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GABF 2017 welcomed around 60,000 attendees at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver.

The Great American Beer Festival: A Sensory Partnership

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The role of food in the overall beer experience increases in prominence at the Great American Beer Festival.
By Jeff Cioletti November 2017 Beer

Culinary pairings have become such a core element of the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), that you might as well call it the Great American Beer and Food Festival (though, admittedly, “GABFF” would be a bit of a mouthful).

The best evidence of that was the Paired pavilion, where attendees got to sample small plates matched with beers, many of which weren’t available anywhere else at the festival. Twenty-one chef/brewer pairs provided the edibles and potables and this year, one of the mini-themes that seems to have emerged was “turn off the stove.” Tuna poke has been all the rage on the mainland these days, so it was fitting to see various raw fish dishes inspired by diverse culinary traditions in the hall. The Hawaiian dish itself made an appearance in the form of spicy tuna poke with cucumber and crispy shallots from Jeremy Sewall of Boston’s Row 34. Fayetteville, Ark.’s Fossil Cove Brewing Co.’s 5th Anniversary Ale, a spicy, earthy saison-style brew held up well against the uncooked dish.

Meanwhile, Mike Friedman from Washington, D.C.’s the Red Hen and All Purpose prepared marinated tuna crudo with pickled cucumber, lemon sesame, calabrian chili aioli and toasted corn crunchies to pair with Ceremony green tea IPA from Lewiston, Maine’s Baxter Brewing Co.

The recipes weren’t limited to those from U.S.-based chefs. There were a few international players who worked their magic on some of the pairings.

César Pita from Baja California, Mexico’s Rancho Pescadero crafted a yellowtail ceviche with stone fruit, pork rind dust and fermented habanero to partner with Helio Basin Brewing Co.’s (Phoenix, Ariz.) Blackberry Wheat ale.

And London’s Tomos Parry designed a salmon tartare with barbecued cucumber and dill pickle as a companion for Nelson Crush IPA from Seattle’s Reuben’s Brews.

GABF organizer the Brewers Association, the trade organization representing America’s small brewers, launched the pairing event—which requires an additional ticket—about eight years ago at the Farm to Table Pavilion. The group rebranded it as Paired in 2015 to better reflect the direction and aim of the event.

Pairing opportunities weren’t limited to the special ticketed area, as GABF 2017 marked the third straight year that Red Robin sponsored the festival. The casual dining chain has been positioning itself as not only a place to enjoy a range of burgers, but a venue that’s in step with the craft beer revolution. Last year, the chain collaborated with Fort Collins, Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing on a brew and burger duo. The latter company created Grilled Pineapple Golden Ale to harmonize with the former’s grilled-pineapple-enhanced Banzai Burger. This year New Belgium crafted 1969 Lager, named for the year that the first Red Robin restaurant opened. The crisp bottom-fermented brew clocks in at a sessionable 4.9 percent and is meant to pair with just about any burger on the chain’s menu.

“All along we’ve been showing the marriage of burgers and brews, which is who we are,” says Red Robin beverage development manager Katie Burkle. “And who doesn’t enjoy food with beer? I think everybody likes beer, but one of the cornerstones of beer is the experiential part of it, the celebration. We like to take beer and infuse it in every aspect of the dining experience.”

New Belgium wasn’t the only brewery that the chain partnered with for its GABF presence. Red Robin worked with Boston Beer Company to develop a proprietary hop salt, incorporating Hallertau and Tettnanger hops, the same varieties used in Samuel Adams Boston Lager. GABF attendees were able to get a taste of the salt sprinkled on steak fries at Red Robin’s booth, paired with New Belgium’s 1969 Lager.

GABF also featured a series of culinary panels and demos at its annual Beer and Food Pavilion, which was included in the price of the regular tasting sessions.  

Among the standouts was a session titled “No Cook Pairings: Charcuterie, Cheese and Beer,” presented by Fred Bueltmann, aka “the Beervangelist,” former VP of brand and lifestyle at Michigan’s New Holland Brewing Co.

While pairing a variety of New Holland brews with samples salami, prosciutto and cheese, Bueltmann told the audience, “Mindfulness is the strongest tool. It’s about pausing to think about the flavors.”

GABF 2017 welcomed around 60,000 attendees at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, October 5-7. The festival returns September 20-22, 2018.