Wednesday, September 27, 2006
GABF: Denver Day 1
The Germans celebrating Oktoberfest in might beg to differ, but the epicenter of the beer universe for the next several days is undeniably Denver, Colorado. While millions of liters of beer have been hoisted outside of Munich during the last couple of weeks, Denver lays claim the crown thanks to one ounce samples that will be handed out to 30,000 beer fans over the next several days.
The Great American Beer Festival is taking place in Denver from Thursday to Saturday. Consumers will have the chance to taste more than 1,600 beers from nearly 400 American breweries during four tasting sessions. This is the Super Bowl, World Series, U.S. Open, Final Four and Daytona 500 of beer all rolled into one neat package. Nearly all of the best beers from pretty much all of the best American brewers are in one place and I’m in that city. The challenge is to find the best beer among the rows and rows of brewery booths. There are plenty of good beers, along with a few mediocre, being poured. The goal is to taste as many great beers as possible, not wasting your taste buds on the merely very good.
This is my fourth GABF and my first in eight years. I’m being joined on the pilgrimage by my Brother-in-Law, Darrin Pikarsky (his third GABF), and a friend, Mike Coffey (a GABF rookie). They are going to help me try to avoid palate fatigue – a nearly impossible task when you have an array of hoppy IPA’s, malty Vienna lagers and extreme brews ranging from coffee stouts to cherry lambics. Along the way they will help select the GABF All-Festival Case – the 24 best beers we run across during our visit. Where to start? Answering that question is complicated by the fact that in addition to the GABF sessions our dance cards are filled with brewery open houses, importer tastings and media events. Along the way I also want to squeeze in a stop at a Denver micro-distillery, hit a mead tasting and get to see the Rockies play the Dodgers.
To survive an event like the GABF you need to have a strategy. First, it is important to remember that this event by its very size is the Boston Marathon of beer drinking. You must pace yourself and save something so you have a kick left for finish. Second, you need to cooperate with your taste buds in approaching each session. I’m a big fan of dark beers and flavorful specialty products. However, going for a smoked porter in the first half hour of any session means that you won’t be able to properly taste a crisp golden ale at another booth 10 minutes later. Third, you need to keep in mind this is a sampling event. I try to skip old favorites in favor of trying new beers and new brewers. Finally, you need to approach each session with a plan in mind. My four session plan is as follows:
Thursday: I’ve printed out the list of medal winners from 2003, 2004 and 2005. My goal is to sample the best beers from the last several years as selected by the professional judging panels, a dedicated group of about 100 souls who review the entries in the 67 GABF categories.
Friday: Big beers are the order of the evening. I’m a fan of Belgian ales and English barleywines, for flavor reasons and not so much the alcohol levels. Many of the brewers attending the GABF bring along their manly man beers. That’s why this session is devoted to beers above 8 percent alcohol by volume.
Saturday Afternoon: During this session they will announce the 2006 medal winners and the breweries of the year. Consumers will drink many of the gold medal winners dry before long, so my targets are the gold, silver and bronze beers I’ve not yet sampled.
Saturday Evening: This is the wild card night. Whatever is left of my taste buds will like enjoy stouts and IPAs, with the occasional spiced or fruit beer tossed into the mix.
Now it’s time to explore Denver. Check back in throughout the weekend for updates.