For many in the beer industry, the Great American Beer Festival is an annual rite—a chance to connect with old friends, to drink new beers, and share their latest and greatest with the widest possible audience of drinkers, media, bloggers, and tastemakers. What started as a yearly festival has become a touchstone week—one that local bars and breweries plan for six months in advance and that has spurred on a drastically increasing number of ancillary events. Keeping track of all the must-do events can be an incredible challenge, so read along for our curated list of pro tips, essential breweries bars to visit, and the best places to get great beer to take home with you.
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Do GABF Like a Pro
To avoid long lines and kicked kegs before each session, you need to get in early and hit the highest demand breweries as quickly as possible. The new staging area from the Welton Street entrance sped everything up in 2016, and 2017 will offer more of the same- quicker entrance for everyone. That also means you must enter with a plan to hit the biggest spots on your “must drink” list quickly, so download the free My GABF app, pore over the festival map to create an efficient route through the early part of the fest, and even use it to save and rate beers and breweries (if that’s your thing). You’ll have time to explore later on, but the first thirty minutes should focus on trying those beers you’ve always wanted to try.
It gets said often, but the real gems of GABF are often found at the least-busy booths. As the pour list gets updated, we’ll highlight some of the top under-the-radar value prospects here, but in general, you can’t go wrong cruising through the Meet The Brewer Pavilion. We all love to talk to the folks making our beer, but those brewers who commit to manning the booth themselves are also the ones typically focused on bringing their best beer to the festival. Win-win.
We spent more than a few minutes at the Heavy Medal booth in 2016, and highly recommend it for 2017. This concentrated endcap with medal-winning beers is a great place to quickly sample some of the festival’s highlights, all without lines.
If you were able to score a pass to the Paired pavilion, consider yourself lucky. That gorgeous experience of food and beer has consistently been one of our favorite ways to casually enjoy amazing beer and expertly prepared small bites in a low-stress atmosphere.
Don’t be a data victim at the festival. If your phone is prone to weak signals in big buildings, or you run through your battery faster than Usain Bolt runs the 100, come prepared with a pen and notepad, so you don’t lose track of the beers you drink. I’ve never been able to get Untappd to reliably work during the festival, so instead, I’ve turned to voice notes in the notepad app that I later enter into the app. And when my phone batter inevitably dies, I resort to pen and paper. Word to the wise—come prepared.
Get your GABF-week party started early at the What the Funk!? Invitational, hosted by Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project and their Crooked Stave Artisans distribution arm. If you love sour and barrel-aged beers, it’s worth every bit of the $100 ticket price. In 2017, the location has shifted to an event space south of downtown, so make sure you punch in the correct address for your Lyft driver and don’t just assume it’s where it has been in the past.
The Denver Rare Beer Tasting is an annual fundraiser for Pints for Prostates, and if you didn’t buy tickets in the minutes before they sold out, do yourself a favor and scour Craigslist now. The lineup of beers that you’d otherwise have to trade your cellar to try is immense, as brewers bring out their best for this great charity.
If new school hazy IPAs and fruited kettle sours are your thing, then check out the first-ever Colorado Invitational at New Image Brewing in Arvada. They’ve roped in friends from Odd13, Weldwerks, Cerebral, Wiley Roots, and 4 Noses to pour beers in a parking lot fest that should satisfy any haze craving.
Don’t Miss Denver Breweries
The state of Colorado is home to over 350 breweries—far more than you could ever visit on a single trip—so narrowing those down might be the biggest challenge you face in planning the trip. For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume you know that you should hit all the bigger packaging breweries—New Belgium and Odell up in Fort Collins, Oskar Blues and Left Hand in Longmont, Avery in Boulder, Great Divide in Denver, etc—and we’ll focus on some of the newer, younger breweries that might not be on your radar yet.
