Seeking out America’s best: a first-person look at GABF

Three days of glorified beer drinking and before you know it the winners have been announced.

Yes, the Great American Beer Festival is a haven for beverage enthusiasts and producers alike, all clamoring to the city of Denver to not only imbibe, but to put their beers to the test under the scrutiny of some of the best beer judges in the United States. All this in the hopes of scoring a medal, or several.

This festival is the beer festival and party for American enthusiasts, and you might begin by asking, how do you navigate a festival of this magnitude?

It’s true — the ‘bros’ are out and about, folks are drinking themselves past their prime and the amount of crop dusting inflicted upon the poor patrons is staggering. However, here we are, thousands of us, gathered to this beer mecca in order to test out the rarest, strangest and the best these breweries of America have to offer.

I personally had never been to GABF before and was blown away by the sheer magnitude of the thing. As a fellow Michigander, I did keep an eye out for our fellow brewers and was pleased to see a few on the list who won medals.

Besides testing out the vast array of beers that were being poured before me, I took note of the overall demeanor of the event.

Before taking off, I had heard from countless beer geek friends and brewers that GABF is ‘a total shit show’ and that it wasn’t worth the time and the money to come out anymore. Naturally these words stuck in my head before I even took a step onto a plane, and I came into the event with the preconceived notion that I would no doubt be vomited on and wouldn’t be able to try anything worthwhile or network with prospective business contacts or intellects in the industry.

Was I wrong? Well I wouldn’t say that for sure, because yes, the Great American Beer Festival is indeed a ‘shit show’. Having hundreds of people in various costumes looking bleary eyed and stumbling in front of you every few seconds will make you think that.

However, hadn’t I indeed gained some insight? Hadn’t I had a delightful time shuffling my way through the throngs of people, on a hunt (in my particular case) for rare and delicious sour ale? Wasn’t I the lucky woman who met a couple Master Cicerones and shook hands with some of the best brewers in the country?

For someone like me, this type of event was thrilling and humbling all at the same time. I don’t regret it. I seek these experiences out. What then, is the value in a beer festival of this nature? The possibility for something grand I suppose.

If you come and seek out the pure but empty thrill of inebriation, what experience are you gaining besides putting your body through yet another drunken struggle even though you are surrounded by the greats of the industry and have the opportunity to schmooze? Are you missing the core goal of the event by using a vehicle towards inebriation or is it simply just liberating to drink great beer to excess among fellow imbibers?

Besides my sense of pride for the Michigan breweries that won awards and the feeling of numerous business cards touching my hand as I shoved them into my coat pocket, I feel honored to have attended the Great American Beer Festival. It gave me a reason to question the purpose behind an event of this calibre and to ask my fellow beer geeks, what are we doing to elevate the beer industry when we host events such as this?

Whatever it is we are doing, it seems to be working in an undetectable way because I am quite inspired after my trip to Denver. I encourage and implore you all to seek out something more during beer events, either when attending or when coordinating. The quality of your experience is, as always, up to you.

Would I attend the Great American Beer Festival again? You bet. All I encourage is that for every beer festival or craft beverage event, we find a way to strike that balance between the opportunity for learning from someone new and for the spirit of relaxing via the vehicle of inebriation. Our best path to finding this balance is to change our personal attitudes about alcohol culture as a whole.

Without both, stagnancy develops and we do not advance what it is we have worked so hard to defend and build: the expectation for quality craft beer and the kind community with which to share that passion.

This festival has been the perfect spark to an excellent conversation about the status of our beer culture. Who’s ready to sit down, have a brew, and elevate the discussion? I’d love some company. The first round’s on me.

Angela Steil

Angela Steil

Angela Steil is a Certified Cicerone® and the Grand Rapids Chapter President of Leaders Beverage Consulting, a company based in Chicago, Illinois. In this role she works as a draught technician, writer, consultant, and educator along with her incredible team as they advocate for raising the bar for draught system standards. When not turning wrenches or creating classes, Angela continues to add to her education as she studies for the Advanced Cicerone® exam. In her free time, Angela is best known for enjoying a cigar, scavenging thrift shops, and blowing all of her spending money on cheese. You can connect further and discuss her offered services here:

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