A 2009 Great American Beer Festival Preview…

The 28th annual Great American Beer Festival is right around the corner and it has sold out earlier than ever, quite an achievement for the Brewers Association and the craft brewers whose unpaid participation is so crucial to the event’s success. I look forward to experiencing the 30-percent increase in floor space that the BA is heavily promoting and hope that the additional 3,000 tickets sold (out of 49,000 attendees) will not result in some geometric anomaly where we’re all still crowded together at the tables. By the numbers, 3,362 beers will be entered in the GABF Competition, 2,100 beers from 495 breweries will be served in the hall, with 51 new breweries attending the fest for the first time. Looking at the handy map of the festival layout, I am a little disturbed to see that New England’s dwindling presence appears to have hit a new low, sending not even half the number of brewers as the Southeast will represent.

As I did last year, and the year before, I want to provide attendees and other interested parties with a preview of things to come at this year’s event. Instead of misty remembrances, I’ll just quote from last year’s offering.

As I’ve written elsewhere, my first visit to the GABF had a great influence on my development and interest in craft beer. And it all happened by dumb luck. I was in Denver to visit a friend and on a lark the friend decided to surprise me with tickets to the fest. At the time, I was just beginning to acknowledge and appreciate the difference between certain American beers. Entering the beautiful environs of Currigan Hall (long since replaced with the mildly soulless Colorado Convention Center), I had a transformative experience, the effects of which have lasted to the present day. As much as I enjoy the festival and Denver, I’m having a hard time believing that this will be my [fourteenth] visit.

205×115.gifThe Brewers Association’s cornerstone event well-serves the general public and generates a huge amount of revenue for the association itself, all while small craft brewers don’t get paid for their time or beer (still an issue for another article entirely). And while I am not sad to see the fatally flawed Beer Journalism Awards go away, I would like to have some discussions about how we can promote beer writing in the future. I look forward to attending the festival’s successful and increasingly popular cooking demonstrations and panel discussions. After finishing a draft of my book, I’m also looking forward to trying some new beers from breweries that crossed my path during the writing process. I’m also looking to get to know some folks whose paths I have also crossed on-line in the last year and to seeing many old friends. Let me know which beers you have marked on your lists as must try offerings and have a great fest.

Here’s a look back at my coverage of the last half-decade or more of Great American Beer Festivals.

The 2008 Great American Beer Festival
The 2007 Great American Beer Festival”
GABF At 25 – The 2006 GABF
A look at the 2005 GABF
Revisit the 2004 GABF
The 2003 GABF
The GABF Turns 21 – The 2002 GABF

And will this finally be the year that craft brewers decide to dump their big brewery corporate sponsors they privately complain about? I guess we’ll see but I know what I’ll be happily drinking when I watch the Rockies kick the Cardinals’ butts on Friday evening…

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A Brief Recap and Review of the 2008 Great American Beer Festival…

The annual Great American Beer Festival has just concluded another eventful run in Denver and I just returned back to Boston after an early morning flight. During the trip, I spent time in both Colorado Springs and Denver, with attendance at two of the 27th annual festival’s sessions. This year’s incarnation continued to build upon the event’s successful history, if with some troubles. There is no question that with more than 2000 beers available on the floor from more than 450 breweries, the GABF remains an impressive logistical undertaking and a feat of coordination. This year’s event sold out for the second straight time and did so two weeks before the opening session. With all of its success, the festival stumbled in one critical area: crowd management. In giving access to the 46,000 people who attended the event, several thousand were forced to stand in line for more than an hour before entering the festival. Inside the convention hall, the festival was packed, even during the normally light Thursday session. Despite its gains, the GABF may have reached its tipping point in terms of population.

The festival gives attendees, especially those in the industry, an unparalleled opportunity to hob-knob with other beer lovers, brewers, and pub owners and this year didn’t disappoint. For those interested, there were countless side events and late-nights at the GABF’s unofficial headquarters at the Falling Rock. For my part, I especially enjoyed meeting Don Younger and getting to spend some time with my old friend Toshi Ishii of Japan (and England, Norway, and countless other brewing locales).

Beyond the usual events and overwhelming number of beers present, the festival this year appeared to lack a bit of the enthusiasm and sense of wonder that it has in the past. It’s a bit hard to put your finger on exactly the cause, be it the down economy or some other reason. In any event, brewers were in shorter supply at their tables and in attendance during the event itself than in years past. The focal point of the week appears to have shifted away from the convention floor itself and into the city and state more generally.

