When the clock strikes 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, the sound of bagpipes and the shuffling of thousands of feet will herald the start of the country’s biggest celebration of beer.
Over 3,800 beers from nearly 800 U.S. breweries will be poured at this year’s 35th annual Great American Beer Festival, which runs for four sessions over three days at the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver. The crazy-popular event sold out in just over an hour.
Here’s a little secret though … You don’t need to brave the crowded hall to drink in Denver’s biggest beer week of the year. Some might argue that the undercard trumps the main event.
The days leading up to, including and following GABF put Denver’s vibrant community of breweries’ craft-centric beer bars and restaurants on full display with special tappings, beer dinners, mini festivals — even stand-up comedy gigs and metal shows.
The list has grown so long, it can feel overwhelming. We’ve got you covered. Below, a 12-pack of go-to events around town throughout the week, from bargains to wallet-busters.
5:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m. Tuesday
Denver Museum of Nature & Science, 2001 Colorado Blvd.
In colorful Colorado, we like to hike and drink good beer. Back for its sixth GABF edition, Beers Made By Walking weds these two passions in the most creative and unique sideshow of the week. The idea is simple: get brewers out into the wilderness or their own urban surroundings to find inspiration in what they discover. These truly are beers you’ll find nowhere else — from a funky Dry Dock Brewing saison brewed with plums growing along the Highline Canal to a Fiction Brewing Co. brown kettle sour brewed with pumpkin and spice inspired by a stroll through a pumpkin patch. Brewing with ingredients that capture a brewery’s sense of place is a growing trend, and Beers Made By Walking was on this path years ago.
6 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday
Exdo Event Center, 1399 35th St.
For in-the-know beer geeks, this is the week’s main event. Chad Yakobson’s Denver-based Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project in 2013 launched this showcase for small, like-minded artisan brewers making some of the most creative beers in the land. Then last year happened. WTF!? lived up to its name in the worst way, with an oversold event at a crammed venue (the Highland Masonic Temple) and sought-after beers drained before many people had even handed over their tickets. A humbled crew is back with lessons learned. With a bigger venue and fewer tickets promising a more intimate experience, WTF!? is poised to kill it again with another strong “it” brewery lineup. There are fewer breweries, but all are promising to bring more beer. The many stars include Colorado faves like Casey Brewing and Blending and Verboten Brewing along with out-of-state standouts Creature Comforts of Georgia, sour beer masters Rare Barrel out of California and Oregon’s Ale Apothecary. Many of these breweries don’t have the volume or desire to pour at GABF, making this ticket all the more sought-after.
River North Brewery and Funkwerks special tappings
5 p.m. Wednesday
Lucky Pie Pizza, 1610 16th St.
You hear a lot about how collaborative the craft beer industry is — and yeah, that can get old and paper over some of the real tensions not far from the surface. But for the most part, people really do get along in craft brewing. More often than not that leads to a gathering around kettles to create some special beers together. These are two Colorado breweries that have made Belgian-style beers their calling cards. River North Brewery found itself gentrified out of the neighborhood that bears its name, and recently relocated to more affordable digs on the northern edge of Denver proper. Funkwerks in Fort Collins consistently brews excellent saisons and sours and in 2013 was named small brewery of the year in the prestigious GABF competition. The yin-yang collaboration beers pouring here are the River North Saison Conspiracy Noir (a dark saison with syrah must aged in red wine barrels) and Funkwerks Conspiracy Blanc (a pale saison with white wine grapes aged in white wine barrels).
Rare beer tappings from Crooked Stave Artisans
11:30 a.m. Wednesday
Hops & Pie, 3920 Tennyson St.
If you missed What the Funk!? or were understandably hesitant to drop a Benjamin on one night of beer drinking, Crooked Stave Artisans is showcasing its rich brewery portfolio at a number of events around town GABF Week. We chose to single out Hops and Pie because, well, it starts at 11:30 a.m. on a weekday and the food is hands-down the best of any beer bar in town. More than any other distributor, CSA has blessed Denver with exciting, boundary-pushing beers. Some of the breweries pouring at Hops & Pie and elsewhere this week distribute regularly, while others are limited in their releases or are just here for festival week. The murderer’s row pouring at Hops & Pie are Three Floyds, Beachwood Brewing & BBQ Perennial, Creature Comforts, Stillwater, Melvin, Boneyard, Scratch, Blackberry Farms, Fremont, Almanac, La Cumbre, Green Bench, Off Color, Alesong, Two Roads, Half Acre, Jester King, Fonta Flora and Lawson’s. Oh … my … If you get a seat, you might not leave it.
8:30 p.m. Wednesday
Hi-Dive, 7 S. Broadway
One of GABF Week’s most promising new wrinkles is the arrival of events that are not all about the beer. From a comedy show to a pot-smoking pipe giveaway (Denver!), there is no shortage of examples of how good beer pairs well with any number of activities. This tap takeover and punk/metal show is hosted by Denver’s TRVE Brewing, which is producing some of the most exciting sour and wild beers in the city at its excellently named Acid Temple facility. (At TRVE, a sticker near the bathroom sink states that employees may not return to work until they carve “Slayer” on their arm). We wouldn’t recommend this if the beer weren’t top-notch, and you are in good hands with TRVE, Denver’s Ratio Beerworks, Burial Beer out of North Carolina and Chicago-based Revolution Brewing. Bands include Cloud Catcher, Space in Time, Major Sports and Cheap Perfume. Bring your earplugs.
