Cary Ross from Chicago attends the Great American Beer Festival at the Colorado Convention Center on Oct. 3, 2019, in Denver. While the in-person event is canceled in 2020, fans can still participate virtually and at breweries around the country. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

Under normal circumstances, you could expect to drop $170 for a pair of tickets to the Great American Beer Festival, which usually takes place in Denver each year around early October.

This year being entirely abnormal, you can expect to spend $20 to experience GABF — remotely — taking advantage of buy-one-get-one and other beer specials at 1,100 breweries across the country.

In its 39th year, GABF has gone entirely virtual, offering an online “passport” to attendees who pay $20 to access discounts at participating breweries now through Oct. 18. The specials vary by brewery and include delivery and to-go purchases, taproom sales, merchandise and other offers.

“It’s our first and, hopefully, last virtual festival,” said Ann Obenchain, marketing director for the Boulder-based Brewers Association, which organizes GABF. “It’s certainly been more accessible both to breweries … as well as to the beer lover who hasn’t been able to travel.”

While GABF and related spending generated around $35 million last year for the local economy, according to Visit Denver, this year’s sales will go directly to breweries.

More than half of the 1,100 breweries involved in GABF this year are first-time participants, Obenchain said, and 146 breweries are taking part just in Colorado.

“We wanted to provide as much flexibility to breweries as possible,” Obenchain said. “Small businesses are struggling right now, and showing some love and support for craft breweries would be great.”

Chicha Morada from Dos Luces Brewery on June 21, 2019. The Peruvian root beer is made from purple corn, fruit, spices and sugar. Chicha is a beer brewed from corn and one of Dos Luces’ specialties. (Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)

Judd Belstock is the co-owner and brewer of Dos Luces on South Broadway. He has participated in-person at GABF for the past two years since his 100-barrel brewhouse first opened. And he says he has spent around $2,000 to do so each year, between labor, beer and entry fees. So participating this year with the new format and a $50 price tag? “It was definitely a no-brainer.”

“Even if no one (showed up), I would pay $50 just to support the Brewers Association,” Belstock said. But since the 18-day festival kicked off over the weekend, he’s seen a number of GABF passport holders come through the taproom.

Dos Luces is offering a $10 flight of four tasters for GABF pass-holders, which means drinkers can try Belstock’s various chichas and pulques — both corn-based and gluten-free, incidentally.

Belstock will take the taproom business while he can during GABF and ahead of winter. Before the shutdown last March, 99% of his business came from Dos Luces’ own taps. So within two weeks of closing, he started bottling beer, and by August, he began distributing in half a dozen Whole Foods locations. As a result, August sales were almost as high as a year prior.

“Between the various aid packages … we’re holding some cash back to try to survive under the expectation that business will (stay) somewhere in the 50-70% range of what it was before,” Belstock said, based on his numbers starting in June, when the taproom reopened.

As of this month, across the country, year-over-year craft beer sales are still down by 5-10%, according to the Brewers Association. But the industry’s smallest breweries, like Dos Luces, which rely primarily on keg and taproom sales, have been hit the hardest. Without bottling or canning beers, their numbers are likely down by around 30% heading into fall.

And while alcohol sales are up year-over-year at liquor stores and grocery stores, beer isn’t flying off the shelves quite like spirits and wine are, the Brewers Association reports.

Obenchain and others in the industry hope continuing festivals like GABF in some fashion will bring some light to the struggling craft beer community. Starting Friday and lasting through Oct. 17, Denver Beer Week also will host events at breweries around town. And after two weeks of beer mania, on Oct. 16, the annual GABF Awards will be announced — “like the Emmys but for beer,” Obenchain said. Virtual tastings, talks and seminars will follow throughout the final GABF weekend.

“So there’s some opportunities to learn about what’s happening in the craft beer community as well as just enhancing your brewing knowledge,” Obenchain said, adding, “I would encourage beer lovers to tap into that spirit of the festival. Grab your costumes, grab your friends — but no more than 10 — grab a passport and go and visit all these fantastic breweries in Denver and on the Front Range.”

Wynkoop bartender Anne Schrader pours two glasses of Wynkoop beer on tap for a customer at Wynkoop Brewing Co. on September 29, 2016. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)

GABF participating breweries around Denver

These breweries are offering buy-one-get-one specials, free pours, discounts and more for GABF passport holders. Find more information and buy a passport at greatamericanbeerfestival.com.

10 Barrel Brewing Co

Baere Brewing Company

Banded Oak Brewing Company

Black Sky Brewery

Blue Tile Brewing

Bruz Beers

Bruz Off Fax

Call to Arms Brewing Company

Comrade Brewing Company

Copper Kettle Brewing Company

Crooked Stave Denver

Denver Beer Co

Diebolt Brewing

Dos Luces Brewing

Epic Brewing Co.

Factotum Brewhouse

Fiction Beer Company

FlyteCo Brewing

Great Divide Brewing Co

Great Divide Barrel Bar

Gruvi

Jagged Mountain Brewery

Mockery Brewing

Odell Brewing Company (RiNo)

Prost Brewing

Raíces Brewing Co

Ratio Beerworks

River North Brewery (Blake Street)

River North Brewery (N. Washington St.)

Station 26 Brewing Co

Strange Craft Beer Co

The Empourium Brewing Company

Tivoli Brewing Company

Woods Boss Brewing Company

Wynkoop Brewing Company

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