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If your dream vacation involves three days of doing nothing but consume beer, then we have good news for you. There is an annual event where you can sample thousands of American craft beers in the beautiful state of Colorado.
That event is (as you probably guessed from the title of this article) the Great American Beer Festival. So, if you love beer more than most things in this world, then you should definitely make the trip to this fest at least once in your lifetime. But before you book your tickets, here’s a quick run-down of everything and anything you want to know about the festival.
WHAT IS THE GREAT AMERICAN BEER FESTIVAL?
The Great American Beer Festival is, well, a beer festival that first began in 1982 in Boulder, Colorado. The very first festival hosted 24 breweries, 47 beers and 800 guests.
Now, the festival is a three-day annual event hosted by the Brewer’s Association in Denver, Colorado that brings visitors from around the world to sample the very best of American craft brews. In fact, the festival website boasts that there were around 4,000 beers available for sampling during the 2018 festival, from 800 different craft breweries across the United States. And the total attendance came to 62,000 people.
The event typically happens in late September or early October at the Colorado Convention Center, right around the time when the temperatures start to drop and you want nothing more than to sit around a fire with the perfect pint of ale. (For those of you planning ahead, it looks like the 2019 festival will be October 3-5, and the 2020 festival will be held September 24-26.) And this festival will give you the chance to figure out which beers you want to stock up on for the coming year.
TICKETS TO THE FESTIVAL
To gain access to the festival, you must buy individual session tickets. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a “Three-day Pass” or anything like that. There is one general session for tasting each day of the festival, and on Saturday there is also a member’s only session earlier in the day. You must be a member of either the American Homebrewers Association or the Brewers Association. Tickets for the “members only” session are $75 each. (Oh, and members also get access to ticket pre-sale with a unique code sent via the member e-mail newsletter.)
Tickets for the general session for the 2018 festival were $85 per session, though this price may change in the future – just so you are aware. And remember, the cost is per session. So if you want to go all three days, you would pay a total of $255. But, your tickets get you a festival program, a commemorative tasting cup, and unlimited one-ounce samples of more than 4,000 beers. There is also a special “Designated Driver” ticket for the Thursday session that costs only $30.
You also have the option of purchasing PAIRED®+GABF tickets for Thursday or Friday. These cost $160 each and get you access to the general sessions plus a PAIRED Beer and Food Tasting. At PAIRED, you are served exclusive beers alongside expertly prepared appetizers from renowned chefs.
So, you can really make this festival fit your budget – or you can go all out and buy tickets for everything. Just keep in mind that there is a six-ticket limit per person for the general sessions and a two-ticket limit for the member session.
THE GABF PAVILIONS & HANGOUT SPOTS
The GABF is a place to drink beer. But it’s also a place where you can relax and also learn about the impact of craft beer on our lives and on American culture. The various pavilions at the festival offer you a place to take a breather and hear what some of the most talented beer makers in the U.S. have to say about their craft.
For example, the Beer and Food Pavilion illustrates how beer can be perfectly paired with the food we eat (and you of course can grab a snack while you’re there). And the Protect Craft Guilds Pavilion offers excellent beers for you to enjoy from participating state brewers’ guilds while learning about the guilds’ initiatives and cultures.
There is also the Brewers Studio Pavilion where you can learn about the creative processes behind beers directly from the innovators, and two different CraftBeer.com Pavilions. These pavilions may change from year-to-year, but they will all without a doubt offer you a unique learning experience to enhance your beer drinking.
The festival also has introduced “Hangout Spots” where you can enjoy entertainment, beers not found elsewhere at the festival, and a chance to sit around and – of course – hang out.
Now, the festival is also a competition. Hundreds of judges from both the United States and abroad evaluate thousands of beers from hundreds of breweries, and festival attendees can sample the beers entered in the competition during the tasting sessions.
The goal of the competition is for the Professional Judge Panel to identify the three best beers to represent each beer-style category as described and adopted by the festival – and there are a ton of different categories.
The beer competition is blind, meaning that the beer experts on the panels do not know the brand of the beers they taste. Judges are assigned beers to evaluate in their areas of expertise, and they never judge their own product or any product with which they have an affiliation.
They then award gold, silver and bronze medals for beers in the various categories. These awards are some of the most coveted in the world, so winning breweries do not tend to shy away from flaunting the awards. At the end of it all, the GABF awards its Brewery of the Year and Brewer of the Year awards to the most deserving competitors.
There are also specific competitions like the Pro-Am Competition and the Collaboration Competition. The Pro-Am competition allows professional brewers to team up with home brewers for top honors. So, basically, a member of the Brewers Association teams up with a member of the American Homebrewers Association and they collaborate on a beer to enter into the festival.
The Collaboration competition, on the other hand, offers an opportunity for two-member breweries of the Brewers Association to join forces on a new brew to then enter into the festival. These two competitions are separate from the general festival competition, so awards in these two contests do not count towards GABF Brewery and Brewer of the Year awards.
THE BORING – BUT IMPORTANT – LOGISTICAL STUFF
So, we know it’s not as exciting as the beer itself, but it’s important to keep the travel and hotel logistics in mind when you attend the festival.
The GABF attracts an enormous crowd from all over the world, so the city of Denver gets a bit crowded. That’s why it’s very important to book your hotel accommodations well in advance, and to make a plan of attack for transportation to and from the convention center. (Like we said, the total attendance for 2018 was 62,000 people, so this is no small gathering of beer lovers – and they all want places to stay and park their cars.)
You can book a hotel reservation directly through the GABF website (there’s a link under the “Info” tab that takes you to a reservations site). There are a number of hotels that participate in booking for the festival, so you have a number of options for places to sleep.
Of course, the hotels still book up rather quickly so you may want to consider booking an AirBnb, a VRBO, or something similar. These will still likely be competitive, but you may have better luck than booking with a hotel close to the convention center.
As for parking and transportation, the organizers of the fest say that RTD buses and the Denver light rail are the best ways to get to the convention center. Not only are the fares very inexpensive, but you also avoid any parking garage nightmares.
You can also take an Uber to the festival, and as the company is a sponsor of the festival, the company offered attendees $5 off two rides during the 2018 GABF with a special promo code.
The Colorado Convention Center does have parking, of course, and the garage can fit 1,000 cars. So, yes, you can drive and park your car. But if there are only 1,000 parking spaces and over 60,000 attendees… well, you do the math.
So, if you are going to park, make sure you arrive VERY early. You may also be able to find parking at garages in the surrounding city blocks, but they are not affiliated with the festival and rates may vary.
Our advice to you if you plan to attend is to opt for public transportation. Not only is it cheaper and (probably) faster than entering and leaving a parking garage, but we also don’t recommend anyone driving after spending an entire day drinking beer.
ENJOY YOUR BEER-FILLED WEEKEND
The very last thing you need to know is simple: enjoy the beer! This festival is a wonderful way to indulge your infatuation with beers of all styles, and discover new brews you can’t try in your hometown. But not only is the Great American Beer Festival an opportunity to work on your beer belly, it’s also an amazing gathering of the craft beer community. So, make some new friends, drink beer and be merry!