I have been fortunate living in Boulder for the last few years to live within a short bus-ride of the super-bowl of beer festivals, the Great American Beer Festival. While Oktoberfest may serve more by volume, few can match the GABF for sheer variety. The festival features 3,100 beers from 624 different breweries.
I have been fortunate to attend this festival every year since 2009. The first year I bought my ticket. Then I realized that I cannot drink $70 worth or beer and the next year I looked up volunteering. By a bit of luck, I chose to volunteer with the glass crew. If you came into the festival on Friday or Saturday evening this year, you had a roughly one-in-thirty chance of getting your tasting glass from me.
The first hour or so is spent madly handing out glasses and marking tickets to the throngs of beer fans that descent on the Colorado Convention center as bagpipes play in the background. But after that first hour they put part of the crew on break to walk the floor and sample the offerings.
For those that want to volunteer at the GABF, you want to start looking at the website around June. Opportunities abound for great positions from pouring at the sample tables, to making sure that people throw their refuse into the right containers, to helping people around. Most of these positions allow you to walk around for at least part of the time and sample the brews. Some, like hauling kegs, do not let you drink that night but instead give you a ticket for another night. While you do not get to wander the hall for the full three-and-a-half hours, I have never left the GABF unsatisfied.
I tried the pretzel necklaces in past years, but it just was not that satisfying. So this year I expanded to bagels, almonds and trail mix packs. This felt healthier than other options I saw like Slim Jims and Cheese Sticks. Since you cannot bring a backpack into the festival, having food that you can put on a string necklace is ideal. I was able to find almonds and trail mix in little packs that had the hole in the top for vending machines.
The there is the question of tasting strategies. If I had a smartphone I would have used the app thatcame out this year. It had some really neat features to help you choose where to go. Among these features were style tours like the Darth Vader tour (dark beers) or the Hopness Monster (IPAs). You could then look up beers and have it show the location on the festival floor.
Since my phone is a 2006 vintage, the app was not an option. Instead I decided to focus regionally in California, PA and New England with a quick (but mandatory) stop at the Pro-Am table.
For the past four years the sheer variety of beers eventually overwhelmed me. I remembered one or two interesting or weird beers, but even the good examples of porters, IPAs and imperial stouts blended together by the end of the evening. But this year my wife gave me a beer journal.
The journal’s tasting pages roughly mirror the tasting sheetsof the American Homebrewer’s Association with fields for color (or colour since it was made in Great Britian), appearance, aroma, taste and overall opinion. It also had a neat little flavor wheel where you could mark the intensity of common flavor elements.
At first I found it annoying to fill out the pages. When you first walk onto the floor to go tasting, you are like a kid in a candy store with a blank check. It was annoying to have to slow down to look at the beer, write, smell it, write, sip it write, finish it off, write. But by the end of the evening I realized that I had tried 35 one-ounce samples and could remember all of them. The next day I woke up and felt fine. I was onto something.
The journal is not without its drawbacks. It is more cumbersome than an iPhone app and you do look like a bit of a dork filling it out (although this has never stopped me before). I also probably missed a good conversation or two as I was writing or pondering my brew. But overall, I think I will carry forward with some form or beer journal at this festival, digital or analogue.
Ah, can you really choose your favorite child? Well, at least for the next year or two that will be easy. Choosing my favorite beers at this year’s festival was much harder. Of the new breweries that I tried, I can give my top 3 (of course, I hit a several proven winners like Magic Hat and the Bruery):
1. Aftershock Brewing (Temecula, CA). Favorites – Dubbel vision, Richter Rauchbier, Arizona Bay (Barleywine) and Jess y James (Imperial Stout) were all amazing versions of their styles.
2. Port City Brewing (Alexandria, Virginia): This one just barely lost out to Devil’s Backbone Brewing for small brewery of the Year. Their Optimal Wit and Monumental IPA were pretty good, but their Maniacal IPA (Double IPA) and H3 Belgium Triple were really good.
3. Calicraft Brewing Company (Walnut Creek, CA): This one got an edge because the brewer happened to be pouring when I arrived and was excited about engaging all the customers about what he was doing with each beer that he brought. The Oak Town American Brown was a really well balance brown that was aged in two types of American oak barrels and one French oak barrel. The Wild Wit was aptly described as wit meets Sauv blanc with local organges, coriander and 25% local honey. I finished off this brewery with their fresh hopped ale.
Other fun brews:
1. Roble’d Oaked Red Ale from Claremont Craft Ales (Claremont, CA). I like good red ales and good oaked beers. A match made in heaven. Or a fermentation tank.
2. Penut Butter Ale from Marley's Brewery & Grille (Bloomsburg, PA) got rave reviews and was always gone by the time I got to wander the floor.