Just as the Oscars are to filmmakers and the Super Bowl is to football players, so the Great American Beer Festival is to the nation’s brewmasters. Held annually in Denver in October, the festival brings breweries from all over the country, as well as internationally, together to mingle for three days of beer tasting, beer talk and beer awards. This year will feature more than 2,800 beers on tap from 600 breweries, with thousands of people attending.
“It’s the biggest competition, for sure. It’s one of a kind,” said Cory Forster, head brewmaster of the Dillon Dam Brewery. “It’s a mind blower.”
Forster has attended the festival since 2000 and said that he’s always excited to try the wide variety of beer styles offered. For his part, he’ll be bringing 10 beers from the Dillon Dam Brewery, plus a local homebrew to enter into the ProAm competition. Choosing which beer to bring was tough, and Forster had to narrow it down from his original list of 20.
“My strategy was, basically, we have really good beer right now and if you’re not in it you can’t win it, so let’s enter lots of really good beers,” he said. “There were some close calls.”
Dillon Dam Brewery beers have done well in the past, bringing home a handful of medals to be displayed on the walls. McLuhr’s Irish Stout took home the silver medal in 2010, while Sweet George’s Brown claimed gold in 2008. The extra pale ale earned bronze in 2004, and the Dam Straight Lager brought home a silver award in 2001.
Forster isn’t the only Summit County brewmaster gearing up for GABF, as the festival is commonly called. Alan Simons, of Backcountry Brewery in Frisco, has his own set of 10 brews that he’s carting to the event.
Simons is also excited to join in the great whirlwind of beer, tastings and discussions that make up the festival.
“It’s super crazy — there are 10- to 12,000 people in the venue, there’s a ton of breweries, it’s loud because there’s a lot of talking,” he said. “We mostly hang out at the booth and talk to people about the beer, and once in a while we sneak out and try other people’s beer.”
This will be the first year Simons enters his Berliner Weisse in the competition. Backcountry Brewery has taken away six awards from the GABF, most recently a 2011 silver award for its Saison du Summer. It’s also won two gold awards — for the Colorado Trail English Ale in 2005 and the Telemark IPA in 2000.
While the awards are fun and a great way to bring out a friendly, competitive edge, both brewmasters agreed that the best part of the festival is going around and tasting all the different beers, from the tried-and-trues to the new-and-experimental.
“As a brewer, we’re always definitely trying to improve, and even if we feel like we make a good beer, we might ask ourselves, ‘How can I get better at it?’” Simons said. “… If we win a medal, that’s great, we’re always excited to win medals, but we’re (also) always trying to get new ideas — a new beer we can make or something we can do different with one of our existing seasonals. There’s always stuff to be learned, for sure.”
Forster added that he particularly likes to try the beers that have won in previous years and compare them to what he’s doing.
“I can try the award-winning styles and be like, ‘Why was this one better than mine?’ I like to seek out the winners and just put the best of the best on my taste buds,” he said.
There’s more to the festival than tasting beer, however, as Breckenridge Brewery’s Jimmy Walker is quick to point out. Events run the gamut from scientific presentations and book signings to silent discos. These aren’t just confined to the GABF site, either, but are spread out throughout the city.
“Even if you don’t have tickets, you can go to the website, (where) they have a list of all the events in Denver that are GABF-related,” Walker said. “So all the brewers from all over the country will do special events at these craft beer bars down in Denver, like special beer tappings and meet the brewer and tapping some firkins. … Even if you don’t have a ticket, you can go down to Denver and the whole town is celebrating. It’s insane.”
All three brewmasters agree that the event is well worth gong to.
“It’s definitely a unique experience,” Simons said. “If you’d consider yourself a fan of beer festivals, you need to go at least once.”