If you haven’t been to Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver, it’s like the World Series or Super Bowl for craft beer. This year was the festival’s 40th anniversary, and it featured more than 500 breweries and 2,000 beers to taste. Almost 10,000 beers were submitted for consideration, making medaling even more impressive.
The festival is held over multiple days at the Denver Convention Center downtown, and it is a festival. In addition to being the biggest beer tasting you’ve ever been to, each session kicks off with bagpipers, festival-goers often break into spontaneous cheers at the sound of a fallen glass, live music and/or DJs are always playing, there are meet the brewer events, a homebrew marketplace, games, contests, and more sticker swag than you can fit in your pockets.
San Diego has always been a strong contender for the biggest categories, and this year was no exception. Congratulations are due to North Park Brewing Company.* The brewery won four medals, the most of any brewery, including gold for English India Pale Ale (IPA) or New Zealand IPA, silver for Juicy or Hazy Imperial IPA, and two bronzes — one for American-style IPA and another for Imperial IPA.
As you can imagine, the IPA categories are hotly contested. And, oh yeah, they won freaking Brewery of the Year in their size category (2,001-5,000 barrels brewed annually). Congrats to owner Kelsey McNair and the team at North Park Brewing Co.
North County can also celebrate Rouleur Brewing Company (Carlsbad). Rouleur’s Domestique is one of my favorite local blond ales.
This year, Domestique took gold in the Belgian-style Ale or French-style Ale category. Oceanside’s Bagby Beer Company Three Beagles Brown Ale brought home a silver medal, and Port Brewing/The Lost Abbey (San Marcos) won a bronze for Peach Afternoon in the Fruited Wood/Barrel-aged Sour Beer category.
I assume you’re reading this and starting to dream about a beercation in 2023. Since I’ve been lucky enough to attend several GABFs, I’ve compiled some pro tips for your future fest adventure.
Pro tips for attending Great American Beer Festival:
- Book your flight early. I try to jump on it in June or July, even though the event is always late September or early October. The prices start to jump as more and more San Diegan brewers start planning their trips. Book a Wednesday flight, and you’ll inevitably be joined on board by a veritable who’s who of the San Diego beer community.
- The festival is fun, but even better are all the satellite events happening at breweries around Denver. Plan a few extra days to explore.
- Events and beer drinking start early during festival week, like really early. Be sure to pace yourself when you’re heading to the festival. I like to plan some early beer drinking, a big lunch, and a nap before getting in line at the convention center if I can swing it.
- Backpacks aren’t allowed inside the event, but you’ll see many people with pretzel necklaces or other foodstuffs hanging around their necks. These are smart people. Not only do the pretzels help cleanse your palate between tasting beer, but they also ensure you won’t forget to eat in all the excitement. Plus, the line to get in is usually pretty long.
- There are two strategies for navigating the line to get in. Either try to be right up front before the line gets long so can be the first through the doors. Then you’ll have a chance to visit the most in-demand breweries from around the country before the line gets long. Or, show up thirty minutes late and stroll right in. You’ll miss out on a few beers that are in high demand, but you won’t be left wanting.
- I strongly recommend going into the event with a beer-drinking plan. I like to stick to one or two beer styles for a session. This enables me to make side-by-side comparisons and prevents me from mixing too many styles and leaving with a tummy ache.
- Don’t only try breweries you already know. Explore!
- Have fun, and use a designated driver
Congrats to all the other San Diego-based craft breweries who medaled at GABF, including Gravity Heights, Athletic Brewing Company, BNS Brewing & Distilling Co., Societe Brewing Company, Kilowatt Brewing, and Pizza Port Ocean Beach.*
*Mother Earth won a silver medal for Imperial IPA, but the award-winning beer was brewed at their Idaho location. Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens also medaled in the American Black Ale or American Stout category, but with their recent acquisition by beverage giant Sapporo, they are no longer a member of the San Diego Brewers Guild.