For one weekend a year, beer lovers from across America gather together in Denver, Colorado, to celebrate their common love: the glorious merger of grain, hops, water, and yeast. From humble beginnings fraught with consumer disinterest and logistical challenges, the Great American Beer Festival grew to become America's dominant beverage industry event.
Amid this debate, it is important to note that the objective evaluation of beer is possible to some extent. Ms. Kruger and Ms. Thompson noted some of the mechanisms that larger brewers, such as Miller, employ in the quality control process. Miller and other large brewers employ highly trained chemists who routinely test a company's beers for defects or even the slightest deviations in hop levels. These chemists break beer down to its most basic chemical form, analyzing molecules for impurities or differences. To this extent, the breweries achieve an objective assessment of their beers. But this value of this evaluation is limited to comparing current product against a standard, objective chemical model of what the particular beer should be.
So while the highly skilled GABF judges are very adept at pulling out subtle flaws in the brewing process, there is little hope of objectively comparing beers, short of the wholly undesirable effort to undertake chemical analysis of judged beers.
After judges completed the extensive judging process, the brewers gathered on Saturday afternoon for the annual awards ceremony. The ceremony provided moments of comic relief mixed with others of poignant melancholy. Among the industry's most passionate and dedicated foot soldiers are the small craft brewers. They also make for the best stories at the festival. This year's big story was clearly Jason Courtney of the Hub City Brewery in Lubbock, Texas. When Swersey awarded the gold medal in the Munich-Style Helles category to Courtney for his creatively named "Helles in a Handbasket," Courtney and his crew leapt from their seats, screamed in happiness and briefly danced for joy. Courtney and his wife embraced and he then dashed to the stage barely able to hide his pride. It was a scene that Courtney would repeat four more times. He collected a gold medal for his Vienna-style lager, silver for his American-style Brown Ale, and bronze for his Irish-style Red Ale. At the end of the event, Hub City was awarded Small Brewpub of the Year, with Courtney taking home the award for Small Brewpub Brewmaster of the Year.
The excitement of winning a medal is not limited to the small brewmaster. However, the scale on which the success is measured is super-sized. After offering a measured response for his company's first medal, the representative for the Pabst Brewing Company pumped his fist in the air and cheered when Swersey announced clean sweeps of both the American-style Light Lager and American-style Specialty Lager categories. In all its forms, Pabst Brewing took home nine medals, more than any other brewery.
Other brewers also measured success on different levels. After he won a GABF silver medal in the German-style Wheat Ale category, African-American brewer Michael Ferguson stood up and yelled, "Yes! I am the other black brewer!" (The comment referenced brewing industry celebrity and fellow African-American brewer Garrett Oliver). After laboring for many years as the brewmaster at Barley's Casino and Brewing Company in Nevada, Ferguson's comment provided both comic relief and poignancy.
In the festival's most emotional moment, Glen Falconer, head brewer at the Wild Duck Brewery in Oregon, who passed away in an accident earlier this year, was awarded the GABF's final medal. Falconer received the posthumous GABF gold medal for his powerful and well-balanced Auld Gnarley Head Barleywine.
TAKING IT ALL IN
While subjectivity certainly creeps into the judging at America's most prestigious beer competition, it remains difficult to question the quality of the competition's results. In what is perhaps best described as a testament to the increasing quality of American craft beers, the newly minted GABF winners never failed to impress my palate. After the awards ceremony, festival attendees all dash madly towards the winners in their favorite styles. Disobeying my own inclinations, I instead opted to visit some of the winners of less flashy categories. In my sampling, the winners of categories such as Munich Helles and Kolsch beers were truly impressive. The flavors were subtle, yet remarkable, and often superior to any other beer within the style I tried. And if not for the competition, they were all beers most attendees, including myself, would skip.
The judging event and the competition's results left me in a mixed state. The judging at GABF is neither "tainted" nor is it questionable that certain well-known breweries fail to win awards. About 400 breweries enter more than 1800 beers in the competition. So while Rogue Shakespeare Stout may be a solid representation of its style, it has to compete against a huge range of other flavorful beers. Sometimes it wins, often it does not. So while subjective factors will always cast a pall on the proceedings, they are not enough to dismiss the competition altogether. If the judging process is hopelessly mired in the subjective views of a constantly changing group of so-called beer judges, how do we account for the fact that certain beers win awards year after year? These beers, such as the New Glarus Belgian Red, the Alaskan Smoked Porter and Sam Adams Double Bock are simply world-class beers. But these beers do not always win either. The level of competition is simply too great.
As for the geographic distribution of medals, California and Colorado breweries continued their dominance of the judging process. This year, southern breweries, including Atlanta's Sweetwater Tavern and Brewery, made impressive showings. Breweries in the Midwest also scored wins in highly contested categories. The most notable trend was the continuing decline of medals awarded to breweries in the Northeast.