Without question, where the brewers left off, the burgeoning new media picked up. Bloggers were omni-present, with many reporting directly from the festival floor or the adjacent media room. For those who weren’t able to attend the event, you could read near-contemporaneous accounts from a wide variety of sources. I was particularly impressed with Draft Magazine’s work during the event, including its video interviews with a dozen or more brewers and other beer folks directly from the festival floor.

And while I’ll have more on the GABF here and in Beverage Business in the future, including on Anheuser-Busch’s strong specialty releases (excluding its oddly British ‘American Ale’), the Siebel Institute’s sensory evaluation course, and the somewhat surprising announcement of the return of SAVOR, I wanted to offer a few thoughts on the event. By the numbers, the BA handed out 222 awards out of more than 2900 beers entered in the competition, rounding out to about 7.5-percent of beers entered picking up a medal. Stop to think about that number for a moment. We often hear beer geeks complain about the GABF and nit-pick particular selections. But in the end, fewer than 1 in 13 beers received a medal and just over 2-percent received the much-coveted gold. When you think about the breweries that win multiple medals, fest after fest, questions about the judging process have to be laid to rest.

Attendance at the GABF by New England brewers, even where the Brewers Association’s Board of Directors is presently chaired by Rich Doyle, CEO and founder of the region’s largest craft brewery, continues to be poor. Of the 472-plus breweries in attendance, only 16 attended from New England. Of those in attendance, New England brewers managed to take home only 3 GABF medals, with Cambridge Brewing winning a gold in the highly competitive experimental category for its Arquebus, a bronze for Amherst Brewing Company’s Ryeteous Red, and a bronze in the aged beer category for Boston Beer’s Samuel Adams Utopias 2003. All told, New England brewers took home just over 1-percent of the total medals awarded. When you compare that to the impressive showings of a town like Philadelphia, let alone the Mid-Atlantic or California and Colorado regions, and New England’s performance is very disappointing.

As a final note, I want to extend congratulations to the winners of the Brewers Association’s Michael Jackson Beer Journalism Awards, including Lew Bryson in the Trade and Specialty Beer Media category. While I personally disagree with journalists participating in the awards, Lew is a good and thorough writer and I look forward to reading his winning piece.

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The Busy Upcoming Week and Last Minute Great American Beer Festival Thoughts…

Through a combination of events, things have been very quiet here in recent times (a scant 9 posts in two months or more, and most of that recycled BeerAdvocate Mag articles and columns). My law practice, which is my near full-time profession, has been extraordinarily busy this summer and early fall and it will likely continue for another month before it slows down. Despite all of the long hours, I’ve actually enjoyed the crush of legal work and the interesting issues I’ve been tackling. And last month I was named one of 25 “Up and Coming Lawyers” by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, a nice acknowledgment of my work on behalf of indigent clients. Despite the crush of legal work, I’ve also spent a fair amount of time on the road this summer. When I wasn’t clocking long hours at the office or in court this summer, I spent nearly a month in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Add to that the week I enjoyed in San Francisco early this summer, and I’ve spent an unusual amount of time on the West Coast. This has sadly come at the expense of travel through my home region of New England and this will be the first November in a few that I won’t be roaming around Franconia or Wallonia. During my travels, I’ve had the good fortune of meeting some very interesting beer people and exploring the respective brewing and bar scenes of Oregon, Seattle, San Fran, and Alaska. I’ve banked a lot of solid material and interviews (including with Dick Cantwell of Elysian and Geoff Larson of Alaskan) and I hope to find some time to write on these intriguing places.

In a few days, I’ll be off to Denver, with a brief stop in Colorado Springs, for my annual trip to the Great American Beer Festival. The festival has grown at an extraordinary pace in recent years, from a comfortable event in Currigan Hall to a massive beer carnival in the new convention center. The event sold out in record time this year and it promises to be the biggest event yet. And while I perhaps enjoy visiting the fest less than I have in the past, I am curious to see how the Brewers Association handles the growth of their chief money-making machine. I’m interested in seeing just how much Anheuser-Busch pushes its new American Ale, how consumers and industry folks alike respond to it, and whether there are any signs that the Brewers Association, with its stability and growing self-confidence, is preparing to show the big three the door. I’m also interested to see how regional craft beer organizations, including the Philadelphia Beer Week people, promote their local markets at an event more traditionally focused on promoting craft beer as a national product. I’m also looking forward to reconnecting with friends in the beer world from all parts of the United States and abroad.