In Denver’s RiNo district, pop into Ratio Beerworks for a hip, modern taproom and quality beers soaked in indie music references, then pop over to Epic Brewing’s Denver brewery and taproom and grab a pint of their New England-style IPA or their deliciously underrated Big Bad Baptist imperial stout. Cross the tracks for the requisite visit to the Crooked Stave taproom at The Source (and check out the location of the forthcoming New Belgium brewery and taproom in the under-construction Source Hotel), then cross the street for the Great Divide Barrel Bar and crush some Barrel-aged Yeti or Barrel-aged Old Ruffian (because barleywine is life, right?).
If immaculately-crafted British-style cask ales are your jam, jump in a Lyft over to the Tennyson neighborhood, and make a required stop at Hogshead Brewery. Even if you don’t fancy yourself a big fan of the style, they’ll convert you in no time. Up the street, Call To Arms Brewing offers forward-looking beers in a retro-cool taproom that’s sure to be full of brewers during GABF.
From there, head south and pop into Strange Craft Beer for a glass of their award-winning Cherry Kriek, then swing over to Trve Brewing for a heavy dose of metal in the most unique taproom in town. Candles, skulls, and pentagrams line the walls while the tap lines are filled with beautifully balanced sour beer and tightly crafted sessionable ales. Head south on Broadway for the Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales taproom, and sample some of their experimental acidic beauties.
Continuing the circuit, head over to Bull & Bush brewpub and fill up on one of their massive burgers, while enjoying a pint from their brewery or one of their many guest taps. They pull out the stops for GABF week, and you never know when they’ll dig into their cellar and pull out old lambics for the bottle menu, but don’t sleep on their beers—their stout and barleywine game is strong. You may know Copper Kettle brewing from their award-winning Mexican Chocolate stout, but their taproom specials always offer something interesting for those who make the trip. Then head down to Denver’s champions of West Coast-style IPA, Comrade Brewing, and sample through their lineup of dank, crisp, and medal-winning IPAs.
Back in the general direction of Denver’s main drag, Colfax, you’ll find three breweries worth the Uber fare. Stapleton’s Station 26 Brewing is carved out of an old fire station, and their Juicy Banger IPA is indeed a juicy banger while their single hop IPA series consistently impresses. The literary theme is strong at Fiction Beer Company, with a bar built from old books and literary beer references emblazoned on the tables. The beer, however, stands up to the concept with hops, haze, and sour beers being the main attraction. Speaking of haze, head over to Cerebral Brewing for some of the best New England-style IPAs in town. Start with a glass of Rare Trait, then explore their experimental one-offs from there, then grab crowlers of hops and bottles of their Brett pale ales and farmhouse ales on your way out.
On your way back to the airport, set aside some extra time to visit Dry Dock Brewing in Aurora. While they’re best known for their flagship Apricot Blonde, their barrel-aged beers are some of the best in the state, if not the western half of the country.
The Best of Denver Beer Bars
Falling Rock Taphouse is awesome. You should visit at least once during GABF week, for the spectacle as well as the hard-to-beat taplist. But you already knew that, didn’t you? Star Bar is great for late-night beers, and GABF week brings beer-soaked brewers singing karaoke to the craft dive bar. For a delicious power lunch, hit Freshcraft and enjoy the food every bit as good as the killer tap list. Pre- and post-game at Euclid Hall for a communal spirit, great beer, and incredibly culinary fare.
Up in RiNo, serve yourself from the digital taps of First Draft, then cruise over to Finn’s Manor for an incredible beer list and a rotating lineup of top food trucks. If you’re still hungry or thirsty, the Crafty Fox is a bit out of the way in an odd location, but the beer list makes it a top destination. If sour beer is your thing, the Goed Zuur is a must-visit with 26 taps and an extensive bottle list of all sour beer paired with a charcuterie-heavy menu.
