Image: Great American Beer Festival
Jason E. Kaplan
Since being founded in 1982, the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colo., has morphed into America's most prestigious beer festival.
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updated 9/3/2008 2:22:01 PM ET 2008-09-03T18:22:01

When Marty Jones married his wife in 1991, they did not fantasize about honeymooning in a romantic French chateau or a sunny Caribbean island. Instead, Jones and his wife drove to Denver to drink beer.

“It was our dream come true to attend the Great American Beer Festival,” says Jones, now the “lead singer and idea man” for Lyons, Colorado’s Oskar Blues Brewery. “It’s the greatest collection of American-made beers in one spot, plus you can meet your brewing heroes and ask them anything. And luckily, my wife shares my passion. We even renewed our 10-year wedding vows at the GABF.”

Jones and his wife’s dedication to the sudsy stuff may seem extreme. However, as America’s craft-beer scene has blossomed, brew galas have shed their reputation as drunken revelries and reinvented themselves as serious explorations of seriously good beer.

Dozens of festivals dot America, but one of the first — and finest — is Denver’s GABF. “It’s beer nirvana," says Jones. "There’s a great vibe because you’re in a room with people who, like you, are deeply in love with craft beer.” The event was founded in 1982 and now attracts upward of 46,000 enthusiasts who come to sample the nearly 2,800 stouts, India pale ales and lagers poured by 450-plus breweries hailing from coast to coast.

At these events, “beer lovers can try beers that they’re never going to find in their backyard,” says Julia Herz, craft beer program director of the Brewers Association. The additional lure, Herz adds, is the judged competition in which breweries vie for gold, silver and bronze medals. “When you win a gold medal at the GABF, that’s saying it’s the best of that style in the world.” And when the winners are announced, says Jones, "you better run to get in line to sample that beer.”

Luck, not fleet feet, will net you a ticket to America’s most exclusive brew gathering. Winning one of 5,000 spots at Madison, Wisconsin’s Great Taste of the Midwest “is like getting tickets to the Final Four,” says beer scribe Paul Ruschmann, who co-runs Beerfestivals.org. The lure, he explains, is unlimited samples from 100-plus stellar Heartland breweries, such as Michigan’s Lakefront and Jolly Pumpkin. “And because so few tickets are sold, you never have to wait long to try a beer.”

Ruschmann also recommends Anchorage’s mid-winter Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival. Though the frozen state seems like an improbable beer mecca, “Alaska has one of the highest concentration of microbrewers,” says Ruschmann. “That’s because there’s nothing else to do during the winter,” he adds with a laugh.

Along with that state’s boozy bounty, brews from the Pacific Northwest are also on offer at the long-running festival, which focuses on high-octane beers like doppelbocks and barley wine — strong, sweet ale with wine-like alcohol content that’ll warm any stomach. Not that you'll need it. Says Ruschmann, who lives in Michigan, “The year we went, it was warmer in Anchorage than it was in Detroit."

A more temperate option is Portland’s Oregon Brewers Festival. Over the last several decades, microbreweries have mushroomed across Portland, earning the rainy town a rep for great beer. What started as a sleepy gathering has since bloomed into a four-day, family-friendly extravaganza that attracts nearly 60,000 folks to a lush river-fronting park. “People come on their vacations just to serve beer here,” says Art Larrance, who co-founded the OBF 21 years ago. "We’ve had people come from Amsterdam.”

Image: World Beer Festival
World Beer Festival
Suds-loving Southerners get a double-barreled dose of beer-festival fun. Each year, All About Beer magazine produces two bashes featuring 150-plus breweries and 300-odd beers.
Unlike most beer galas, attendance is free at OBF. Attendees instead purchase tickets to sample local quaffs from McMenamins and Roots Organic and out-of-state offerings from the likes of California’s Russian River and New Jersey’s Flying Fish. “We try not to turn it into a frat party,” Larrance says of the by-the-cup system. “The focus is on exploring quality beer.”

Larrance brings up an important point. Whether trying ales at Brewery Ommegang’s Belgium Comes to Cooperstown in upstate New York, or sampling unfiltered brews at Carlsbad, California’s Real Ale Festival, one's focus should be on sampling — not getting sloshed. To avoid overindulging, Beerfestival.org’s Ruschmann suggests eating a solid, starchy meal before attending and alternating each beer with a glass of water, which also cleanses your palate. Don't forget to assign a designated driver.

For die-hard connoisseurs like Marty Jones, planning is crucial. “You have to sketch out your beer-festival game plan,” he says. Do you want to drink super-dark stouts? Or perhaps you’re interested in floral IPAs and light, crisp lagers? Sample from lightest to darkest, he suggests, and refrain from skipping around: “You don’t want to get home and regret missing that one beer that could’ve changed your life.”

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