Drink in the fall festivities at America’s best beer festivals

Cheers to autumn color – and craft beer. Whether you swig your suds from a pitcher, chug them from a stein or gulp them from a glass, this is the time to tap into one of the fall season’s most spirited traditions: toasting the world’s best beers.

Fall is a busy time for U.S. beer festivals and beer-week events, thanks in part to the example set by Munich, Germany, where the annual Oktoberfest draws 6 million party-goers to a giant beer bust. None of the U.S. events can match that, but the nation is setting records for the number of beer weeks and festivals taking place, with more than 2,000 now planned annually.

Some of the older U.S. events pattern themselves after the Munich festival, but the newer ones pay homage to craft beers, an area where interest and sales are booming. Here are some of the nation's hottest hops spots.

Great American Beer Festival
Denver, Oct. 10-12

Craft beer’s ground zero is the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), the largest event of its kind in the U.S. This mega-festival, which toasts the best brews and brewers in the land, draws nearly 50,000 beer lovers to the mile-high city annually for three days of tasting and judging. Now in its 32nd year, the event is so popular that tickets sold out in 20 minutes.

This year’s GABF will offer beer aficionados 3,100 beers from 624 breweries. And while craft beer lovers are tasting for pleasure, judges from throughout the world will be on hand to taste for business purposes, analyzing and scoring 4,875 beers. “Bringing together brewers and beer lovers of all shapes and sizes, the Great American Beer Festival is a wonderful representation of just how far the U.S. brewing community has come,” says Nancy Johnson, the event’s director.

Brooklyn Pour
New York City, Oct. 12

Beer drinkers can bank on discovering some new flavors at the Brookyn Pour Beer Festival, a daylong celebration of craft beer that takes place inside a landmark Art Deco bank building in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Sponsored by the Village Voice, the three-year-old event offers ticketholders unlimited tastings of more than 100 beers, including some of the nation’s best seasonal, micro and reserve brews.

In addition to beer tastings, the event will include entertainment, demonstrations, meet-and-greets, beer talks and food. The venue, Skylight One Hanson, formerly known as the Williamsburg Savings Bank, is one of the tallest buildings in Brooklyn and one of the region’s most famous landmarks.

Cleveland Beer Week
Oct. 18-26

In Cleveland a week has nine days, at least as far as beer drinkers are concerned. The Rock and Roll City’s annual homage to craft beer stretches weekend to weekend and features hundreds of keg tapping, beer sipping events at bars, restaurants and other venues throughout Cuyahoga County. The five-year-old non-profit event honors the rich tradition of Ohio brewing and promotes local establishments.

Cleveland Beer Week kicks off on Oct. 18 with parties in five neighborhoods, each featuring tastings of seven collaboration brews created specifically for Beer Week. Other major events include the “Heights Music Hop,” a “Culture Yourself Premier Beer and Cheese Pairing” party and an “Ales on Rails” train ride. The final event will be “BREWzilla: A Monster Beer Tasting,” on Oct. 26.

Atlanta, Oct. 5

You, too, can be an official beer judge at Atlanta’s HOToberfest, which bills itself as the nation’s largest consumer-judged craft beer competition. The peoples’-choice event, held at Atlanta’s Fourth Ward Park, features 300 craft beers, including firkins and whiskey-barrel aged casks. All you need to do to become a judge is register your vote on your smart phone, which will also allow you to track your fave brews.

The event – its full title is 6th Annual HOToberFest Craft Beer Tasting & Consumer-judged Competition – will feature a diverse selection of craft beer, plus food and entertainment. HOToberfest offers a free smartphone app that will help participants to plan a route to their favorite types of beer: wheat, IPA, porter, stout, pilsner and many others. The non-profit event raises funds for TREES Atlanta and Legacy World Missions.

Fresh Hop Ale Festival
Yakima, Wash., Oct. 6

Washington State is proud of its title as the nation’s largest producer of apples. But it’s equally proud of another of its most bountiful crops, hops. And the best place to celebrate that crop is at the Fresh Hop Ale Festival in Yakima. The annual event salutes the world's number one hops producer, the Yakima Valley, located southeast of Mount Rainier in central Washington.

To qualify for the festival and be considered a “fresh hop ale,” a beer must be produced with Yakima Valley hops that have moved from vine to vat in 24 hours or less. The event includes both tasting and a fresh hops competition. In addition, there are homebrew demonstrations, food, wine and music. Proceeds support the Allied Arts of Yakima Valley, a non-profit organization that has promoted and coordinated arts events since 1962.

Big Bear Lake Oktoberfest
Big Bear Lake, Calif., weekends through Oct. 26

High on a mountaintop 100 miles east of Los Angeles, Bavarian wannabes have been hoisting steins and yodeling their way through fall for 43 years. Big Bear Lake Oktoberfest participants can test their mettle in a log-sawing contest, a sausage-eating match or a “shoot and yodel” competition that features a shot of Jagermeister followed by a chance to belt out a Swiss yodel.

No Oktoberfest would be complete without barrels of beer, and participants in this alpine-like Southern California community drink about 500 kegs during the event, which draws nearly 25,000 merrymakers during its annual seven-weekend run. The event has indoor and outdoor stages with dance troupes and bands that play both polkas and pop music, and the food includes traditional favorites such as apple strudel and bratwurst.

San Diego Beer Week & Guild Festival
Nov. 1-10

They love their brewskis in sunny San Diego. This year, they’re celebrating fall with a 10-day fall homage to local craft beer and San Diego’s thriving brewing culture. Last year’s beer week drew a crowd of 20,000 who participated in more than 400 events ranging from beer dinners to meet-and-greets with local brewers.

Festivities kick off with the Brewers Guild Festival on Nov.1-2 and conclude with a Chef Celebration of San Diego Beer, a gourmet beer and food pairing event. The countywide festival serves as a showcase for San Diego's breweries (the city is home to more than 50), restaurants, pubs, and other businesses with ties to the craft beer community.

Austin Beer Week
Austin, Texas, Nov. 1-10

Trust Texans, who do everything in a big way, to develop their own Beer Olympics (think keg lifting and other odd athletic pursuits) to help them celebrate the fall drinking season. The Olympics event is just one of more than 100 activities planned for Austin Beer Week, which will take place at more than 40 venues throughout Austin and central Texas, known locally as Texas Hill Country.

Brewers, brewpubs, bars and restaurants will all get into the act during the 10-day event, serving up seasonal and rare craft beer tappings, tastings with food pairings, multi-course beer dinners, beer and movie presentations, special outdoor parties, brewer discussion panels and homebrew competitions. As part of the freewheeling nature of the event, beer and food bloggers, local artisans, celebrated chefs, and, of course, the brewers themselves are all part of the mix.