateur hour. I swear that I have seen lines stretching longer at the Coors booth than the New Glarus stand. The good news is that for the first hour or so of the evening, you can more quickly get some of the good beers that you've had to wait for over the past two days. The bad news is that a lot - and I mean a lot - of good beers are gone by then, assuming the brewer even bothered to show up for this session at all.

Eat Before and After the Festival, if Possible
I too succumb to the urge to get a pizza after some 30 tastings at times. But I always kick myself for doing so, because it takes up a lot of valuable time. Most of the food at the GABF is overpriced and pedestrian. Follow the lead of many others and string pretzels around your neck. They sustain you sufficiently and allow you to clear your palate if you're like me and feel it a good idea to go from, say, a hefeweizen to a Belgian sour. Plus you'll look like a veteran.

That's just a few thoughts. Anyone have any more tips to share?

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I just might be down there selling pretzels on a string for those who forget!
Nice Ed. That covers most of the things I can think of. I will re-iterate text messaging though. I get crummy reception in that building.

One trap I always fall into is that I spend way too much time in the Colorado section. We have great beers here and I always love to drink them. But the reality is that I can have them any time I want at many different festivals around the state. So it always takes an effort of will for me to stay away from the Colorado aisle and try beers from around the country that I simply can't get here.

Because there are so many breweries it's sometimes hard for me to figure out where to begin (or perhaps where to go next after I take Ed's sage advice and hit the popular ones first). So this year I might look back at the past winners and make sure some of them are on my radar.
Excellent List Ed, well done. We are going to feature this post of yours this thursday on Beer Tap TV. I will let you know when it goes live.
As always, an insightful look at the GABF! The pretzels are the best tip! Stay away from the food at GABF, it's never as good as it smells!
As important as the pretzels is drinking plenty of water as the beers will actually dehydrate you after a time. Does security allow you to bring in your own bottled water in plastic bottles? Carrying around a 24oz bottle might be a good idea if you don't mind the extra baggage. And as I hear Eli Shayotovich claim - there are some anti-hangover shots you can take after 3-4 full beers that will help you not feel sick the next morning. Me, I stick with plenty of water and keep an eye on the lines at the bathroom.
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