GABF as Catalyst: Full Calendar Surrounds Country's Biggest Beer Fest

A whole universe of beer events has sprung from Denver's annual extravaganza of hops and yeast and foam, the Great American Beer Festival. There's more going on this year than ever, and that makes for a bigger economic impact on the city and some tough decisions for beer lovers.
A beer nut could go even crazier trying to decide what to do in Denver on the evening of Wed. Sept. 23, the night before the 2015 edition of the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) officially begins on Thursday.

There's Offensively DeliciousRenegade Brewing's mashup of comedy and beer, at the Oriental Theater in Berkeley.

There's also What the Funk!?, the enormously popular sour beer sub-festival from Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project at the Highlands Masonic Event Center. 

And in RiNo, Our Mutual Friend is hosting the city's fourth Beers Made By Walking, featuring beers with local ingredients the brewer often found on a hike. The lineup includes Great Divide's plum-aged sour and a pine needle-infused creation aged in bourbon barrels from Crazy Mountain.

And this is just Wednesday night.

For the week, there are wall-to-wall beer bashes. The website for the weeklong Denver Beer Fest, an initiative of Visit Denver, lists 93 distinct events.

The festival sold about $3 million worth of tickets this year, but the overall economic impact is probably triple that figure -- and growing. Outside events are a big driver.

"Only so many people can get into the venue, but the city can host all kinds of events," says Steve Kurowski, marketing director for the Colorado Brewers Guild. "It's like Jazz Fest in New Orleans or South by Southwest in Austin." 

Smaller events can show off the "fun and funky" side of the local beer culture that might get lost in the buzzed throngs at GABF proper, he says. "It's really taking off. It becomes more about the city and not just the convention center. You can come to Denver and not go to GABF and still do all sorts of badass beer stuff."

He says breweries and other groups often buy out venues like the Fillmore and Bluebird for private parties and other events."

"If you're a beer geek, this is when you have the best breweries in the country all in one place," says Kurowski. "That's pretty special."

Quaffs & guffawsBrian O'Connell, Renegade's founder, jokes during Offensively Delicious in 2014.

Laura Decker, Renegade's VP of operations, says Offensively Delicious grew from Kayvan Khalatabari, the tycoon behind Denver ReliefSexy Pizza and Sexpot Comedy, hanging out at the taproom in the Art District on Santa Fe. He invited Decker to a few comedy shows and she discovered "amazing comedy scene," thought of how funny brewers are -- especially after you've sampled a few pints of their wares -- and put two and two together for the first such show in 2014.

"We thought, 'What's a way we can get some people in front of these brewers?'" says Decker. She proposed a brewers’ comedy show to Khalatabari, who liked the idea and brought in Nikki Glaser as a headliner with local comedians filling out the bill. 

But first, and after a couple of hours of beer sampling, the brewers themselves took the stage and lobbed out a few jokes, including Brian O'Connell, Renegade's founder and president. "He's funny," says Decker, "but he's my boss so I laugh anyway." 

The inaugural show "turned out pretty well," says Decker. For 2015, 10 brewers will take the stage at the Oriental to crack wise before the pros -- including headliner Kyle Kinane -- do their thing. Proceeds go to Denver Public Library. Decker anticipates about 250 people, twice that of 2014.

While the brewery has doubled down on Offensively Delicious, Renegade is not going to GABF this year. Decker says it can be tough to stand out of the mix of more than 750 breweries at the festival itself. 

"This is the first year we won't have a booth at GABF," she says. "Last year, we felt the pains of how much GABF has grown."

The festival is in what she terms as "a transition time," and notes, "I think we will be at GABF again."

But the corollary events afford an opportunity "to get in front of people," Decker adds. "There are a lot of people around."

What the Funk!? is the popular sour beer sub-festival from Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project. Differentiate yourself

What the Funk!? has grown from about 30 breweries and 500 attendees in 2013 to 60 and 1,000 in 2015. 

"We went with Wednesday for this year to completely avoid most GABF goings-on," says Sarah Haughey of Crooked Stave. Previous iterations were held during GABF on Thursday and Friday nights, but Haughey adds, "Wednesday seemed like the safest day to hold it -- unfortunately we still overlap with Beers Made By Walking. Just too many things going on."

Haughey says the event owes its success to being different. "What the Funk!? is a celebration of all things barrel-aged and is unique in that it brings together tiny niche breweries as well as larger, more recognizable barrel-aging projects," she explains. "It is a great way to gain exposure to what barrel aging means for beer and to honor the great history of barrel aging as well as the history of these styles -- plus people get to try some pretty spectacular brews." 

Former Future Brewing Company is hosting a beer-pairing dinner at Work & Class on Mon. Sept. 21, among other events during GABF week. At the dinner, they're pouring limited releases from their sister operation, Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales, giving out-of-towners a chance at beers that are otherwise available only in Denver.

"I think it's a great opportunity to highlight what we do," says Sarah Howat, founder of the sister breweries. "At the festival, you kind of get lost in the crowd."

While Black Project has a booth at GABF this year, outside events offer a platform that's "more intimate and personal," she adds. However, with an ever-expanding universe of events, it's possible to get lost in the crowd outside GABF as well. "Differentiating yourself is going to be the key."

In the case of Beers Made By Walking, which strives for friluftsliv, Norwegian for "fresh air living," its hyper-local ingredients offer a great distinction. "It seemed like the perfect opportunity to showcase beers that had such a regional focus to them," says Eric Steen, founder of the multi-city event that debuted in Denver in 2012. "Global beer event, local theme."

Kurowski likens it to deciding between bands playing at the same time at South by Southwest. "You just gotta make a choice -- you just gotta do it."

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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