The 2018 Great American Beer Festival (GABF) takes place at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver from Thursday, September 20 to Saturday, September 22. If you’re attending GABF, a bit of advanced planning can help make sure you have an incredible experience at the festival.
If this is your first GABF, or if you haven’t been in a while, there’s a lot to know about how to get prepared. However, even if you attend the festival every year, much has changed this year. There’s a whole new festival layout, and there are some great new additions to the festival that you’re not going to want to miss. Today we have all of this information and more, including our Top 10 Tips for GABF, many of which we learned the hard way, so learn from our mistakes.
Your Guide to GABF 2018
The Great American Beer Festival (GABF) is our favorite time of the year! We’ve probably been to the festival a dozen years or so, but honestly, have lost count. Whether this is your first festival or you’ve been to all of them, let’s start our 2018 GABF prep by covering the basics.
About The Great American Beer Festival
The Great American Beer Festival (GABF) is the American brewing industry’s top beer competition and tasting festival. It’s been held annually since 1982 and presented by the Brewers Association. During the competition, breweries are awarded gold, silver and bronze medals for being outstanding beers in their style category. During the four GABF tasting sessions this year, attendees are able to try one-ounce tasters of more than 4,000 beers from 800 of America’s finest breweries.
2018 Festival Hours & Tickets
The 2018 Great American Beer Festival is being held at the Colorado Convention Center from Thursday, September 20 through Saturday, September 22. Each evening there is a public session that takes place from 5:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. On Saturday afternoon there is a members-only session for members of the Brewers Association or American Homebrewers Association, and this session takes place from 12:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. All individual GABF session tickets are now sold out.
On Friday and Saturday evening, there is a PAIRED Beer & Food Tasting session that happens during the normal GABF session. At PAIRED, exclusive beers are served alongside chef prepared small bites. Admission into PAIRED requires a separate PAIRED + GABF ticket, which does include admission to the GABF general session. As of the time this story was published tickets are still available for the Thursday evening PAIRED + GABF session, but we’d recommend that if you want them you act fast.
How to Get There
With more than 62,000 people attending the festival over the course of three days, traffic and parking around the Colorado Convention Center can be a challenge. When you consider that you’ll also be enjoying unlimited samples of beer, public transit is probably going to be your best option. Denver’s RTD public transit system offers bus and Light Rail train stops at the Colorado Convention Center. You can also take a taxi, or choose a ride-share service like Uber or Lyft.
Once You Arrive
Once you arrive at the Colorado Convention Center, look for GABF volunteers to tell you where to go. Many beer lovers arrive early, but you really don’t need to line up early to get in fast. Just expect you will need to get in line and don’t freak out if it seems really long. The line moves incredibly fast so you will get in quickly. Keep things moving by having your photo ID ready. Often you’ll be ID verified, outfitted with a wristband, and put in a queue before the doors open.
It’s important to know what you can & cannot bring inside GABF. Some items you need to leave at home are obvious, like weapons, illegal drugs, and outside alcohol. Others may be less obvious. For example, you can bring a clear water bottle, but you cannot bring bottles that are metal, colored plastic, glass, or larger than 32 ounces. Also, you cannot bring outside food, but you can wear a pretzel necklace (which counts as jewelry, not food.) To make sure you’re clear on what’s allowed & what isn’t, check out the GABF Prohibited Items graphic below.
Planning Your GABF Experience
Once you’re inside the festival it’s time for some fun! However, with an expanded festival footprint of 584,000 square feet to cover, it’s not likely you’ll get to everything! This is why you need a plan of attack. A bit of preparation before your session will help ensure you have time for all your favorite beers, breweries, and some incredible GABF experiences.
The My GABF App
One of the best tools you can have in your pocket for GABF is the My GABF app, which you can download for free for Apple and Android devices. Get the app now and start your planning, then refresh the data September 18 when they reveal the full beer list. The My GABF app allows you to mark breweries and beers you want to sample in advance so you can quickly find them via indicators on a digital map of the festival floor. You can also use the app to find beers by style, keep track of what beers you’ve sampled, and to snap your GABF selfies for social media. It’s a necessity for maneuvering the festival floor. If you’d rather do your prep work on the computer, you can also see a list of breweries on the GABF website. Beers will be posted online the day before the festival.
Changes to the Festival Floor Layout New for 2018
If you’ve been to past GABFs, this year will definitely feel a lot different, as they have totally redesigned the festival layout. This year breweries will be arranged in alphabetical order, not by region. This is a big change from earlier years, so be ready! Just remember that there will still be some breweries not in this order, either because they’re on an end-cap or in the Meet the Brewers section. Otherwise, as long as you can remember your ABC’s the rest of the breweries should be easy to find!
