It's seven on a Friday night and the scene around the Deschutes Brewery pub is one of controlled chaos. People from Bend and beyond line up to try some of the new brews off the pilot system, including a smoked gose, a sour Belgian-style quadruple ale, and a variant of Black Butte Porter aged in barrels from Bendistillery. A pretty typical weekend evening on Bond Street, in other words. Except something's off. None of the bar staff seems to be asking for any money. They're only giving people one-ounce pours. The crowd this evening is only slightly smaller than the entire population of Bend. Also, we're in Colorado.
It can mean only one thing: The 2015 Great American Beer Festival is here. Originally launched in 1982, GABF now encompasses most of the cavernous Colorado Convention Center in Denver, welcoming 60,000 visitors across three days and four sessions. Unlike in Oregon, where admission to beerfests is usually free but you must purchase tokens to get beer samples, your GABF ticket gives you access to one four-hour session, a free tasting glass, and as many samples as your liver/bladder will let you try.
"There's nothing quite like it," said Lindsay Landgraf of Worthy Brewing, whose booth is nestled in among the rest of Oregon and Washington's breweries in the Pacific Northwest section. "The scope is really just enormous. You get people from around the world visiting, and these are exactly the kind of people who like to travel and visit breweries as they do, so it's a great way to get noticed."
More than 800 brewers and 3,500 beers are available at GABF, including macros like Bud and Miller and also places as far-flung as Key West, Florida, and Fargo, North Dakota. Long lines can form for breweries with a lot of beer-nerd cred—Vermont-based Lawson's, for example, or Florida's Funky Buddha Brewery—but the sheer size of the show means you're never more than a moment away from a booth with no line, three or four invitingly full pitchers, and a story from some far-flung state.
Take Southern Prohibition Brewing, occupying one of the rotating "Meet the Brewers" booths at GABF's Thursday night session. Based in the southern Mississippi town of Hattiesburg, SoPro was founded in 2013—just after the state legislature finally legalized homebrewing, the last state to do so.
"Things are a little different from the Pacific Northwest," said SoPro head brewer Benjamin Green. "One time, we brewed a barrel-aged barleywine that we couldn't sell in Mississippi because by the time we were done aging it, it tested at 11.4 percent alcohol. The state set the cap at 10.2 percent. We wound up having to sell it in Louisiana instead, and they sure appreciated it over there. We've got a really supportive audience at home, which is great, but things are still only just beginning to ramp up."
It's the combination of the show's size, the chill, spread-out vibe, and the discoveries to find around every corner that makes GABF such a must-visit. If you do, though, try to resist the urge to camp out in the Oregon section and beam with pride as our local breweries get mobbed. Central Oregon definitely brought its A game to the show, with Deschutes bringing out ten or so pub-exclusive beers, Bend Brewing slinging out Ching Ching and Salmonberry Sour like it was going out of style, and Boneyard offering festival-goers a one-two punch with RPM and the Notorious triple IPA.
"It's probably kind of a cliché at this point to say this or that IPA is the best I've ever had," commented Trevor Johnson, a beer-store manager visiting GABF from the Colorado mountain town of Frisco. "But RPM is one damn fine IPA."