The Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver is an event beer geeks look forward to all year. Nowhere else in the world will one find a larger selection of American-made brews all in one location and, although people fly in from all corners of the nation to attend, GABF is equally popular with locals. With so many choices, it’s difficult to decide which booths are really worth a Coloradoan’s attention. To help guide the local beer geek, here is a list of breweries at GABF that might be of particular interest. The list is comprised of breweries that a) have little to no distribution in Colorado and are thus a unique treat to the Colorado palate and/or b) feature unusual or creative beers befitting the adventurous spirit of the state’s denizens.
Scratch Brewing Co.
Physical Location: Ava, Illinois
Festival Location: Great Lakes region, Booth O8
Why they’re worth a visit: Scratch has always raised intrigue. Located in the backwoods of Illinois, they brew “with home grown and locally farmed and foraged ingredients” creating beers “enhanced by the innovative addition of local ingredients, including nettle, elderberry, ginger, dandelion, maple sap, and a variety of wood additions, among others.” Truly, the beers of Scratch showcase the local flavor as many of the ingredients are picked straight from the grounds surrounding the brewery.
This year, however, they’re really emphasizing their focus on foraged beers with an all-gruit GABF line-up. Gruits, considered the oldest surviving beer style, are ancient Scottish ales defined by their lack of hops and their use of native herbs and spices (traditionally sweet gale, yarrow, and rosemary) as bittering agents. Scratch isn’t simply recreating recipes of yore, though; they’re putting their own twist on the centuries-old style by “gruitizing” beers not usually associated with pre-Christian Scotland like stouts, saisons, sahtis, and English ales. Midwestern adjuncts like burdock root, nettles, sage, and one particular beer with “105 different plants and funghi sourced from the woods surrounding the brewery” will certainly make Scratch’s booth stand out from the crowd.
New Holland Brewing
Physical Location: Holland, Michigan
Festival Location: End Cap – Mountain region, Booth H34
Why they’re worth a visit: In business since 1996, this renowned Michigan brewery only began Colorado distribution in August 2014 so, although Coloradoans can now purchase New Holland at their corner liquor store, it’s still new enough to be novel.
New Holland’s latest beer, a collaboration with Carhartt, will make its grand entrance at this year’s GABF. An oak-aged pale ale brewed with Michigan-grown Cascade hops, the Carhartt Woodsman commemorates the work wear brand’s 125th anniversary, a feat “only .00897 percent of American companies ever accomplish.” Although Carhartt boasts a tough image of blue collar grit, the beer is surprising delicate coming in at a sessionable 4.5% ABV. This is the type of beer to quench one’s thirst after an honest day’s work at the factory, ranch, or construction site.
Physical Location: San Francisco, California
Festival Location: End Cap – Mid-Atlantic region, Booth U17
Why they’re worth a visit: For the first time in the brewery’s 16 year history, Magnolia beer will be distributed outside of California with Denver and Boulder to be the first to receive the San Franciscan beer. Through the help of Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project, kegs of Magnolia will be distributed to key accounts such as Falling Rock Tap House, Highland Tap and Burger, Vine Street Pub & Brewery, Asbury Provisions, and West End Tap House among others. Magnolia is also hosting a beer brunch at Old Major on Thursday, October 2nd—the first day of GABF. But, if one cannot procure tickets for the event, the festival offers an early taste of the beers that are sure to become common options on many Denver tap lists.
Magnolia is also a Featured Brewery Sponsor at GABF this year and its brewmaster, Dave McLean, will return as a judge in the blind tasting competition.
Sun King Brewery
Physical Location: Indianapolis, Indiana
Festival Location: Great Lakes region, Booth O14
Why they’re worth a visit: Peyton Manning isn’t the only gift Indiana gave Colorado; the Crossroads of America also bestowed upon the Centennial State the influences of Indy’s own Sun King via Chaka and The Deuce, two collaborations with Oskar Blues. The undisputed champion of the 2011 GABF (eight medals, four of them gold!), Sun King isn’t necessarily bringing anything special to this year’s GABF because they always feature some off-the-wall suds; this year will be typically atypical for Sun King. Expect such offerings as a golden brett ale with pineapple and schezwan peppercorns and a few Bourbon-aged brews.
New Glarus Brewing Co.
Physical Location: New Glarus, Wisconsin
Festival Location: Great Lakes region, Booth J33
Why they’re worth a visit: New Glarus is nationally celebrated for their expertly crafted fruit beers. They’re also nationally coveted by 49 states because New Glarus only distributes in-state. Unless one is planning a trip to the Badger State, GABF may be the only time Coloradoans can sip of New Glarus’ orchard-inspired ales. Don’t let machismo prevent one from enjoying their fruity offerings, either; fruit beers have a certain emasculating stigma attached to them which, while unfair, is nonetheless prevalent. Put that association out of mind, men, and enjoy New Glarus because, when people claim they don’t like fruit beers, they’re basically saying they’ve never had New Glarus.
Physical Location: Albuquerque, New Mexico
Festival Location: Southwest region, Booth M21
Why they’re worth a visit: Denver had ‘em and lost ‘em; Marble began distributing on the Front Range in the spring of 2012 but, recently, had to pull out of most of Colorado because they were running out of beer to serve their original New Mexican customers. Marble is still available in southwestern parts of the state but Colorado’s major metro areas are now sans-Marble. For those who got hooked on Marble during its two year stint in Colorado, GABF offers the chance to relive the good times. In the future, Marble might reintroduce itself to the Front Range market but, in the meantime, they’re only available to Denverites through GABF.
Wicked Weed Brewing: Funkatorium
Physical Location: Asheville, North Carolina
Festival Location: Southeast region, Booth R30
Why they’re worth a visit: Wicked Weed actually has two booths at GABF. There’s the regular Wicked Weed booth at R29 and the neighboring Funkatorium section of the brewery wherein Wicked Weed’s brewers experiment with sours, wild ales, and barrel-aged beers. Not to say the customary Wicked Weed beers aren’t worth a look, it’s just that the Funkatorium is serving up brews that are a little more, well, funky. Attendees with advanced, exploratory palates can order something at the Funkatorium’s booth while their more conservative friends can try the more customary recipes next door.