Food & Drink

What it's like to volunteer at the Great American Beer Festival

Great American Beer Festival samples
Rebecca Feder

Volunteer work is noble, but cleaning your town's leech-infested river can be a bit of a slog. Signing up to volunteer at the Great American Beer Festival is an entirely different story. Each year, the massive meeting of beer minds relies on thousands of volunteers to greet guests, assist in merchandise, and, of course, pour brews. We spoke to Barry Buckley, the volunteer floor manager who's been lending his help to the festival since 2002 (and attending since 1993), about what it's like to serve at the biggest beer fest in the country. Shockingly, it's kind of awesome.

Scouting the talent
Anyone can email the GABF about volunteering, provided they have serious suds knowledge, but much of the team gets personally recruited by vets like Buckley. "A lot of times I would go out to dinner and I would like the host that helped me, or the waitstaff, or the bartender," Buckley says. "And I would ask them if they’ve ever heard of the Great American Beer Festival. Usually the answer was, 'I’ve always wanted to go but it’s always sold out. And I have no idea how to get there.' So I would say, 'Well, I am a volunteer captain. I manage a beer team and I’m always looking for great people.' Their eyes would just gleam." When Buckley was a beer captain, his team went from 42 to about 500 in three years through his scouting, so you definitely want to wait on this guy.

Great American Beer Festival Avery Brewing beers
Rebecca Feder

Necessary preparations
Though higher-ups like Buckley, the beer captains, and assistant captains start major prep work for the festival about two weeks out, the average volunteer shows up just 30-60 minutes prior to their shift to get briefed on proper pouring techniques and the general rundown. The breweries are divided up by region, and the convention floor is mapped out like the actual US, so they could be serving 1oz samples in the Pacific Northwest (top left) or the Heartland (dead center). Unruly volunteers are presumably banished outside to Guam.

Pour me another
So just how many samples is an average beer team volunteer doling out? As Buckley explains, each person is going to be pouring from four different taps. So they'll have four fill pitchers, which are each a gallon, and they fill those up twice a night. "Chances are they’re pouring between 400 and 600 one-ounce samples an evening," Buckley says. While we're talking numbers, what if some brave idiot with a death wish wanted to try all the beers at the festival? Buckley estimates they'd have to drink two and a half kegs.

Extra-beericular activities
Of course, the GABF isn't all about sipping. Buckley says some of the events he's enjoyed most in his lengthy volunteering career are the Silent Disco and Farm to Table. As this long-lost Bee Gee above demonstrates, the Silent Disco streams music directly to the dancers' headphones, making them look utterly insane to the bystanders sipping Pliny the Elder. Farm to Table is a newer, still-evolving deal that capitalizes on the ever-popular beer pairing trend with superior eats.

Strange brews
No beer festival would be complete without some exceptionally odd suds, and the GABF volunteers get the privilege of pouring stuff that makes Old Bay beer look boring. "The breweries always try to do something so amazing and so different that people talk about it for the next year," Buckley says. "Last year, or two years ago I believe, there was a peanut butter and jelly beer. A few years ago there was a Key lime cheesecake beer that I got to try. I’m not a Key lime cheesecake person, but someone recommended it to me, and it was awesome."

Doling out samples is one thing, but people-watching is obviously a key component to every GABF volunteer's work. "The amazing thing about the Great American Beer Festival is the diversity of people who attend, and even the costumes that people come up with to express their love of beer," Buckley says. "You’ve probably seen the pictures of people walking around with pretzel necklaces. You see people who dress like it’s Oktoberfest. [Editor’s Note: or bears, hair bands, and dead presidents.] I don’t remember a person every walking out of the event without a smile on their face."

If you want to be be an esteemed GABF volunteer next year, make sure to get in touch with the event's planner, Carol Hiller, and share your wealth of sudsy knowledge. Key lime cheesecake beers and silent discos could be in your future.

Kristin Hunt is a food/drink staff writer for Thrillist, and hopes to see someone in a terrifying costume version of Flying Dog's Gonzo Imperial Porter label at this year's GABF. Follow her at @kristin_hunt.