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Great American Dream 

Diary of a first-timer's trip to the Great American Beer Festival

click to enlarge Divide-based Paradox Beer Company even runs out of beer at GABF. - CRAIG LEMLEY
  • Craig Lemley
  • Divide-based Paradox Beer Company even runs out of beer at GABF.

The following account was assembled from audio, video and handwritten notes taken over two days of the 34th annual Great American Beer Festival, the nation's largest craft-beer event, which took place from Sept. 24 to 26 in Denver.

Day 1

Sept. 25, 12:40 p.m.

Beers tasted: 0

Judas Priest, it takes 20 minutes just to park. Between the construction and the weird street grid, well, I'm not moving to Denver any time soon. The Colorado Convention Center has a great parking garage, with a narrow helical ramp that feels equal parts amusement park and James Bond set. I can see a prism of car paint scraped onto the outer wall of the ramp at bumper height.

Bad news: I forgot to charge my spare phone battery, so I'll be stuck juggling a notepad alongside my beers. We've been wait-listed for the media luncheon, so I have a little less than two hours free before the beer bus tours begin.

Time to wander forth for lunch.

1:45 p.m.

Beers tasted: 1

There's an overpriced Neapolitan pizza place with a gigantic patio across the walk from the press entrance. I've never had an Italian beer before, but Moretti La Rossa is a nice little doppelbock — malty, clean lager yeast, generally inoffensive. The pizzas are varying kinds of delicious, but the entire menu lists dinner prices only during GABF, and $17 pizza makes my wallet hurt. Still, it's a great place for people-watching. Left Hand has parked an awesome Fade to Black limo across 14th Street. I snap a few photos, painfully conscious of how touristy I am with my doofy cowboy hat and a digital camera hanging from my belt loop.

2:30 p.m.

Beers tasted: 1

Our hosts have scheduled two buses destined for different Denver breweries. Craig (Lemley, Indy digital editor) suggests we stick to the same tour bus if possible. As Murphy and his law would have it, not two minutes later we are sorted by last name: Ms through Zs are off to parts unknown (later revealed to be Beryl's and Factotum for the first group, and Ratio and Spangalang for the second).

I am soon joined by a reporter from San Francisco who attended the festival's Thursday session. I take note of her favorites, especially the food-inspired beers from Short's Brewing Company of Bellaire, Michigan.

3:45 p.m.

Beers tasted: 4

Our first stop is RiNo newcomer Ratio Beerworks, which opened in February. Their part of Denver (River North Art District, for those not familiar with RiNo) is "on the way up," which means the rent now picks the neighbors. Ratio brews trendy beer, and passes out samples of a lime gose, a French saison and a delicious coffee from Denver's Novo Coffee that the brewer calls a "coffee scotch ale." The saison stands out as my personal favorite.

While actual beer journalists take actual notes, I resist the urge to catch up to them: The media luncheon we missed earlier featured six beers.

All said, endless respect for Ratio being so together so soon after launch.

5 p.m.

Beers tasted: 10

The bus is stuck in traffic trying to cross Speer Boulevard. We haven't moved in two light cycles.

In the meantime, Spangalang deserves more than a few words of drunken praise, not least for giving us an open bar tab. I sampled five beers and drank a sixth, which a photographer didn't want to finish. Built in the heart of gentrifying Five Points, Spangalang is run by former Great Divide brewers, boasting a combined 21 years of experience. The quality shows, mostly. My Friscoan bus buddy was underwhelmed, but she tried an all-brettanomyces sour and a gose. Their IPAs, especially D-train, are solid, and the bourbon-barrel-aged Night Walker imperial stout mandates my return when next I'm in Denver.

Now if only the bloody traffic would move before the crowd of non-media festival attendees keep me from the Three Floyds booth and its famously hard-to-sample stable.

5:20 p.m.

Beers tasted: 10

I've just stepped onto the convention floor. Holy shit.

Craig tells me to tone down the idiot grin on my face for the camera. This is a Sisyphean task.

6:30 p.m.

Beers tasted: ~16

Diamond Bear Brewing (Little Rock, Arkansas) has a three-wheeled keg named Beer2-D2, and they have nabbed me (and my cowboy hat) to ride it around. I cannot stop laughing. Let any fool try to remove me from this throne!

Also, nobody is selling pretzel necklaces. GABF veterans prepare theirs at home, sporting soft pretzels, slim jims, bags of chips, etc. Must address this tomorrow. Concession stand is asking $11 for five quarter-sized pretzel bites and four wings. Wallet still hurts.

8 p.m.

Beers tasted: >21

No phone. No time to write everything down. No means of tracking any but the most memorable beers I've tried over the last 2.5 hours — a double-digit figure. I know we've spent a bunch of time in the Southeastern and Great Lakes regions. I keep hearing good things about Southern beer, and, well, Three Floyds does have reputably good brews. That said, Zombie Dust probably tastes better when you have to court your local liquor store for a season to score a sixer.

Day 2

Sept. 26, 5 a.m.

Beers tasted: 0

Crashing with some old college buddies in Lakewood. Went to sleep at 10:30 last night. Woke up two hours ago with a headache and "Interstate Love Song" stuck in my head. Drank a gallon of water. Phone batteries charging. Fingers crossed for more sleep.

11:20 a.m.

Beers tasted: 0

I found Waldo. He was befouling an oven-hot porta-potty on the third floor of the parking garage.

Now drinking espresso at the pizza joint. Craig is stuck in traffic south of Castle Rock.

Prepped a pretzel necklace: three soft pretzels from a Littleton farmer's market, worn Flavor Flav-style on a piece of yarn.

Also bought a bag of peaches.

12:15 p.m.

Beers tasted: 2

I'm too late. Aurora's Dad and Dude's ran out of their cannabidiol IPA last night. I feel like I've failed as a weed journo.

Still, the tequila-barrel-aged imperial agave blonde makes for an interesting and impressive sip.

I try the gold-medal-winning Saint Arnold Heffeweizen. Major banana and clove flavor from the yeast. I can see why it has won.

Compliments on my pretzel necklace abound.

4 p.m.

Beers tasted: >15

I bought a pint of iced coffee across the street around 2 p.m. and used the cup for water, deciding to stash my journo gear and call it quits early, knowing we planned to head home after dinner.

Now, I'm supping at The Corner Office with Craig and Ryan (Hannigan, Colorado Springs Business Journal production director and focusonthebeer.com director).

We decide to go back to the festival with Ryan, make a few stops for merch and glad-handing, then scram.

6:45 p.m.

Beers tasted: >30

I lied; we're not done yet.

I feel great after dinner, and Ryan shows us how it's done. We meet a bunch of brewers he knows and waste zero time in lines. When he leaves, we hit the floor and score all the convention goodies we can — stickers, patches, lip balm, whatever — even if we don't really want it.

My trophy for surviving both GABF and a double IPA turned properly rancid: a plastic logo of BridgePort's Hop Czar on a chain of oversize Mardi Gras beads.

Tasting notes

My favorite beers from GABF:

Permanent Funeral by Three Floyds, a big, sticky imperial IPA, like Stone's RuinTen, but better balanced.

Feely Effects by Fiction (Fort Collins/Denver), a milk stout with chocolate and green tea that tastes like ice cream.

The bourbon-barrel-aged imperial stout from Atlanta's Sweetwater Brewing presents a smoky character I haven't often found in other beers of its ilk.

  • Diary of a first-timer's trip to the Great American Beer Festival

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