Hunting Whales at Denver’s Liquor Stores
GABF brings heavy hitters out of the woodwork, and the retail drops start Tuesday and last throughout the week. You’ll want to follow all of the shops on social media to keep track of the releases, but pay particular attention to Small Batch Liquors on Tennyson, Mr. B’s in LoDo, Grapevine over in Cherry Creek, Mile High Wines and Sprits in Lakewood, and the Proper Pour in RiNo. Keep an extra special eye out for once-a-year retail drops from Casey Brewing & Blending—there’s an extra large batch of Peach Fruitstand saison headed to Denver retail outlets this year.
The Ultimate Northern Colorado Day Trip
Denver itself if fun and offers plenty of beer attractions to keep you entertained during your visit, but let’s be honest—one of the reasons you love the craft beer world is because you like the adventure of it all. So grab a car, head north, and check out some of these unforgettable brewery experiences.
Golden is pretty close to Denver, making Cannonball Creek an easy one to do if you don’t have an entire day. Skip the Belgian-style beers and try all the hops—all of them. The brewery rarely distributes, so getting it at the source is the only sure bet.
From there, head up to Boulder where aficionados will want to make a stop at Backcountry Pizza for their 68 taps of hard-to-find beers and jaw-dropping cellar list. Upslope Brewing’s taproom in Flatiron Park offers some creative options, and if you time it right you can also check out the White Labs taproom upstairs that’s home to their test brews.
Head out Diagonal Highway toward Longmont and grab a meal and beer at Avery Brewing’s immaculate brewery restaurant on your way. The beer is amazing, the food is amazing, and you won’t want to leave. Just up the road in Niwot, make a quick stop for beers at Powder Keg and try some of their delicious sour beers or barrel-aged specialties. If you have a minute, Bootstrap Brewing is just around the corner.
You’ll know you’re getting close to Longmont when you see the silo of Oskar Blues Homemade Liquids and Solids rising up ahead, and if you’re looking for food and a varied taplist, it’s a solid spot for a meal and a beer. For the widest Oskar Blues taplist but no food (other than occasional food trucks), head just down the road to the Tasty Weasel tap room. While in Longmont, don’t miss the Left Hand Brewing’s taproom—pull up a seat at the English-pub-meets-Colorado style bar, grab a pint of Nitro Milk Stout, and drink like a native. If, like me, you have a soft spot for lagers and never find enough of them in the craft world, shoot over to Wibby Brewing and grab a glass of IPL or their Lightshine Helles.
From Longmont, continue north to Berthoud and make a quick stop at City Star Brewing for a pint of their Bandit Brown Ale. Continue north to Loveland to the hip downtown brewery and taproom of Verboten Brewing, and immediately order any barrel-aged beer they might have on tap (they’re all good), then head a block south to Loveland Aleworks and treat yourself to one of their fruited American sours. To scratch your German itch, swing over to Grimm Brothers Brewhouse for a pint of Pilsner, then raid Liquor Max for their incredible selection of packaged beer.
Fort Collins is the next stop on this grand tour of Northern Colorado, and there’s no shortage of breweries to keep you entertained. Since you driving up from the south, pop first into Zwei Brewing for a modern IPA or traditional German-style beer (their Pilsner and Hopfenpils are two of my favorites), then head north a couple of blocks to Purpose Brewing and Cellars, the new side project of New Belgium brewmaster Peter Bouckaert. The beers are culinary-inspired, creative, and not tied to strict styles, but you won’t be disappointed no matter what you order. Continue north to Old Town Fort Collins and shake things up with a visit to Choice City Deli as well as Tap and Handle. Both offer world-class beer lists and GABF week tap events that compliment each other, and it’s incredible to find such great spots only a half block apart.
At this point, you’re a mile or so away from Odell Brewing, where their regular lineup of hoppy and sour beers should be enough of a draw, but GABF typically brings out their best lineup of experimental beers with new hops from the recent harvest, so it’s a week not to miss. After you’ve soaked up the atmosphere on their expansive patio, head over to the New Belgium mothership, sneak in to a tour if you can (pro tip—even if you don’t have a reservation, it typically doesn’t take more than an hour and a half to get into an opening from a tour no-show, so saddle up to the bar and enjoy the wait). Their tour is one of the very best in the entire world of craft beer, and the scale of the brewing operation is a sight to behold.