GABF Exhibitors & Merchandise
GABF doesn’t just attract great breweries, but it also features a number of wonderful vendors and sponsors. There are vendors that offer all types of fun beer-related merchandise, lots of homebrewing tools and equipment, and much more. You can see a full list of exhibitors on the GABF website and on the My GABF App. You’ll also want to make time to check out the brewery and festival merchandise. You’ll find all sorts of souvenirs including shirts, hats, glassware, and more. You can see all the GABF and brewery merchandise at the Merchandise Area, which will be located near aisles 8 & 9 this year. There’s also a Mini-Merch store in the Meet the Brewers hall that offers a limited selection of commemorative items.
Experiences Beyond the Beer
GABF is more than just beer samples. At the various GABF Pavilions, you can explore the many ways that beer has become a part of our lives. For more details and a full schedule of events at the GABF Pavilions, visit the Pavilions page on the GABF website or look for more information in the My GABF app.
Celebrate Craft Beer
If you’re looking to geek out over craft beer, GABF has plenty of opportunities. Join some of your favorite beer personalities as they share their stories and their brews at the Brewers Studio Pavilion. At the CraftBeer.com Pavilion, you can get interactive with your beer by talking to industry professionals, learning to taste like a beer judge, and much more. You can even plan your next beercation by talking to representatives from some of the greatest beer towns, all while sampling their local brews, at the CraftBeer.com Travel Pavilion.
Enjoy Pro Beer & Food Pairings
Experience the art of beer and food pairings from talented chefs and top brewers as they team up to tempt your taste buds and share their culinary secrets at the Beer & Food Pavilion. Whether you’re looking to create better everyday pairings or your tastes are more exotic (beer & bug pairings, anyone?) you’ll find plenty of great presentations. And yes, you will be sampling the foods and beers being discussed!
GABFs Best Kept Secret: the Protect Craft Guilds Pavilion
Do not skip the Protect Craft Guilds Pavilion, where you can talk to individuals working to promote and protect the craft beer in various states. Why is this a must stop? Obviously, these guild members have a lot to share about what’s happening in their states and regions, so you could learn a lot. But if that isn’t enough to persuade you, they’ll also be pouring some of the best beers from their state, many of which you won’t find anywhere else on the festival floor. Don’t miss out!
Exploring GABF Hangout Spots
There is no lack of great things to do at the GABF. No matter if you’re looking for good times or great beers, you should make time in your GABF agenda to visit some of the great GABF Hangout Spots. For more information on these Hangout Spots, visit the Hangout Spots page on the GABF website or look for more details in the My GABF App.
Have Some GABF Fun
Sure drinking beer is awesome, but it’s even awesomer when you pair it with friends and some fun times. Take a break from the beer booths to visit The Backyard, where you can play yard games, enjoy live music, or sing your heart out on the karaoke stage. Make sure you stop by The Backyard on Friday at 8:00 p.m. for the Festival Flair Awards to see all the best costumes at GABF! If you prefer shaking your groove thing, head to the Silent Disco and dance to your own beat to music provided in the wireless headphones. The Silent Disco also makes for some really awesome people watching even if you don’t want to dance!
Meet the Brewers Section
If you want to meet the folks behind your favorite brews, visit the Meet the Brewer section. Here you’ll be served beers from the very people who help create them. Learn more about the beers you love, get some homebrewing tips, or just show your appreciation to the hardworking brewery staff with a high-five.
The Jameson Caskmates Barrel-Aged Beer Garden New for 2018
Beer and whiskey have been paired together for centuries. This year at GABF, Jameson Caskmates Irish Whiskey is celebrating their partnership with craft beer by becoming the first spirits partner to become an official GABF sponsor. The Jameson Caskmates Barrel-Aged Beer Garden will feature Jameson brewery partners and their limited-edition Jameson barrel-aged beer in a setting that draws inspiration from their local neighborhoods. You can also meet Jameson’s Master Cooper, Ger Buckley, and talk about the importance of wood and wood selections in the aging process. Find out more at https://www.jamesonwhiskey.com/en-US/article/caskmatesgabf. Sláinte!
The Buffalo Wild Wings Sports Bar New for 2018
Buffalo Wild Wings is bringing their sports bar look and feel to GABF all weekend long with a 3,600 square foot bar where attendees enjoy craft beer, live sporting events, and of course, some delicious wings! There’s also a full schedule of Meet the Brewer events you can attend at this special Buffalo Wild Wings bar, highlighted by a Legends of Beer panel discussion, featuring brewery founders/brewmasters Kim Stone (New Belgium Brewing Company), Ken Grossman (Sierra Nevada Brewing Company) and Sam Caligione (Dogfish Head Brewery). You won’t want to miss this legendary panel, happening Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
Special Beer Sampling
Do you wish you could sample dozens of medal-winning beers from GABF and the World Beer Cup competitions all in one spot? Stop by the Heavy Medal Booth to try samples of beers recognized as some of the finest in the world. If you want a taste of what happens when great breweries team up to create something unique, visit the Collaboration Beer Competition Booth, to sample entries in GABF’s new Collaboration Competition that features two or more breweries working together on a single brew. Finally, if you want something really special and totally limited-edition, sample at the GABF Pro-Am booth, where you can try beers made by commercial breweries in partnership with great homebrewers for the GABF Pro-Am Competition.
