The Fest within Fest: GABF’s Fantastic Food Sideshow

Within three hours of flying into Denver for the Great American Beer Festival, I witness someone nearly choke to death. “Don’t fucking give him the heimlich! He’s taking in air!” yells the guy at the bar next to me. The hostess speed dials 9-1-1 as the poor bastard horks air, bent over like a jackknife, drooling like a bloodhound. The chef, hearing the commotion from kitchen lumberjack-pounds the guy on the back. “He’s choking worse than John Elway in the 1990 Super Bowl,” I say, desperate to use humor to lighten the situation. He holds his curly hair under the bar, making one last gasp as the chef jabs at his back. He must have hit just the right spot, as a distinct splatter-noise on the ground precedes the sound of his lungs filling with air.

The girl next to me at the bar goes back to checking her phone.

“I’m okay…water just went down the wrong pipe,” he says, stroking moisture down his beard with a purple face, dripping with sweat and embarrassment. His buddy plops down a fifty at the bar as they collect themselves and leave in a hurry. “Thankfully I didn’t have to see a motherfucker die right before GABF,” I say to the bartender. “Indeed,” he says, polishing a glass nonchalantly, “I’d hate to see him choke on something substantial, like an empanada or something,” he continues.

As the scene of the crime is cleaned up, I think back to every year I head to this 60,000 person four-day beer event, and this is the first pseudo-barf I’ve bared witness to, and it happened at my first-stop go-to. You see, I always stop in The Kitchen Denver and order the lamb burger before the Great American Beer Festival. This practice started around five years ago, the time I sat next to Dave Chichura, the “HBIC” of Oskar Blues Brewery at the time and split some littleneck clams over canned beers and fishing stories. The burger, dolloped with roasted red pepper relish and bitter greens, is a call to Denver, and more importantly, a great base to lay before drinking fifty-or-so one-ounce beer samples.

Back to the splatter at hand, my appetite has completely vanished. Good thing too. I scored a Farm to Table Pavilion ticket inside the GABF for tonight. Think for a second about the odds of getting a ticket to GABF that sells out in minutes, then nabbing an elusive ‘Paired’ ticket. It’s a fest inside the fest, except filled with award-winning beers paired with chef-driven food. It’s a genuine Wonka golden ticket moment.

I leave half of my lamb burger uneaten, slam the rest of my Blind Pig and walk straight to the Colorado Convention Center a few minutes walk away for press credentials. Denver’s fall gusts sweep me down the busy 16th street mall towards the giant blue bear on 14th and Stout. I wonder if anyone has a beer named 14th and Stout.

“I’m not going to fuck it up like I did last year,” I say to the press booth gals, recounting the side-trip I took to Fort Collins that took eight hours instead of two. “A crane fell over the goddamn freeway causing a backup for miles…some drunk guy on our bus peed out of the bus window.” This year, ‘Paired’ is my bitch. Badge around neck, I speed walk through the empty hall to get my appetite back. The fest starts in fifteen minutes and once filled, can often take a half-hour to get from one side to the next.

The scene at GABF


The Great American Beer Festival is exactly how it sounds. Four sessions of the event sold in a measly thirty-two minutes; 60,000 tickets in all. 3,900 beers are poured. There’s the American Cheese Society, there’s a silent disco led by wireless headsets…then there’s Paired…the Farm to Table event inside the festival costs an additional $140 per person – 22 tables in all. The area’s best chefs are paired with award-winning breweries to create one of the best food festivals in America. The only catch is that it’s hidden inside the festival, and not a two-day event in downtown Denver.

Denver itself buzzes during GABF. With beer events from 8 AM til 2 AM daily, one doesn’t need to even bother with the festival. Just show up and get crazy at the many walkable breweries, taprooms, and brewpubs. My short list includes places like The Source, Prost Brewing, TRVE Brewing, Falling Rock Tavern, and Star Bar. If weed is your thing, it’s legal.

Just like the fat kid running to the lunch line in junior high, I’m the first guy at the Paired Pavilion. A brief memory of raspberry coconut zingers and fruit punch-stained lips flashes through my head. I was totally that dork. Crazy to see thirty years later I’m still that kid, now entrenched in the beer world doing the same shit, except now it’s a Raspberry Berliner Weisse from DESTIHL Brewing or a coconut porter from Maui Brewing Co.

I do have to admit, I’m a cynic when it comes to big food/beer pairing taste events like this. Out of the twenty-two tables set out today, I bet seven will be some kind mediocre slider with way too much bun. Four will be some kind of poke/wagyu/whatever on a partially stale chip. The rest? A plastic salsa cup with pork belly, short rib or some other wild game some hip new chef shot in the wild, cleaned and rubbed with granny’s famous ten-spice blend. Bonus points if there’s some duck confit, terrine, or foie. At basically $10 a table, anything is possible.