The festival itself is little changed from previous years. The event is the largest of its kind in America and it draws a range of elements, ranging from die-hard beer connoisseurs to die-hard inebriates. The early sessions provide dedicated beer tasters the opportunity to amble from table to table, sampling a variety of beers across the greatest available range of styles. The later sessions, especially the Saturday session, packed the Denver Convention Center to its limits with belligerent drunks armed with enough knowledge to head straight for the highest alcohol beers. The one ounce tasting glasses, offered only in plastic to prevent the aforesaid elements from consistently breaking their tasting vessels, do not achieve any enviable purpose. The glasses are too small for proper tasting and offer unlimited one ounce shots for attendees.
Aside from some of the festival's lingering problems, the GABF does provide beer lovers unparalleled access to their favorite beers and brewers. Pursuant to AOB rules, brewers or brewery representatives staff the tasting booths and enjoy interacting with consumers. And thoughtful consumers truly appreciate the opportunity to sample exceptional and hard-to-find beers. At the opening of the festival, it is not uncommon to see first time attendees straggling by the door, faces awe-swept with the incomparable selection of great beer. Some stand with mouths agape, others shed a silent, heartfelt tear.
The festival is, above all else, a beer drinker's pre-eminent domestic opportunity to sample great beers. The selection of standout beers is too large to list, but here are some of the most inventive or attention capturing from my subjective point of view. Flossmoor Station rocked attendees with several great brews. Brewer Todd Ashman provided his name to Todd's Tupelo Tripel, a fantastic rendition of the style. His Old Conundrum Barleywine and Abbaye Dubbel also were superlative. Minneapolis Town Hall, one of America's best brewpubs, provided the well-balanced and palate provoking Jester's Reserve Whiskey Stout.
Above all others, Pizza Port Solana Beach again proved itself to be America's best brewpub for experimental and challenging beers. Brewer Tomme Arthur staffed his brewpub's table for much of the long weekend, pouring thousands of samples of his eclectic beers. His show-stopping Cuvee de Tomme employs a crazy grain bill, three strains of Brettanomyces Belgian yeast, along with Belgian candi sugar, sour cherries, and raisins. Arthur's Hop 15 weighed in at 9.5 percent abv, and employed 15 ounces of 15 types of hops added every 15 minutes to the kettle. The beer is seriously dry hopped, yet eminently drinkable. Finally, Arthur's Port 15 Anniversary Ale is almost indistinguishable from a loose, bold red wine (understandly so for a beer brewed in part with Cabernet wine yeast and blended in oak casks).
Apart from the challenges posed by the festival's offerings, Denver becomes "beervana" for a week in early October. The city fills with beer lovers, including many brewers who tote along special casks for local pubs. If the GABF's 1300 beers fail to humble you, the side events certainly will. Festival organizers, national and regional breweries, and other organizations sponsor a constant stream of beer-related side events, which include media breakfasts, special tasting sessions, and after-festival parties.
This year, I attended Realbeer.com's annual Vertical Tasting event, held at the beautiful New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins. This year's tasting event featured a vertical sampling of Fuller's Vintage Ale (1999-2001), several batches of New Belgium's experimental wood-aged beer series (known commercially as La Folie), and a variety of rare lambics from the Brouwerij Boon. Speakers included Michael Jackson, Peter Bouckaert and Kim Jordan of New Belgium, and Frank Boon. The impressive tasting opportunity doubled as a press event for New Belgium and Boon, who announced a unique partnership. The two breweries will each produce a special kriek (cherry) beer. Boon is presently producing a base kriek beer that it will transfer to New Belgium in early 2003. From there, the New Belgium team will blend another lambic beer with the Boon product.
The New Belgium event also showcased the newest culinary enterprise of Pete Slosberg, founder and namesake of Pete's Brewing Company. While Slosberg left the beer business behind in 1998 with the sale of his company to Gambrinus, he never lost his taste for high quality consumer products. After several trips to Belgium, Slosberg began to note the high quality of Belgian chocolates. He recently announced the formation of a new company that will produce high-quality, craft chocolates for the upscale culinary market. The New Belgium event offered prospective consumers and industry-insiders the first chance to sample his new products. Of the four chocolates presented at this event, the well-balanced sweetness and richness of the milk chocolate-based Maltimus Maximus was a clear crowd favorite.
Despite long days of sampling at the festival and challenging beer events, a weekend in Denver at the GABF offers beer connoisseurs a few opportunities for quiet, contemplative consideration of beer and the industry. Some connoisseurs find solace in quiet pints stolen at beer bars, others manage reflection in the heart of the beast. In the midst of a bustling, anxious crowd during the opening Thursday evening session of his GABF, Charlie Papazian looks around and takes the pulse of the industry. "I think it is a sign that craft beer and interest in the kind of things our Association of Brewers and members are involved in - promoting a positive culture about beer - I think we are on the right track."
Article appeared in the December 2002 issue of Beverage Magazine. For information on reprinting any of the above articles, please contact Andy Crouch.