Designated Driver Lounge & The Sunshine Suite New for 2018
GABF is proud to support all the wonderful, selfless folks who attend the festival as Designated Drivers. Each year the Designated Driver Lounge offers free non-alcoholic sodas, snacks, and a private spot to escape the festival crowds. New this year is The Sunshine Suite, a place where brewers, festival attendees, and designated drivers can go to relax, get a free chair massage, and refresh with an ice-cold can of Sunshine’s good energy. The Sunshine Suite is the perfect place to take a break from the action on the festival floor while enjoying the quintessential brewery experience with bar seating, games, and more.
Our Top 10 GABF Tips
We’ve attended GABF probably a dozen times over the years. We have seen the festival from many different viewpoints as ticked attendees, festival volunteers, and as media representatives. In addition to our advice to plan your GABF experience ahead of time, these are our tips to help you (and all of us around you) have a great GABF experience:
1. Drink lots of water. No, beer doesn’t count as water, no matter what anyone tells you. There are lots of water stations inside the festival, so use them. You’ll thank yourself later.
2. Don’t GABF on an empty stomach. Have some food in your belly before you imbibe in all that beer. There’s food available for purchase at the festival, but the best bet is to eat before so you can have a good base to help soak up all that alcohol. You can also make yourself a pretzel necklace to snack on during the session. Even small snacks like pretzels are helpful when enjoying so much beer. Plus, pretzels are a great palate cleanser between different styles of beer.
3. Don’t be afraid to use the dump bucket. With so much beer to drink, don’t waste your time on something you don’t enjoy. There is no need to take one for the team. If you end up with something you don’t like in your cup, dump it out and move on.
4. Sample beyond your comfort zone. A big beer fest like GABF is the perfect time to try something new. After all, there is no cost to just try something that sounds intriguing, so why not explore some less familiar styles? At best, you’ll find something new that you like. At worst, you’ll know for certain that you don’t like the style. Either way, at least you tried, so now you know.
5. Hit bucket list beers & breweries first. If you’re really looking forward to a particular beer or sampling a specific brewery, make it your priority to go there first. This is especially true if the brewery is very popular, the beer is very rare, or the offering is something you can’t normally find in Colorado. The most sought-after beers will run out, so prioritize, or don’t act surprised if you miss out.
6. Don’t avoid a booth because there is a line. It doesn’t take long to pour a one-ounce sample of beer, so even the longest of lines move fast. That being said, you can do your part to keep things moving by having some idea of what you want to sample, and stepping aside after your pour so that they can help the next in line. There is nothing more annoying than being behind the person who wants to sip their sample, slowly, in the front of the line, so don’t be that person.
7. Don’t avoid a booth just because there isn’t a line. As longtime volunteer pourers for GABF, we can tell you that there are a number of incredible breweries who don’t get much attention at the festival because they aren’t a well-known name. If you think a beer or beer style sounds good but don’t see a line, don’t read too much into that. Give them a try and you could find something totally awesome and underrated. If you’re not sure what to try, just ask the volunteers pouring for them. GABF Volunteers can always steer you towards some great beer recommendations.
8. Don’t be “that guy.” Everyone knows that guy (or girl) who gets some alcohol in them and turns into a total asshole. These are the folks who pretend they don’t see the line and cuts in front of everyone. They’re the ones who carelessly bump into you, hard, but never acknowledge anything happened. They are the loud, obnoxious ones, making crude comments to the volunteers and staff. These are the people who think it’s funny to knock your taster cup out of your hand, just so people will think you dropped it. Well, it’s not funny and those guys are jerks. Don’t be that guy.
9. Look out for each other. In all our years of GABF you may be surprised to know we haven’t seen too many totally intoxicated people. Most attendees are just having a good time, and know their limits. However, if you are with someone that clearly has had too much, take care of them. Take a break and get some food and water in them. If you see someone you don’t know who is clearly struggling, notify one of the GABF volunteers. Yeah, it sucks to spend your own time at the festival taking care of someone who didn’t know their own limits but do it anyway. Consider it good karma.
10. Don’t drink and drive. We want to just say “duh” here since this one seems obvious, but have a plan for how you’ll get home. If you think you’ll be responsible but you aren’t, then grab a taxi. Taxis will be available outside after all sessions.
We are looking forward to hanging out with all our fellow beer-loving friends and enjoying this festival with you. We hope this guide helps you make the most of your time inside the festival. Don’t forget, there’s also a lot of fun to be had outside of the festival. Check out our list of the best GABF Week Events that you can attend for free, even if you won’t make it to GABF.
Follow all the fun we have during the GABF on our Bottle Makes Three social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Also, know that we’ll have loads of post-GABF coverage, including which Colorado breweries won GABF medals and much more. Check back next week as we bring you news & stories from GABF.