Back at the Great American Beer Festival

On Oct. 8, at the awards ceremony at the 35th annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper surprised founder Charlie Papazian with a giant replica of the GABF’s coveted gold medal.

The moment was greeted with raucous rounds of laughter and applause, as Papazian strutted around the stage, where he’d soon hand out coveted bronze, silver and gold medals to winning breweries in 96 beer categories, covering 161 beer styles and subcategories.

Some 60,000 attendees could sample from 3,500 beers from as many as 800 breweries that arrived from all over the U.S. to pour during four tasting sessions, Oct. 6-8 at the Colorado Convention Center.

Among the winners, Trump Hands Session IPA from Colorado’s Cannonball Creek Brewing managed to grab a gold medal while eliciting whoops and hollers, confirming it is an election season ready-made for satirical beer names.

Only two Georgia breweries brought home medals. Atlanta’s Max Lager’s won a bronze medal in the American-Style Sour Ale category for brewer John Robert’s Excommunication, Forte Cerise. And Alpharetta’s Jekyll Brewing won a silver medal in the German-Style Maerzen category for brewer Josh Rachel’s Seven Bridges Oktoberfest.

Not surprisingly, North Carolina breweries were the biggest winners from the Southeast, with 17 medals. Asheville’s Wicked Weed won a silver in the Belgian-Style Blonde Ale or Pale Ale category for its Lunatic, and drew some of the longest lines anywhere during the tasting sessions.

My earliest and fondest memories of GABF are from 2002, when Atlanta’s SweetWater won Small Brewing Company of the Year and Terrapin won a gold medal for its very first beer, Rye Pale Ale.

But this was my first time back in Denver for the festival since 2011, when the 30th anniversary brought together an impressive group of craft beer founders for a historic celebration.

From that perspective, a few more takeaways from the 2016 Great American Beer Festival:

One of the fastest-growing cities in America, Denver is a bona fide boom town, with a growing tech economy, an influx of newcomers, buildings and breweries going up everywhere, and a highly visible marijuana trade.

All that energy seems to spill over into an event that feels younger, livelier and more crowed than ever. And the aromas of hops and pot seem to permeate the Rocky Mountain high atmosphere.

Beyond the Convention Center, tap takeovers and tastings at bars, restaurants and other venues offered some of the best beer samples.

Spiegelau presented its newest glassware, specially designed for barrel-aged beers developed in partnership with the brewmasters from Great Divide in Denver, Green Flash in San Diego, Uinta in Salt Lake City, and Cigar City in Tampa.

Sponsored by Pints for Prostates, the Denver Rare Beer Festival offered a small-scale venue with exotic and vintage beers, and the chance to rub elbows with legendary craft brewers such as Tomme Arthur of Lost Abbey and Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn, all for a good cause.

Oh, and it didn’t matter much what beer you were drinking when the Falcons beat the Broncos at Mile High Stadium on the Sunday after the festival. But I managed to watch football over the weekend at a bar where Georgia-grown Creature Comforts and SweetWater beers were on tap.

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