The Good, the Bad, and the Drunk at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival…

This year’s trip to the Great American Beer Festival was a whirlwind tour, one in which it often felt like I was somewhere other than Denver. From my arrival on Thursday through leaving this morning, we were always on the way to something else: another book signing, a new restaurant, or an event. For the first time in years, I spent less than an hour at the Falling Rock Tap House during the entire weekend. This was, however, tempered by meeting its owner, Chris Black, who stopped by to buy my book during a signing. I want to focus this post on the festival itself but I would be remiss if I didn’t thank the Brewers Association for inviting me to sign books at the festival and to touch briefly upon the book event we held while in town. Conceived as part book release party and part celebration of the many brewers who never get any air time in Denver, we titled the event “The Great American Craft Beer Experience.” I was joined at the excellent Stoney’s Bar and Grill by three wonderfully talented and engaging brewers, Matt Brynildson from Firestone-Walker, Paul Philippon from Duck-Rabbit, and Doug Odell from Odell Brewing. We held a tutored tasting of seven of their beers (all but one are featured in my book, Great American Craft Beer) and a panel discussion about the craft beer industry. The audience was engaged and we (the event was co-sponsored by my buddies at BeerAdvocate) look forward to hosting more of these events during next year’s festival.

By all numeric quantifiers, this year’s Great American Beer Festival was a resounding success. With a record sell-out time, record number of beers entered, and record number of attendees, the festival continues to grow with every passing year. After attending parts of three of four sessions, I left the festival with some new impressions, both positive and critical. On the positive side, the festival staff have clearly gone to some lengths to improve the educational components surrounding the massive consumption of beer. The cooking events were informative and packed and the educational seminars were well-considered if slightly under-attended. The Brewers Association also set up a few helpful displays throughout the hall that attempted to teach attendees more about appreciating and understanding beer. A display of different types of glassware was especially interesting as were the many beer-related vendor booths.

But where the festival succeeds due to the planning and dedication of its staff, it has also become a victim of its own success. Approximately 49,000 people attended the various sessions and at times the hall felt spacious and then curiously ill-designed for the event. While the back of the hall boomed with space, the middle and front sections were impassably crowded during much of the fest. But this quibble aside, the vibe of the festival has definitely changed in recent years, from a niche event to a full-fledged, general public mass gathering. The attendees by my view now skew considerably younger than a decade ago. Now I acknowledge that I have not attended the GABF around fifteen times so I have aged as the fest has and this could be a factor. With that said, I attend a dozen or so beer fests throughout the year and go out a few nights a week, so I’m not exactly a wallflower or homebody. But, as many commenters would likely be quick to tell you, age is not necessarily an indicator of seriousness when it comes to beer, a point I willingly concede. With that concession made, age does, in my opinion, add a new level of perspective to the proceedings and you don’t usually see a lot of older inebriates at the GABF.

Where the Thursday night session used to offer beer enthusiasts an early reprieve from the boisterous booze storms that are the Friday and Saturday night sessions, this year things took a turn for the worse in the first hour of the first session. The overall vibe now tends more towards consuming a large number of samples as opposed to consideration of the beer in front of the attendee. I’d be curious to see whether the GABF keeps any count of its beer stock, in order to make an estimate about the change in consumption rates at the festival over time.

This brings me back to my original point, namely educating consumers with an aim towards fostering a greater appreciation of beer. As I spent more time on the festival floor this year than I usually do, I noticed by Saturday night that I had run into only a small fraction of the industry people I usually see at the festival and its outside events. I also met a surprisingly large number of many beer industry folks who weren’t even attending a single session of the festival or were only planning to visit for the awards portion of the Saturday afternoon event.

After some consideration, I think the issues I witnessed at the festival (beyond the usual acts of drunkenness and poor judgment that can be seen at nearly any alcohol related event, be it beer, wine, or spirits) can be addressed by a single, simple rule: breweries that choose to pour beer on the festival floor should be required to have a representative at the booth at all times. There are several other well-regarded festivals around the country that have this rule and the reason is simple: craft beer is about place, about the people behind the brands. And where the people behind the beers are removed, beer simply becomes an inefficient means to an end of inebriation (to paraphrase the late Michael Jackson). Attendees have no reason to linger at a table if the volunteers pouring their beers know nothing of the brands and breweries (a refrain I heard repeated countless times from well-meaning volunteers). And so they simply slam their sample and move on to the next beer with a funny name that reminds them of their pet dog or cat.

The lack of education at the tables only matched the number of lost opportunities to interact with potential craft beer consumers. And I don’t mean this in the sense that some small, local brewpub in Arizona, Georgia, or Michigan is likely to get any business from a local Denver attendee. The Great American Beer Festival is about much more than promoting individual beers and breweries, a definite forest over the trees situation. It is a celebration of and testament to the continued success of flavorful beer in its fight against interchangeably flavored beers. By not having anyone around who can tell an inquiring consumer about a particular brewery or beer, or more generally educate them about a particular style or hop variety, the organizers of the festival are failing at the very goal they profess their dedication to achieving. For an organization dedicated to promoting craft beer and educating consumers, the Brewers Association shouldn’t relegate information and knowledge to 100 person capacity dens of beer nerd-dom. Many of the attending consumers want a more interactive experience and the Brewers Association should do a much better job of giving it to them. The association is trying to promote craft beer, not throw the world’s largest keg party.

The unfortunate vibe I am describing also leads to an unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy. Brewers travel from all over the country (and the world) to attend the festival and promote their craft. But as many, many brewers have expressed to me, both this weekend and at past festivals, they don’t really want to spend a lot of time on the festival floor because it tends to devolve into a semi-drunken shit show, especially at the weekend evening sessions. Seasoned festival veterans long for the brief moments in between the raucous screams that accompany the near-constant dropping of glasses (many of which are now done on purpose). Many brewers simply don’t bother to attend the sessions because they have no role to play and the scene isn’t about their talents and what they do for a living.

Beer education at the Great American Beer Festival needs to be about more than just token displays of beer education. And I certainly understand that there may be some reluctance to require brewers to attend all four sessions. And I also appreciate that hard-working brewers view the festival as a camaraderic opportunity to relax and enjoy beers with their brewer friends from around the country. Despite these concerns, the Brewers Association can still encourage brewers to spend more time during the sessions at their booths interacting with the attendees. The association can also ask the attending brewers to educate the volunteers working their booths or at least provide them with some information and promotional literature about the beers. Each brewer (or the association itself) should also be required to provide a laminated sheet identifying and describing the beers on offer for attendees. The brewers who presently provide these services are rewarded by more engaged volunteers and better informed attendees, many of whom tend to linger a little longer at the booth and thus develop some connection to the brewery and its beers.

Gearing up for its 30th anniversary, the Great American Beer Festival should always be evolving and looking to improve. The organizers should appreciate that bigger is not always better and that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if fewer breweries poured beer on the festival floor. If attending breweries think it is too big a bother to help educate consumers during the craft beer world’s largest marketing opportunity, give them more time to hang out with their buddies at Falling Rock or the Cheeky Monk.

With these points made, I’m certainly interested in hearing from brewers and their thoughts on the subject and how the festival itself can improve (or how it is perfect just the way it is). I’m also interested in hearing from consumers, attendees, and anyone with some thoughts on better educating people at beer festivals.

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