I’ve been collecting my thoughts for a Beverage Magazine piece on the recent GABF since returning home a few days ago. Despite its extraordinary size (46,000+ attendees at four events, each of which sold out in advance), the event and its accompanying events were actually pretty low-key this year. The crowds at Falling Rock seemed subdued despite some excellent offerings (Elysian’s imperial pumpkin beer was a festival favorite, though at 9-percent alcohol it’s no favor to serve this beer in a pint glass – *ouch*). The connoisseur tasting event, or members only event if you prefer, was similarly relaxed for the most part. That is until the awards ceremony. What started as a small, simple event in a Boulder hotel has grown into a slickly produced business affair. Beyond the volume of attendees, the number of beer style categories judged at the event has also grown. This year’s judges evaluated nearly 2800 beers in a ridiculous 75 categories (up from 67 in 2004, 55 in 2000, and 37 in 1995).
The staff of the Brewers Association is never shy in providing a bevy of statistics about its signature event and the 2007 GABF was no different. In the end, the judges awarded 222 medals to 142 breweries. Thirty-percent of all breweries participating left with a medal, with 62 breweries, or 13-percent of the total participants, winning a gold medal.
As a writer based in Boston, I find this last set of numbers particularly interesting. New England breweries have long had a love/hate relationship with the GABF (starting with the festival’s ill-fated and controversial consumer preference poll). Only 18 New England breweries decided to participate in this year’s festival and the region continued to experience some difficulty in the competition, bringing home only four medals. Cambridge Brewing Company’s Cambridge Amber won a silver medal in the Cellar or Unfiltered Beer category, Allagash Brewing Company’s Victor won a bronze medal in the Experimental Beer category and a its Four won a bronze medal in the Belgian Abbey Ale category, and the Portsmouth Brewery won a silver medal in the Wheat Wine category.
Four medals out of 222 awarded. Doing the math, New England breweries went home with less than 2-percent of the medals awarded. If you add in the Boston Beer Company’s gold medal for its Samuel Adams Double Bock in the German-style Strong Bock category, we hit 2-percent. With that said, New England breweries only accounted for 4-percent of the total number of participating breweries. I would venture that our participation is less than that of any other region at the event. Rhode Island didn’t send a single beer and only one Vermont brewery (Wolaver’s) attended the event.
I know New England breweries proclaim some understandable reasons for not attending this leading event (expenses and long traveling distance), but I think the reason goes deeper, to the point of a core belief that judges at the event are biased against New England beers. Putting the debate over whether such bias exists aside, I think it’s lamentable that more New England brewers, especially the larger ones, choose not to attend the festival.