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Great American Beer Festival: Focus on pairing


This past week, I enjoyed many of the festivities of the Great American Beer Festival. As a judge, I spent all day Wednesday and Thursday (and a half-day Friday) with other judges from around the country—working to determine the best beers from all over the U.S. Each day, judges were provided with a breakfast buffet, and a delicious lunch buffet (featuring entrees made with beer) in the Marriott Hotel in downtown Denver.

The judges’ invitations ask that we select our favorite 20 beer styles that we would like to judge—from a list of 78 styles. The beer styles I was appointed to judge included: Southern German Hefeweizens, British Imperial Stouts, Specialty Honey Beers, American-style Wheat Beers, Imperial India Pale Ales, American-Belgo-style Ales, Robust Porters, and Coffee-Flavored Beers. I most enjoyed the last round of judging (coffee-flavored beers).

Typically, judges sit at tables of 6 or 7; on average, there will be one or two women at a table. For coffee-flavored beers, four women and two men chose the bronze, silver, and gold medals after two rounds of samples (about ten beers/round). As a coffee-lover, who grinds her own beans from Kansas City's The Roasterie each morning—this was a great Friday morning! This was my third year to judge, and I continue to be impressed by the skill of the people selected to assess the competition beers. The composition includes brewery owners, brewers, distributors, beer writers, sensory specialists (like myself), and brewery supply people. This year, there were 3,308 beers submitted for judging; 132 judges from 10 countries were selected to review all of these beers. We judge all beers “blindly”—we do not know what brewery has produced the beers we sample—the stewards present them to us in numerically labeled cups. The judges only learn the medal winners when they are announced to the public on the last day of the festival. It was fun to learn that Rock Bottom Brewery in Arlington, VA received the gold medal for the coffee-beer they call, “Dude, Where’s My Vespa?” 

The festival itself is held in the Colorado Convention Center; breweries from coast to coast send their beers to serve the public. This year, 2,100 beers were served to 49,000 attendees. Each attendee receives a 1 oz. sampling glass included with their ticket. Of course, no one can sample all of the beers; some people prepare lists of their top beers to taste and go through the booths systematically. The slogan of the festival is “Savor the Flavor, Responsibly.” Along with the beer sampling, there are presentations to attend. The most popular events are in the “Beer and Food Pavilion.” Here, the art of beer and food pairings is demonstrated by expert chefs and brewers—providing beer and food pairing small-plates to an audience of about 150 people. I was able to make it to “Think Local, Drink Local” featuring Free State Brewing Co. from Lawrence, KS. The head brewer, Steve Bradt, spoke about matching local produce, meats, and cheeses with craft beer from your locale. I have had the pleasure of enjoying a beer dinner at Free State. This was followed by a presentation by Randy Mosher, “Beer and Cheese: Pure Indulgence.” Other presentations included, “Pairing with Belgian and Sour Ales,” “Cooking with Beer,” “Pairing with Malty and Hoppy Beers,” and “Beers with Comfort Foods.” Another event, with a separate ticket, was “Farm to Table,” featuring Boulder chefs pairing Colorado-produced foods with beers from invited breweries, including Boulevard Brewing Co.

But, for me, the best coverage of beer and food pairing was a consumer education seminar that followed the Pink Boots Society meeting at the Denver Rock Bottom Brewpub. The first topic in the seminar encouraged the women in the Society to form local clubs to teach women about beer & food pairings, modeled after the Ales 4 Females club started at Left Hand Brewing Co. (Boulder)—with monthly meetings and “small bites” paired with beers. Then, two women from Cambridge Brewing Co. (Massachusetts) shared their experience in preparing menus for beer dinners—offering those present examples of menus they had presented with beers from different breweries.

Clearly, the focus on beer and food education continues to receive prominence at the Great American Beer Festival.

Not only does Charlie Papazian, Great American Beer Festival founder, write for, but we have dozens of other craft beer experts covering hops and barley. Follow their coverage throughout September of one of the world's largest beer festivals. Click here for Charlie’s take on beer, GABF articles and details on how you can win tickets to the festival!