Punch “Greeley, Colorado” into your GPS next, and ignore the warnings that there’s nothing out there but agricultural fields. Greeley’s dynamic duo of Weldwerks Brewing and Wiley Roots have put the town on the map for beer lovers, and this GABF will see both offer big releases of very limited beers in their respective taprooms on Wednesday, Oct 4th. I’ve heard rumors of the first canned release of Weldwerks Juicy Bits IPA (the double dry hopped version was a Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® beer of the year in 2016), as well as a ticketed release of Medianoche barrel-aged stout, so keep an eye on social media for more details.
On your way back to Denver, stop through Lafayette for some fried chicken and beer at The Post. The Townie pale ale and Howdie Beer Pilsner are top picks. If hazy IPAs are more your speed, scoot over to Odd13 and order a Codename Superfan or any one of the many one off and limited releases they’re sure to have on for GABF week. Since you’re close, pop over to Liquid Mechanics for a round of Peanut Butter Porter. If you have the time, a stop at Erie’s Old Mine can offer a treasure trove of hard-to-find bottles, and Louisville’s 12Degree Brewing has brought home some serious medals for their Belgian-style beers, including 2016 World Beer Cup champion small brewpub. Apparently it’s a thing for breweries in that area to not put spaces between the number and word in their name, but don’t hold it against them—the beer is great.
Head to the Hills
With that grand circle complete, you should focus your attention on the thing that makes Colorado special—the mountains. Finding the time to drive out to Casey Brewing and Blending in Glenwood Springs (about 2.5 hours from Denver) can be a challenge on a quick trip, but if you’re a fan of mixed fermentation, local fruit, and beautifully crafted beers, you owe it to yourself to buy a ticket to a tasting and make the trip. On your way, make a stop in Frisco to visit Outer Range Brewing, and try as many of their hazy New England-style IPAs as possible while scheming on how to get back to the area in January for the Big Beers, Belgians, and Barleywines festival. If you’re up for more beer after Casey, head south to Roaring Fork Beer Co and Aspen Brewing for local flavor. Continue south to Buena Vista and make a stop at Eddyline Brewery, where you can toast your beer road trip with the aptly-named Epic Day IPA at their spot near the whitewater park. Then walk over to the Jailhouse Craft Beer Bar for an immaculately-curated beer list of beer geek favorites.
Head east toward Colorado Springs, and make a stop at Paradox Beer Co on your way to check out their array of sour beer aging away in barrels and oak foeders. Brewer’s Republic always offers an enjoyable tap list of beer geek faves, and Trinity Brewing’s taproom is perfect for quizzing your friends on Office Space trivia.
Anyone traveling to Colorado for beer tourism should consider the altitude when making plans for significant beer consumption. The front range is high desert with lots of sun, so stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water along with your beer, and be incredibly careful when you head to the even higher elevations of the mountains. While Denver is a mile high (5,280 feet), Frisco’s elevation is 9,000 feet, Buena Vista is at 8,000 feet, Divide (home to Paradox) is at 9,100 feet, and Colorado Springs is at 6,000. For those who are sensitive to the altitude, schedule an extra day out here before you start drinking so that your body can acclimate. It’s better to lose a day of drinking than spend a night in the hospital recovering from altitude sickness.
No matter what itinerary you choose for the week of GABF, it’s nearly impossible to not have fun. Beer is everywhere, on everyone’s minds, and for one short week, the attention of the entire beer world is focused on Denver, Colorado. If you haven’t experienced it, a GABF trip should definitely be on your bucket list, and if you have experienced it, you know why we go back year after year after year.
Did we miss an event or a brewery? Leave a comment below and we will consider it for addition.
Lead Photo: Photo © Brewers Association
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