In before the beer-soaked horde, it’s fun to watch chefs putting the final touches on food prep. Beer bottles at each station are poking their necks out of coolers looking like refreshed kids at a public pool…perhaps saying, “hey guys, what’s going on inside this GABF?”. The hall smells vaguely like bacon amid the high ceilings. I circle the hall quickly and see where to drop anchor first, then chuckle as my statement quickly turns into a stupid pun.

Two guys, possibly twin brothers in their forties unload a mesh bag of oysters on a bed of dark, moist seaweed right in front of me. I pause and admire the avalanche of oysters falling from the bag, mouth agape and salivating. The twin with sideburns grabs an oyster from the pile, shucks it like a pro, and slides it over to me on a black cocktail napkin, grinning. Without saying a word, I sip the liquor off the top, tilt the shell back and chew it up…naked. My GOD. Do I whip out my phone to take a photo? Do I ask for another? What’s the fucking beer pairing, man? Who knew my first sip of liquor inside the GABF would be sweet and briny oyster juice?

The table sign reads, “Triple Rye IPA paired with Marin Miyagi Oysters on the Half Shell.” I grin and nod, thinking the pairing is a joke. “Pairing contains shellfish, hahahah!” I snicker. “A Triple Rye IPA paired with oysters? Who the fuck does that?” I say to myself just a little bit too loud. “I know, right?” replies the beer rep, batting her lashes with a grin.

Is she implying that the pairing might possibly be terrible? Does she know if it’s crazy good? As I witnessed the bag opening, I assume she doesn’t actually know…right? I’ve had oysters with fresh Guinness off the coast of County Clare, Ireland. I’ve had oysters with a light and spritzy Prosecco in Ortica. I’ve even had oysters with an old-fashioned cocktail in New Orleans. These experiences makes my mind race. Wherever this brewery is from, do they prefer 125 IBU palate-wreckers to wash down a delicate bivalve?

Tom Montgomery, partner at Monterey Fish Market in San Francisco, turns the key and unlocks the second Miyagi shell, scooting it my way for another slurp. I’ve always found that eating oysters is like kissing someone for the first time. With beer? It’s like kissing someone for the first time while drinking beer, which makes it exponentially more titillating.

The first oyster a mere peck, my goal for number two is to get to second base. I lick my lips and bite the corner of my lower lip while lifting up the marbled-patina shell and attempt to make eyes with the palm-sized creature. Edging closer, I admire its plump-pearlescent body shining back, eyes now crossed as I sip the liquor off the top and swish it around my mouth. My salivary glands burst, then take the slightest sip of beer to chase: rye spice, sweet malts, juicy hops and salty oyster brine flavors combine as I swallow…eyes rolling, licking my teeth clean.

I pour a little bit of the beer into the deep oyster shell, replacing the brine now in my belly. I give a nod to the beer rep and slurp it back without hesitation; somehow maintaining awkward eye contact.

Around oyster number eleven, a line starts forming behind me, so I grab one more, just to be sure I understand the pairing. Should I feel guilty? This is a $200 event after all. Miyagi oysters are firm, yet slick, sort of like actor Pat Morita. Are these oysters named after the Karate Kid? Their slick texture waxes on and waxes off a subtle melon-cucumber note with a slight metallic twang; similar to tasting a Moscow mule in a copper mug. Sea salt washes over my memory, causing a good three-second daydream of duck-diving a wave while surfing back home. Before gulping it down, I add one last sip of the IPA to the cement-mixer that is my mouth and pause with the Denver sunset suddenly blinding me outside the thirty-foot tall glass windows.

With the dozen complete, I somehow utter the words, “Spitters are quitters,” to the stranger next to me in line while tossing the shell in a trashcan. “Triple IPA and oysters, what the hell?” they reply. I down the rest of the beer and say, “I know, right?”

With twenty-one tables to go, there’s food to eat, and beers to drink. The thought of joining the 14,999 person roar outside in the fest hall sounds like torture. With three more sessions, I’ll hit it tomorrow.

As for the typical slider with too much bun, stuff on a stale chip, 2oz cup full of stuff with a toothpick type of food festival, there was plenty of that to be had, but overall done well. Things like smoked brisket sausage, green curry duck pastrami, and just a table full of Cypress Grove cheeses make this event worth it. Not only did I get a chance to slurp a dozen oysters, where else can you check out what twenty-two gastropubs in America are up to all in one spot?

Greg Nagel is the booze writer at OrangeCoast Magazine and the founder of the Firkfest Cask Beer Festival. He also is part of the Four Brewers Podcast.