With 750-plus breweries pouring more than 3,500 concoctions at Denver's annual Great American Beer Festival (GABF), there was little need to wait in line as an endless buffet of pilsners, IPAs, stouts, and sours spanned the Colorado Convention Center floor. You might even expect the 60,000 attendees to treat the fest like a lightning round of drinking, draining one-ounce samples lickety-split. To the contrary, the GABF is filled with lines aplenty, as folks endured long queues for a rare experience.
"Festivals like GABF provide one of the few opportunities to taste so many beers that get a lot of buzz online, all in one place," says Erika Reitz, Draft magazine's editor in chief. "It's even better when the brewer is pouring; it's a chance to shake his or her hand, chat about the beer, and have the experience.
While GABF also handed out 275 medals for its beer competition, we looked to the breweries that drew the most attention to find the cream of the crop among the hundreds of options. Here are five breweries with the longest lines (that were worth the wait), and what to drink if you seek them out.
Wicked Weed Brewing (Asheville, North Carolina)
Since opening at the tail end of 2012, the North Carolina brewery — named after King Henry VIII's decree that hops were "a wicked and pernicious weed" — has become one of the country's finest dual-threat breweries, cranking out hop bombs and sour, funky revelations with equal aplomb. For each of its three facilities (production brewery, brewpub, sour-focused Funkatorium), Wicked Weed commandeered a booth, dispensing delights such as the Black Angel cherry sour, gin cocktail–inspired Coolcumber, and pungently hopped Freak of Nature imperial IPA.
What to drink: Pernicious, a bright, citrusy, and piney IPA that grabbed a silver medal at the festival.
The Rare Barrel (Berkeley, California)
Run by Alex Wallash and Jay Goodwin, a veteran of California's The Bruery, the Berkeley outfit specializes in complex sour libations, carefully inoculated with the brewery's cultures, patiently aged in oak and, finally, artfully blended with surgical precision. Unique as fingerprints, the Rare Barrel's sours merited lengthy lines for elixirs like Impossible Soul, a golden sour aged alongside tart and sweet cherries, and Another World, a red sour dosed with two strains apiece of wild Brettanomyces and souring Lactobacillus bacteria.
What to drink: The raspberry-infused Ensorcelled dark sour and Apropos of Nothing (a golden sour seasoned with lavender and elderberries), which respectively nabbed silver and bronze medals.
Lawson's Finest Liquids (Warren, Vermont)
"Within three minutes of the doors opening, there were 50 people in line for Lawson's," Chris O'Leary, editor of Brew York, told us during the festival first session. No wonder. The Vermont brewery is as small as it is cultish, turning out a collection of IPAs, stouts, and wheat ales made with locally harvested maple syrup. The beers rarely venture far from home, explaining the column of attendees waiting for an ounce of maple liquor barrel–aged Fayston Maple Imperial Stout, no-holds-barred Hopzilla double IPA, tropical Sip of Sunshine IPA, and thirst-quenching Super Session #2.
What to drink: The Sip of Sunshine IPA should be on every hop head's bucket list.
Russian River Brewing (Santa Rosa, California)
Merely whispering the words "Pliny the Elder" turns beer geeks into salivating beasts, clamoring for a taste of the benchmark double IPA by which all others are judged. Drinkers rapidly, and repeatedly, beelined to the California brewery's booth to drink Pliny and revered sours such as Supplication, which is aged in pinot noir barrels, and the lambic-inspired Beatification. But the brewery also demonstrated its deft touch with classic styles, including the chocolaty, pub-only porter and…
What to drink: STS Pils. Russian River garnered a gold medal for this European-style pilsner, an unfiltered pale lager packing a pleasing bitterness.
Dogfish Head (Milton, Delaware)
Year in, year out, Dogfish Head's unflagging founder, Sam Calagione, is stationed behind his booth, doling out tastes of his brewery's liquid wares. His presence alone is enough to explain the lengthy lines. However, Dogfish Head always delivers thought-provoking curiosities that continually expand brewing's limits. This year's attendees sampled crustacean-infused Choc Lobster, Beer for Breakfast (with maple syrup, lactose, coffee, and applewood-smoked barley), and Higher Math, a golden ale flavored with cocoa nibs and cherries. Checking in at 20 percent ABV, Higher Math, a 20th-anniversary beer (released in October) is the brewery's strongest to date.
What to drink: The Seeds, a Belgian-style farmhouse ale flavored with the roots of dandelion, chicory, and ginger, then hit with citrus-forward Pacific Northwest hops. Fingers crossed for a larger release next year.
Five more breweries worth waiting for:
Paradox Beer Company (Divide, Colorado) — Barrel-aged wild beers fermented with house-grown Brettanomyces.
Cigar City (Tampa, Florida) — The South's finest IPAs and imperial stouts.
Short's Brewing (Bellaire, Michigan) — Culinary-inspired ales that prove beer can double as dinner.
Black Project (Denver, Colorado) — Fascinating spontaneously fermented beers.
Scratch Brewing (Ava, Illinois) — Foraged, indigenous beers made from trees.