Don’t Panic: A craft drinker’s guide to the Great American Beer Festival

An overwhelming 4,000 beers spread out over 600,000 square feet might send even the most seasoned craft beer nerd into cold sweats — let alone us Average Janes. The key to navigating Denver’s Great American Beer Festival is simple: Accept that there’s no way you’ll be able to drink everything (without a trip to the hospital), and — above all — don’t panic. For all the other must-know details, we wrote you this handy Great American Beer Festival guide.

We’ve attended GABF off and on for a decade. (We know, hard to believe we were old enough to drink 10 years ago!) And in that time, we’ve jotted down some notes, a few of which are actually legible. Whether you’re a beer snob or a total noob, our guide gives you critical info on the best days to attend, how to score extra pours, where to fuel up pre-fest and more.

Apologies in advance to your livers.

great american beer festival guide
WARNING – the lighting at the Convention Center is NOT ideal for selfies.

Before the Great American Beer Festival:

How to buy GABF tickets

It’s not intuitive. General sales start in early August. But to be sure you get access to the best sessions, sign up for an American Homebrewers Association membership by mid-July. (You have to opt into their emails for this to work.) For the $38 fee you get:

  • Early access to tickets during a pre-sale 
  • The ability to buy up to six tickets per membership for three general sessions
  • The ability to buy up to two tickets to the members-only session Saturday afternoon. (More on why that’s worth it later.)

The festival regularly sells out, so getting online right when the pre-sale tickets are released is your safest bet. Check event FAQs for more deets.

The best days to go

There are four, 3.5-hour sessions during the Great American Beer Festival. Thursday night is one of our faves because it draws more dedicated beer lovers and the brewers haven’t had time to run out of anything. The other key session is Saturday afternoon. Brewers tap special beers and, since the awards are announced that morning, you can sample the medal winners in all your favorite styles. Saturday night, is the one sesh we avoid. Yeah, it’s a party, but it’s also amateur hour.

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Where to stay and how to get there

Ya’ll don’t even KNOW how good you have it. The Denver airport used to be a pricey cab ride or 2-hour shuttle away. These days, a new light rail takes you right to the heart of downtown. At the terminal just outside the airport, buy a $10.50 ticket that’s good for Denver’s public transit all day. Hop on the A-Train to Union Station you’re there in 20.

The most obvious — and closest — places to crash during the Great American Beer Festival are the LoHi or Ballpark neighborhoods. Each is an easy walk to the convention center and surrounding events. Three other areas to consider:

  • River North: An arts district, this area is home to some of Denver’s coolest venues and hip new restaurants. 
  • Cap Hill: Old school neighborhood with everything you need nearby and easy access to the 16th Street Mall Ride (which takes you nearly to the Convention Center).
  • Highlands: A bit farther out but still walkable, this area packs a lot into a little neighborhood just across the South Platte River.

More info on Denver neighborhoods here.

During the Great American Beer Festival:

great american beer festival guide
Look at all these dummies not drinking!

Put down a base layer

Yes, there’s food in the Convention Center. (You can even snag tickets to PAIRED, a special section where top chefs cook up beer-inspired dishes.) But every minute you spend eating is less time drinking. Restaurants around the Convention Center are often packed just before the sessions start. To grab a fast, homegrown bite close to the event, check out:

great american beer festival guide
My sweet boyfriend agreeing to go all Cochella for a photo.

But still pack a snack

A hallmark of the Great American Beer Festival is the pretzel necklace. But, honestly, that’s a little basic. Get adventurous. String anything with a hole in it around your neck and wear it into the event for on-the-go snacking. We saw tons of creative takes on snack necklaces.

What worked: String cheese, popcorn, individually wrapped beef jerky, mini bagged chips, and big Cheez-Its

What didn’t: Individually wrapped candy bars (they melted)

*Random tip: They’ll let you bring food in if it’s on your necklace, but Maloney got busted trying to bring in half a bag of pretzels. (Yeah, we don’t get it either.) Also, empty plastic water bottles are cool, but they made me throw away my metal one… and it was my favorite.

great american beer festival guide
Assuming they’re dressed as beer drinkers three favorite food groups?

The best costume for the day

GABF is a mix between Oktoberfest and Comic Con for beer nerds. People get into it. Hop crowns, lederhosen, capes and viking helmets — anything goes. Get in the spirit with something festive. 

Just be sure your costume includes walking shoes and sunblock. The line to get in wraps all the way around the Convention Center, which is a huge city block. Plus, you’ll be crisscrossing the 600,000 square feet all session. 

great american beer festival guide

Drinking strategies

Like we said, you won’t get to taste everything, but you can still taste the best things. Here are a few strategies for making the most of your session(s).

  • Double fist: You get a new tasting glass each session. Bring Thursday’s cup to Saturday’s sesh and get two pours at the front of the line.
  • Sample by state: They reorganized booths in 2018 so you can no longer taste by region. Fortunately, state brewers guilds bring a sampling of the best from each state to their booths. (And they’re all packed together.)
  • There’s an app: We’ve had middling success using the My GABF app, but it does provide an early peek at the 800+ breweries at the fest and what they’re pouring if you like to plan ahead.
  • Medal detectors: Saturday afternoon, the awards are announced. So look for gold, silver and bronze stickers on booth beer menus to taste winners. (The app also updates with winners, if your connection is good.)
  • Drink independently: A lot of craft breweries are being bought out by big name corporations. But, many of the truly little guys are getting certified independent, noted by the seal seen here.
  • Non-fest festing: Don’t forget, some of the hottest tickets in town happen outside the Convention Center. Taprooms and beer halls across the city put on beer dinners, tap takeovers and other special events. The city even tracks them
great american beer festival guide

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