And with any luck, upon my return I may have a few minutes to actually clear my notebook and write a few posts. Cheers.

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A 2008 Great American Beer Festival Preview…

The 27th annual Great American Beer Festival will be held October 9-11, 2008, at the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver. More than 46,000 beer enthusiasts from around the world will attend the event, where they can enjoy 1969 beers from 432 breweries around the country.

As of this writing just three short weeks out from the festival, the Brewers Association is reporting incredibly robust ticket sales for the sessions. The Thursday night session is 57% sold out, a few tickets remain available at select outlets for the Friday session, the members-only session is sold out, and the dread Saturday evening session is 83% sold.

As I did last year, I wanted to provide attendees and other interested parties with a preview of things to come at this year’s event. As I’ve written elsewhere, my first visit to the GABF had a great influence on my development and interest in craft beer. And it all happened by dumb luck. I was in Denver to visit a friend and on a lark the friend decided to surprise me with tickets to the fest. At the time, I was just beginning to acknowledge and appreciate the difference between certain American beers. Entering the beautiful environs of Currigan Hall (long since replaced with the mildly soulless Colorado Convention Center), I had a transformative experience, the effects of which have lasted to the present day. As much as I enjoy the festival and Denver, I’m having a hard time believing that this will be my thirteenth visit.

GABFThe Brewers Association’s cornerstone event well-serves the general public and generates a huge amount of revenue for the association itself (an issue for another article entirely). The association has some changes in mind for this year’s event (hopefully they will include banishing beer pong tables from the convention floor). It has added a Beer Enthusiast Bookstore, which will sell beer-related books, several state brewing guilds will be pouring local beers to showcase their state’s breweries, and the “You Be the Judge Booth” will allow consumers the chance to sit down with a trained beer judge one-on-one to learn about judging beer styles. The association is also returning its popular “Beer and Food Paring Demos.” The association will also return its “Inside the Brewers Studio” interview series, which I hope will be audio or video taped for future viewing on the association’s website, as was done with the panels at the SAVOR event in Washington DC. As someone who participates in a number of beer educational events through the BeerAdvocate festivals and others, too often some interesting debates and discussions get lost to history, a real shame in our multimedia world where they would be all too easy to preserve.

Here’s a look back at my coverage of the last half-decade or more of Great American Beer Festivals.

The 2007 Great American Beer Festival”
GABF At 25 – The 2006 GABF
A look at the 2005 GABF
Revisit the 2004 GABF
The 2003 GABF
The GABF Turns 21 – The 2002 GABF

And for good measure, a detailed discussion about why beer writers shouldn’t participate in the Brewers Association’s well-intended Beer Journalism Awards.

And it won’t be all fun and games. After eyeing the program for a few years, I’ve finally signed up to attend the Siebel Institute of Technology’s Sensory Analysis Seminar. So while others are drinking beer for fun, I’ll be going to school for four hours…Overall, I look forward to seeing how the event further evolves as it becomes more of a business event for the industry. I’m also interested to hear about when the Brewers Association plans to dump its big brewery corporate sponsors, including Anheuser-Busch, SABMiller, and Molson Coors (remember, this is the Great American Beer Festival and I’ve heard more than a few grumblings on these international entries). I think it’s all about trying to stop those SandLot guys from winning all of the lager awards.

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A Quick Look Back at 2007…

The beer world recently gathered again in the welcoming environs of Denver, Colorado, to celebrate the success of the craft brewing industry and to witness its continued growth. Hosting the 26th annual Great American Beer Festival (GABF), the Colorado Convention Center packed in beer lovers and industry workers from all fifty states and dozens of countries.

The Festival Succeeds

By all objective business measures, the event was a tremendous success. This year’s GABF celebrated the feat of selling out the entire event before the first beer was poured in the opening session on an unseasonably warm Thursday evening near the Rockies. The event all broke nearly every other record it had previously set. While final numbers are not yet available, more than 46,000 people attended the four sessions of the festival, where they enjoyed 1884 beers from 408 breweries. This event is a long way from its incarnation as an annual event in 1982. Held at the Harvest House Hotel in Boulder, Colorado, the first GABF welcomed 800 attendees who enjoyed 40 beers from 22 breweries.

