With over 750 breweries and more beers than one can possibly consume, picking where and what to drink at Great American Beer Festival can be a daunting task. Some say to leave all plans behind and hop on the drunken train ride that is GABF and let your instincts guide you. This is likely to result in an enjoyable, but possibly unmemorable experience (partially because you might lose your ability to recall anything that happened after your 50th one-ounce pour). On the flip side, trying to map out every beer choice could be a very robotic and systematic way to experience a festival.
For those new to GABF, finding a good middle ground between these extremes is a great way to go. Start by identifying those beers you cannot miss—preferably by befriending some incredibly knowledgeable beer-loving friends as I did—then let the rest be an exploration. Below are three beers that, after a little digging (and a lot of drinking), are the ones I found were not only delicious, but have stories worth mentioning.

Scratch Brewing—Single Tree Maple

Photo courtesy of Scratch Brewing's Facebook.

Photo courtesy of Scratch Brewing’s Facebook.

From Southern Illinois, this small brewery was named one of the best foraging breweries in the U.S. by Outside Magazine. While the idea of foraging and using local ingredients is not new, the way in which Scratch Brewing is producing its beers has many of the beer geeks I know scratching their heads. To give you context, the brewery recently debuted a special edition stein beer brewed with pink granite—yes, the igneous rock—at Beers Made By Walking. The brewers at Scratch took granite (found in the St. Francois mountains of Missouri) and fired them in a bonfire for several hours before placing them in the brew. “There’s a little bit of extra caramelization from that super high heat from when the beer touches the rock,” said Marika Josephson, owner of Scratch Brewing.

The result was a smoky-but-sour stein beer that was strange but enjoyable. This beer, however, is not going to be available at GABF. Scratch has other intensely unique beers up its sleeve, including a series of “single tree beers” which are made using everything from one tree. That includes the bark, leaves, branches and sap. For GABF, we recommend trying the Single Tree Maple because, according to Josephson, all the water in the beer was replaced entirely by sap.

Black Project—Lancer & Wine Barrel Aged Blueberry Dreamland10436270_343593979175390_3077907329956675169_n

Former Future’s owners Sarah and James Howat have been the talk of the town for their Black Project, which features wild and spontaneously fermented beers. James, who has a degree in microbiology from Colorado State University, is using his knowledge of microbes to produce beers that are fermented using yeast and particles in the air. The result is a hyper-unique beer that, due to this use of air found in Denver, has distilled the taste of an exact moment and place in time, bringing the whole concept of “local” to an entirely different plane. Try either the Lancer or the Wine Barrel Aged Blueberry Dreamland for deliciously tart beers. Even though this brewery is from Colorado, these brews are limited and marketed for out-of-state sale, therefore making it a must-do for even those that live in state.

Dogfish Head—Midas Touch

Dogfish Head's Midas Touch. Photo courtesy of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery.

Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch. Photo courtesy of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery.

For those that are GABF veterans or consider themselves beer nerds, this entry is probably not new to you. But for those that are unaware of the elaborate madness that Dogfish Head has been up to for the last 20 years, let us get you acquainted. For over a 16 years, Sam Calagione, the founder of Dogfish Head (who we just interviewed yesterday), has been teaming up with historians and bimolecular archeologists to produce a series called Ancient Ales. These beers use recipes made by analyzing the physical remnants found in archaeological sites. During GABF you can sample a beer called Midas Touch that finds its base in the residue found inside a 2,700-year-old drinking vessel from the tomb of King Midas. It’s a mellow, malty beer recommended for wine-drinkers as its not very hoppy and has a sweet side to it.

Keep in mind there are over 5,500 beers (according to last year’s numbers) at GABF, therefore this list is only a microscopic sample of what you can try. There is a vast amount of beers that have unique methods and stories behind them that are not represented (go here to read our more comprehensive list). So it is highly encouraged to take advantage of the new “Meet the Brewers” section at GABF and ask your brewer a bit about their craft. As you can see above, there’s plenty to learn.