Mercantile Dining & Provision GABF beer pairing dinner
6 p.m. Wednesday
Mercantile Dining & Provision, 1701 Wynkoop St., #155
$150 in advance, $175 at the door
Call 720-460-3733 to reserve
Given Colorado’s robust beer scene, it only was a matter of time before the city’s chefs discovered the possibilities of pairing their creative fare with beer created by similarly passionate people. Alex Seidel’s longtime standout restaurant Fruition has been at the forefront of this trend, taking as much care with its beer list as restaurants have long afforded the wine list. Seidel is hosting this powerhouse dinner at his Mercantile Dining & Provision in LoDo featuring six breweries and eight chefs from around the country who will discuss “the current state of beer and food.” Breweries pouring are Denverites Crooked Stave and Call to Arms; Jester King of Austin, Texas; Alesong of Eugene, Ore.; Side Project of St. Louis; and The Bruery of Orange County, Calif.
Dogfish Head after-party
10 p.m.-midnight Thursday
Avanti Food & Beverage, 3200 N. Pecos St.
Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione is one of craft brewing’s celebrities. On the GABF floor, fans line up not just to taste Dogfish Head’s renowned IPAs and experimental “ancient ales,” but to snap selfies with the gregarious Calagione. He also happens to be a former school chum of one of the developers of Avanti Food & Beverage, the modern-day food hall in what we will reluctantly call LoHi. The lively meeting spot with one of the best outdoor patios in the city boasts the largest Dogfish Head tap list in Denver. For this get-together after the opening night GABF session, Calagione will hold court over an array of special tappings including four different vintages of 120 Minute IPA, among other rare delights.
3 p.m.-9 p.m. Friday
Denver Beer Co., 1695 Platte St.
Denver Beer Co. is a crowd-pleaser. Its inviting beer garden on Platte Street is one of Denver’s best places to hang out, with its big communal wooden tables and seemingly constant sunshine. The lineup is similarly inviting, from a solid IPA to a raspberry kolsch and a crushable hoppy wheat. It’s only fitting that Denver Beer Co. would throw a big giant block party GABF Week with live music, food trucks, games and more. Each year, the brewery cordons off Platte on the Friday of GABF Week and pours collaboration beers brewed with friends. This year’s partners are New York’s Sarnac, Portland’s Base Camp Brewing, Mother Road Beer in Arizona, Destihl in Illinois, Montana’s Draught Works Brewery, and Rhinegeist of Ohio.. This is a good value … $25 scores a commemorative glass and eight-ounce pours of each beer.
Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales special bottle release
10 a.m. Saturday
Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales, 1290 S. Broadway
What began as a passion project has become the main event for James and Sarah Howat. The married couple opened Former Future Brewing on South Broadway in 2014, aiming to put a modern twist on traditional and obscure beer styles. Off to the side, brewmaster James Howat began experimenting, including beers fermented with microbes captured on a coolship — a thin, long, open-air fermenting dish used to cool wort. So began a series of beers that attracted a cult following — and back-to-back bronze medals in the experimental/wild beer category at GABF in 2014 and 2015. No dummies, the Howats saw the future and shuttered Former Future to pour all their energies into Black Project. This special bottle release features new beers (including a sour brewed with Corvus coffee) and previous limited releases. Black Project is also pouring on the GABF floor (booth V26), so check them out there if you can’t stand to wake up this early.
4:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Saturday
First Draft Taproom, 1309 26th St.
No need to tip the bartenders at First Draft because … it’s you. Opened late last year, this RiNo spot offers a unique beer consumption experience in Denver. Check in, get handed a card to swipe at the tap, then mosey over to a line of 40 kegs and pour tastes of whatever you want in the quantity you want. (The average-sized pour is 4.9 ounces). The setup at this event is more traditional, since we’re talking bottles. Buy tokens for 4-ounce pours of rare beers from the likes of Casey Brewing & Blending, Cantillon, Jester King, Avery, Tilquin, Drie Fonteinen, Hill Farmstead, Paradox Beer Co, The Bruery, Lawson’s, Westbrook and more. First Draft’s GABF Week lineup also includes tappings from Odd 13, LaCumbre, Stone, The Bruery and Almanac.
One of the joys of GABF Week is to peruse the list of tappings at Denver’s deep and growing bench of craft beer-centric bars and restaurants. The filling poutine and sausage plates that highlight Euclid Hall’s food menu can be lifesavers before and after the festival sessions — and the beer rep of the joint just off Larimer Square means it will be chock full of festival-goers and special tappings into the wee hours. We can’t think of many breweries that would pair better with Euclid Hall fare than Wicked Week, which brews both world-class IPAs and delicate and complex wild and sour beers. Beers from 11 kegs and bottles will feature here. The North Carolina brewery recently started distributing in Denver on a limited basis.
11 p.m. Saturday
Falling Rock Tap House, 1919 Blake St.
How can you not include the legendary Falling Rock Taphouse in any roundup of GABF Week events? The unofficial GABF headquarters literally counts down the minutes and hours to the Super Bowl of beer events on a digital clock fixed its wall in LoDo. Make no mistake: This place will be packed all week, from the GABF Week kickoff festivities on Monday night to tappings throughout the week from the likes of Avery Brewing of Boulder, Bell’s of Michigan, Casey Brewing and Blending of Glenwood Springs, Melvin Brewing of Wyoming, Lawson’s Finest of Vermont, Odell of Fort Collins and many more. The grand finale this and every year at Falling Rock spotlights New Belgium Brewing of Fort Collins, Colorado’s largest independent craft brewery. The pioneering brewery has one of the country’s best wood and barrel-aged programs, and Falling Rock has collaborated with New Belgium’s Lauren Salazar on knock-your-socks-off collaboration sours. The GABF clock should stop at Falling Rock.
Eric Gorski is a Denver-based journalist. He co-founded The Denver Post’s First Drafts blog and has written about beer for BeerAdvocate, Draft Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler and PorchDrinking.com.