Managing the event’s popularity continues to pose challenges for the festival’s organizers at the Brewers Association. While the event remains a must attend, today’s GABF is no longer the simple, cozy event of years past. The GABF is a slickly produced show, tightly coordinated, and business first. Limited by the space available at the convention center, the event appears to have reached its maximum attendance. Every inch of the convention floor was occupied this year, with educational seminars, cooking demonstrations, and a silent disco floor where dancers with headphones silently grooved. Brewers and owners from breweries large and small participated in forum discussions about beer styles, the experience of women in beer, and the future of extreme beer.

The event also served as an opportunity for the beer industry to mourn the recent passing of pioneering beer writer Michael Jackson. The author of whol sold more than two million copies of his numerous books on beer, whiskey, and English pubs, Jackson, 65, died of a heart attack at his home in London, England, on August 30, 2007. A long-time fixture at the festival, with his tape recorder and ruffled appearance, Jackson consulted with founder Charlie Papazian about the first GABF while the latter was in attendance at the Great British Beer Festival. When Papazian pondered aloud that Americans should stage a festival like the British event, Jackson is reported to have quipped, “Yes, but where will you get the beer??

Fast forward more than a quarter of a century and Papazian stood on the GABF’s awards stage to eulogize Jackson, known as the Beer Hunter, in front of an audience of thousands of American brewers and beer lovers. The usually reserved Papazian delivered a rousing oratory for his friend, telling stories of Jackson’s early travels around the world in search of new beers. The tribute culminated in a tasteful video homage to the writer, including clips of his appearances on American late night television.

The Awards

After paying the proper respects, the Brewers Association began the much anticipated awards presentation. Over the course of three days, more than 100 judges sipped, smelled, and evaluated 2793 beers from 473 breweries in an unbelievable 75 beer style categories (up from 67 in just 2004). 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. Only 19 New England breweries participated in this year’s festival and the region continued to experience some difficulty in the competition, bringing home only five 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, Portsmouth Brewery won a silver medal in the Wheat Wine category, and Boston Beer Company won another gold medal for its Samuel Adams Double Bock in the German-style Strong Bock category.

The fiercest competition continued to be in the American style categories, with the American-style India Pale Ale drawing 120 entries and the Fruit and Vegetable Beer category growing from 46 entries in 2006 to 94 entries this year. The Large Brewing Company of the Year Award went to Pabst Brewing Company; Mid-Size Brewing Company of the Year Award to Firestone Walker Brewing of Paso Robles, California; Small Brewing Company of the Year Award to Port Brewing & The Lost Abbey of San Marcos, California; Large Brewpub of the Year Award to Redrock Brewing Company of Salt Lake City, Utah; and Small Brewpub of the Year Award to Montana Brewing Company of Billings, Montana.

The Big Guys Take Notice

Beyond the numbers, the real story of the festival was the continued success of the American craft brewing industry and its effects on the country’s largest brewing companies. In August, the Brewers Association released mid-year numbers that demonstrated that craft brewing is far from a tech stock bubble campaign. The volume of craft beer sold in the first half of 2007 rose 11-percent compared to the already explosive growth of 2006 and dollar growth increased 14-percent, leading craft beer to exceed 5-percent of total beer sales for the first time.

The response of the larger brewers to the success of the craft brewers has been mixed to date but their interest has clearly been piqued. SABMiller’s American brewing unit continues to push its Leinenkugel’s brands, including the Sunset Wheat, and the Coors Brewing Company aggressively leverages its popular Blue Moon brand. While the festival stood as a testament to the continued strength of the craft brewing segment, two events that quietly occurred before the event served to put craft brewers on notice that the big brewers do not plan to cede ground.

A few weeks before the GABF, America’s third largest brewery announced plans to form a specialty beer unit to develop high-end beers. As part of an internal news release, the Molson Coors Brewing Company informed workers and distributors of the creation of a new “brand incubation company,? called the AC Golden Brewing Company, LLC. The company refused to comment on when or where any new brands might be released. The announcement is another example of how Coors is directing greater focus and resources to the changing American beer marketplace. The brewery has a long history of developing and nurturing better beer brands, including the Blue Moon brand that it created in 1995 at its own brewpub, the SandLot Brewery at Coors Field. The Blue Moon Belgian White and its off-shoot brands have enjoyed great success and now account for more than 650,000 barrels of production.

