The Great American Beer Festival Survival Guide

Pulling off a successful beer festival experience takes special advance planning. If you’re headed to The Great American Beer Festival, here’s how to maximize your trip.

Illustration © Greg Kletsel, excerpted from The Beer Geek Handbook

Beer festivals, when done right, are the ultimate experiences for Beer Geeks. They offer the opportunity to try new beers, connect with fellow Beer Geeks, and network with brewers and brewery reps. And the ability to try a massive number of beers while still maintaining one’s geekiness is an art that must be mastered by every Beer Geek.

The Great American Beer Festival is the granddaddy of all the beer festivals and occurs every year in Denver. While not an intimate affair by any means, it affords the Beer Geek the opportunity to taste beer from more than 700 breweries and must be attended at least once in a Beer Geek’s lifetime. Pulling off a successful festival experience takes special advance planning. Use the following tips to help maximize your trip to the world’s greatest beer spectacle.


Preparation starts in July when the tickets go on sale. Tickets are sold over two days, the first being limited to an American Homebrewers Association (AHA) member presale. The presale is essential because the sale to the general public sells out almost immediately, allowing only the fastest CAPTCHA code typers through. Membership with the AHA runs around $40 but comes with all sorts of other advantages, from discounts at almost every US brewery to a subscription to Zymurgy to reduced GABF ticket prices. Be sure to sign up for your AHA membership at least a week prior to the presale date to ensure processing time. Once you have your tickets, you can start planning in earnest:

1. Decide which session(s) you are attending:

  • Thursday evening: Many Beer Geeks’ favorite. The crowd is limited to those serious enough to take Friday off from work. Additionally, as the first session, all beers are guaranteed to be available.
  • Friday evening: A respectable session, especially for those who can’t weasel the day off from work. Has the benefit of allowing better strategizing, since the pour lists at most breweries are posted by then on the GABF website. Most beer still available.
  • Saturday afternoon: Also known as the Member’s Session as it is limited to only AHA members. Attendance is capped at a lower number, and the brewer or brewery rep is pouring the beer at most booths. This session has a decidedly more sophisticated air. The tasting glasses are made from actual glass rather than plastic, and many breweries reserve special beer selections just for this occasion. The most popular choice of Beer Geeks.
  • Saturday evening: A drunken shitshow. The domain of roving packs of bros and convicts. Notorious for not having any of the decent beer left. Most brewers and brewery reps have left the building by this session. Avoided by Beer Geeks.

2. Determine your length of stay. The entire week prior to the festival plays host to a ridiculous number of beer events throughout town. It’s a Beer Geek fantasy land. Plan to stay for as much of it as you can afford.

3. If traveling from out of town, begin booking flights and hotel rooms as early as possible. Downtown lodging is expensive and goes very quickly; however, the saving grace is Denver’s clunky light rail system with its stop right at the Convention Center. This allows attendees to look for non-downtown hotels with easy access to this transportation system to save a bit of money.

4. During the months leading up to the event keep your eyes peeled to the interwebs for brewery lists, pour lists, and the floor plan. Develop a priority list and map. Commit it to memory and have your significant other regularly quiz you. Warily utilize the Brewer’s Association GABF app, which has had a shaky-at-best (both signal and operation) performance in the past.

The Day Arrives

On the day of the festival, you have two choices. The first is to arrive two hours early to get in the front of the line. Experience has shown, however, that this will gain you only about 20 extra minutes inside. The other option is to show up around ten minutes prior, and while the length of the line (which wraps around a city block) is a terrifying sight, it moves unexpectedly fast. Whichever you choose, while waiting eat approximately a pound of cheese to slow alcohol absorption. Then you’ll be ready:

1. Once inside, take just a moment to absorb the insane size of the festival.

2. Stick to that priority list, and maintain the willpower to not be led astray.

3. Once the list is achieved, get a bite to eat at one of the various food outlets. Then use the rest of the time to visit random breweries, meet fellow Beer Geeks, and generally be happily reminded of why you became a geek in the first place.

4. The bathroom line is startlingly long but moves quickly. Get a barleywine to sip on, and have patience.

5. Once last call is made, beeline it out of the festival to beat the masses to wherever it is you’re going (taxi stand, light rail, Falling Rock barstool, etc.).


Patrick Dawson

Patrick Dawson

About the Author

Patrick Dawson is an award-winning beer writer, an avid homebrewer, a BJCP beer judge, and a general lover of all things beer. He is the author of The Beer Geek Handbook and Vintage Beer, and has written for DRAFT Magazine, Zymurgy, All About Beer Magazine, Craft Beer & Brewing, and multiple other publications.

Learn more about this author

Related Books

Featured Titles