A tale of two festivals: Lotte Peplow (pictured centre above) shares her experience of the world’s two greatest beer festivals.

 Around 40 years ago, two brewing legends Charlie Papazian, founder and past president of the Brewers Association (the not-for-profit trade body representing small and independent American craft brewers), and the late beer writer Michael Jackson, visited the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) and shared a vision for  a similar event  in the USA. This was 1982, when the craft beer boom had hardly begun, but Charlie was so inspired he created the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in his home town of Boulder, Colorado. Both festivals are highlights of the beer world in their respective countries and share a passion for beer from independent producers. They continue to innovate and evolve, but just how similar, or different, is the American version compared to the British festival.

Organised by the Brewers Association and now in its 37th year, GABF takes place in Denver, Colorado every late September/early October.  A gargantuan monster of a festival, it attracts 62,000 visitors over three days and pours over 4,000 beers from 800 breweries.  Taking place in a huge, cavernous convention centre the size of eight football pitches, GABF is mind-blowing, overwhelming and so vast that it’s impossible to sample even a fraction of the beers on offer.

Unlike GBBF, it operates an all-in ticket policy (costing $85, about £65) including all the beer you can drink in a 4½ hour session BUT the sample size is only 1oz (about 30ml)!  For ‘hot’ new beers and the most popular breweries, queues form immediately and continue all session.  Dedicated beer lovers wait patiently for their 30ml pour only to return to the back of the queue for more! Woe betide anyone who drops their acrylic tasting cup as they are met with a loud cheer from the crowd, just like at GBBF!

Pretzel necklaces are absolutely de rigeur at GABF, the bigger and more creative the better!  Friday is dress-up day whereupon the venue transforms into a sea of outrageous outfits, flamboyant costumes and vibrant colours with red, white and blue to the fore!  With around 17,000 people per session, the noise can reach ear-splitting levels but sanctuary can be found in the Silent Disco where the less inhibited can strut their funky stuff using a pair of wireless headphones.

Tucked to one side  of GABF is PAIRED a showcase of celebrated chefs teamed together with small and independent craft brewers to demonstrate beer’s ability to shine from the tap to the table.  In an intimate setting away from the festival hall, 26 chefs and 26 brewers collaborate together to devise 52 unique pairings of gastronomic delicacies with equally special or rare craft beers.

There are plenty of other food options within the hall but new for this year was a sports bar  giving away, yes, giving away, FREE chicken wings to anyone and everyone all festival! Visitors could kick back, enjoy their wings paired with American craft beer and watch their favourite team in action on TV.

Also new for this year at GABF was the Jameson Caskmates Barrel-Aged Beer Garden.   Almost like a festival within a festival, it featured 17 small and independent Jameson craft brewery partners and their limited-edition Jameson barrel-aged beers.

As with GBBF, GABF is staffed by volunteers, all 4,086 of them, who also have a hand in the smooth running of the GABF competition, the world’s largest commercial beer competition, comprising 8,498 beers from 2,404 breweries who vied for brewing excellence in 102 different categories and were judged by 293 judges from 13 different countries.  To say this competition is bigger than Champion Beer of Britain would be the understatement of the year!

There are talks and tastings at GABF, live music and backyard games, merchandise and a homebrew marketplace showcasing a wide range of goods, services and equipment for keen homebrewers.

But unlike GBBF, there are no international breweries present and all 800+ of them are from within the USA.   It’s easy to see why – opening the global beer doors would require a huge increase in space that simply doesn’t exist.  GBBF now allows wine, gin, cider, perry and speciality coffee bars. There’s no such nod to beverage diversity at GABF where beer from independent craft brewers reigns supreme!  Both festivals offer a selection of Gluten-free and non/low alcoholic beers and GABF even has a designated driver section.  GBBF allows take-home purchases and, with cans now  an acceptable packaging format at the Festival, this becomes a more a practical solution for transporting beers home (or enjoying them on the train!).  Try and exit GABF with a bottle tucked into your rucksack and you will soon be stopped!

To pick a favourite is very difficult.  Both Festivals have their pros and cons but they are united by a passion for great beer from independent brewers and long may that continue. Cheers!

Full disclosure:  Lotte Peplow attended the Great American Beer Festival as a guest of the Brewers Association.


By: Lotte Peplow, a member of  Richmond & Hounslow branch, beer sommelier and beer writer. She is the UK/Europe representative for the Brewers Association.

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