Colorado Brewers take on the world at the Great American Beer Festival

Only the dancers wearing wireless headphones can hear the live DJ’s music at the “silent disco,” sponsored by Longmont’s Oskar Blues.

Joshua Hardin

The Great American Beer Festival lives up to its name. It is the nation’s largest beer festival, with more than 60,000 people attending last year’s 35th annual event in downtown Denver. Tickets sold out in just 67 minutes. 

But for brewers, it’s more than a festival – it’s the Super Bowl of beer. Some 780 breweries from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., compete for medals in 96 categories. To win here is the ultimate victory, and Colorado’s elite brewers are more than equal to the challenge.

The reverberating sound of bagpipes heralds the start of the Great American Beer Festival at the Colorado Convention Center, sending a tidal wave of people flooding into the exhibit hall. The waiting brewers, bracing themselves behind their booths, can hear the throng coming before they can see them.

The cacophony brings a smile to Aaron Heaton’s lips. An owner of Loveland-based Grimm Brothers Brewhouse, Heaton has eagerly anticipated this event despite the toll he knows it will take on him.

To say GABF is a long week for brewers is an understatement, and it’s not just pouring beer behind their booths that’s exhausting. For many, pouring beer is the fun part. Russell Fruits, another Grimm owner, rubs his hands together as the first festival attendees materialize in front of the Grimm Brothers’ table. The bearded Fruits then launches into an expert explanation of the brews he has available.

The two people who stand before him are all smiles, yet there’s a little panic in their wide eyes. After all, there are 3,800 beers to try at GABF this year, and they only have four and a half hours to try them. Will they have enough time to taste everything they want to?
The pace is frenetic for the brewers, too. There is little time to sit down during the festival, and, indeed, very few places to do so. Dev Adams, founder of the Miss Lupulin beer blog, has put hundreds of miles on her shoes while working for various breweries at GABF. The first time she tracked her steps here, she discovered she walked nearly 40 miles during the event.

Like many other brewers here, Grimm Brothers has humble beginnings. Don Chapman and Aaron Heaton were homebrewers with a big dream that eventually blossomed into Loveland’s first brewery. Fruits joined as employee No. 1.

Taking a break from pouring beer, Heaton and Fruits can’t walk 10 feet before running into “old friends.” After a hug-it-out session and brief confab, they manage only a few more steps before the scene repeats itself. For brewers, the festival feels like a massive family reunion. 

View more photos of the Great American Beer Festival

For the rest of the story see the September/October 2017 issue of Colorado Life.


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