In rejecting a national rollout, Coors plans to follow the Blue Moon playbook by slowly developing new brands under the AC Golden Brewing Company label. While the company refuses to discuss brands under development, several recent trademark and label application filings have raised speculation about the unit’s possible new offerings. Coors’ latest filings include applications for Pale Moon and Pale Moon Light, which are possible offshoots of the Blue Moon brand. The brewery has also filed a trademark application for Herman Joseph’s. Named after Coors co-founder Adolph Herman Joseph Coors, the brand was first released as an above-premium ale in 1980 before being discontinued in 1989. Buoyed by its success in the craft beer category, the brewery may be ready to take another run with this namesake brand.

The Rise of MillerCoors

Two days before the festival opened, a quiet bombshell was dropped on the beer industry. On October 9, America’s second and third largest breweries agreed to combine their U.S. operations to create the second largest brewer behind Anheuser-Busch. The joint venture between SABMiller and Molson Coors is projected to generate around $500 million in annuals cost savings by the third year after completion of the deal, which still must pass muster under anti-competition laws. The new company, which will be called MillerCoors, will have annual combined beer sales of 69 million U.S. barrels and net revenues of approximately $6.6 billion. SABMiller and Molson Coors will both have a 50-percent voting interest in the joint venture and have five representatives each on its Board of Directors. While touted as a “merger of equals,? SABMiller will have a 58-percent economic interest in the joint venture while and Molson Coors retains a 42% economic interest, reflecting their respective financial contributions to the new venture. Pete Coors, Vice Chairman of Molson Coors, will serve as Chairman of MillerCoors, while SABMiller’s CEO Graham Mackay will serve as Vice Chairman of MillerCoors. Leo Kiely, current CEO of Molson Coors, will be the CEO of the joint venture, and Tom Long, current CEO of Miller, will be appointed President and Chief Commercial Officer.

While rumors of the deal have floated around the beer industry for some time, the news of its consummation leaves many open questions for craft brewers and Anheuser-Busch alike. In seeking to secure cost reductions through ‘synergies,’ the new venture will likely seek to reduce redundant sales and distribution operations in markets where both maintain strong presences. This reality, together with the combined portfolios of both breweries, may tighten the distribution channels for some craft brewers who will be required to fight for places on fewer delivery trucks.

For its part, Anheuser-Busch quickly responded to the news. In an October 9, 2007, memorandum, A-B’s President and CEO August Busch IV called on all A-B wholesalers and employees to redouble their focus on the new competition. “We are studying the implications of this competitive move further—but we must not lose sight of the fact that this joint venture represents an attempt by these companies to better compete against us,? he wrote. “We believe this new structure presents a timely opportunity for all of us—as most game-changing incidents do,? he wrote. “This new entity does not match our size or portfolio of beers, yet there are undoubtedly synergies that this new company will eventually realize. At the same time, there will be significant transition confusion from this change, and it’s up to us to capitalize on this disruption now.?

The New Beer Sommelier

With the festival’s emphasis on education, one long-time GABF supporter recently announced plans to start his own beer testing program. Created by author and Brewers Association employee Ray Daniels, the Cicerone Certification Program will soon be available to test the knowledge of individuals who sell and serve beer. The Cicerone program will certify beer industry employees on a variety of subjects, including beer styles, culture, tasting, ingredients, and pairing beer with food. To encourage students of varying interest levels to participate, the program will offer three separate levels of certification, including Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone, and Master Cicerone, with costs ranging from $49 to $495. “Only those who have passed the requisite test of knowledge and tasting skill can call themselves a Cicerone,? Daniels says.

As a past director of craft beer marketing for the Brewers Association, Daniels is no stranger to the brewing industry. A graduate and faculty member of the Siebel brewing school, Daniels has written, edited, and published more than a dozen books related to beer and organized the now defunct Chicago Real Ale Festival.

While the concept of a beer sommelier is not new, beer enthusiasts have never been able to find a word that captures the essence of a certified beer expert. Daniels chose the word cicerone, which means a guide who explains matters of archaeological, antiquarian, historic or artistic interest, after rejecting several other possibilities. “My hunt covered a good bit of ground from things like ‘Savant de Beer’ to made-up words like ‘Cereviseur,’ but none rang true,? Daniels says. “As many in the beer industry who I talked to objected to association of the word ‘sommelier’ with beer, some new word was needed.?
With the development of his eccentrically named certification program, Daniels hopes to foster a greater sense of respect for beer while avoiding some of the snootiness and pretension associated with wine stewardship.

Article appeared in December 2007 issue of Beverage Magazine.

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