Celebrating its twenty-third year as America's predominant beer event, the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) rolled into Denver on the last weekend in September. Promoting itself as the "Napa Valley of beer", Denver once again played host to the largest selection of beers under one roof.
While the festival set a new attendance record, the achievement is not without a downside. With a dramatic 27-percent increase in attendance, the GABF's present location is nearly ready to burst at the seams. The dark, uninviting confines of the windowless Colorado Convention Center do not help the situation. The experience is much like drinking beer in a crowded, loud cave.
THE GABF'S GROWING PAINS
While growing older and stronger, the festival has not taken steps forward in the maturity department. In the past, true beer geeks and industry insiders have found refuge in the Thursday evening and Saturday afternoon connoisseur sessions. At this year's GABF, the elements of intoxication and rabble rousing grew to new levels. The Friday and Saturday evening sessions were near intolerable for tasting and enjoyment. The sound of broken glass followed by screams and shouts filled the hall every minute or so, crowds grew large at the pouring tables, and attendees openly spoke of getting drunk at the festival. This year's festival brought front and center the problems the event will have to face in the future lest it become an unattractive destination.
The festival has also taken on a circus element in its presentation. Far from pinky-extending wine events, the sights and sounds of the festival are its own unique draw. Many attendees treat the event like Halloween, replete with costumes and homemade t-shirts. One brewer dressed in a cow outfit complete with udders, others in oversized orange overalls and big afros, and local college students announced themselves as the "University Drinking Team - GABF 2OO4". To complete the scene, gonzo artist Ralph Steadman entered the hall on the back of a motorcycle driven by Eric Warner of Denver's Flying Dog Brewery. Steadman, who is famous for illustrating the books of author Hunter S. Thompson, also contributed the sometimes controversial artwork on Flying Dog's beer labels. Festivalgoers also enjoyed Coors Light dispensed from the hood ornament of a fire truck/brewery recently forged on The Discovery Channel's Monster Garage television show.
THE AWARDS CEREMONY
At the center of the annual spectacle is the festival's medal competition as awarded by the GABF Professional Judge Panel, a group of 1OO brewers, judges and writers from four countries. This year's competition saw a record number of entries, with 398 breweries sending 2O16 beers to compete in 67 categories for 2O1 medals.
The award winners included some familiar names alongside many newcomers. Continuing its complete domination of the Fruit and Vegetable Beer category, fan favorite New Glarus Brewing Company of Wisconsin won another gold medal for its Raspberry Tart. New Glarus picked up another gold for its Brown Ale in the Wood and Barrel-aged Beer category. In the Smoke-Flavored Beer Category, the Alaskan Smoked Porter solidified its place as one of the GABF's most lauded beers with a bronze medal. Brewers in one of America's most unfriendly fermentation states also continued their command of the German-style Schwarzbier category - the Squatters Pub Brewery and the Uinta Brewing Company of Utah won gold and silver respectively in the category.
After suffering a long and noticeable lockout from the winner's stage, Dogfish Head won gold in the Specialty Honey Lager or Ale category for its Midas Touch.
While the competition's regional bent continued, California breweries won 37 total medals and Colorado breweries won 21 medals, the few New England breweries that entered the competition pulled out a respectable showing. Local breweries pulled out six medals in five highly contested categories.
Bay State breweries won a total on three medals. The Amherst Brewing Company won a silver in the Herb and Spice Beer category, which had 49 entries, for its Heather Ale. In the Experimental Beer category, the Boston Beer Company edged out the Cambridge Brewing Company for the gold medal for its Samuel Adams Millennium. After suffering a frustrating drought in the competition, the smooth, yet high octane Millennium impressed five of six judges for the first place nod. Cambridge's Will Meyers sent his incredibly layered Benevolence to the festival and went home with a silver medal. With all the travails of long distance travel, this beer richly deserved its accolade.
While Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire were all shut out of the medal awards, two brewers in Maine and Vermont won for their offerings. In the Irish-Style Red Ale category, the Casco Bay Brewing Company of Portland won a bronze medal for its Riptide Red Ale. In one of the big stories for New England breweries, the little and relatively new Alchemist brewpub of Waterbury, Vermont, took home two medals in two highly contested categories. In the Imperial or Double India Pale Ale, the brewpub proved it can brew with the big boys by taking home the bronze medal for its Heady Topper. By way of reference, the brewpub was beat out for the gold and silver by Tomme Arthur and his crew of mad brewers for the Pizza Port Brewing chain, which won its second consecutive award for small brewpub and small brewpub brewer of the year.
In the festival's final awards, several familiar names won the overall awards. The Miller Brewing Company was named Large Brewing Company of the Year, the Widmer Brothers Brewing Company won Mid-Size Brewing Company of the Year, the Sprecher Brewing Company won Small Brewing Company of the Year, and the Elysian Brewery and Public House Large Brewpub of the Year.
The GABF is experiencing some growing pains and finds itself at a bit of a crossroads. While it is by far the pre-eminent brewing festival in America, and one of the world's great festivals, it needs to evolve in order to stay relevant to the small brewing industry. Should the festival maintain its present course, it is not unlikely that it will simply devolve into another in a long line of well-intended events plagued by frequent bouts of intoxication and senselessness. The vibrance, excitement, and youth of the small brewing community are clear assets and the craft brewing industry deserves a festival that pushes the industry forward, unrestricted by the darker sides of alcohol usage.
Last year's addition of a food and cooking element was a welcomed complement to the industry's overall message of restoring beer's place at the American dinner table. At this year's festival, the food component was not as extensive and seemed scaled back. The Association of Brewers (AOB) and the industry at large would do well to capitalize on the growing use of beer in cooking, and to encourage brewers and vendors to offer pairings and thoughtful uses for beer.
A good example to follow is being set by craft beer pioneer Pete Slosberg. Slosberg, also known as 'Wicked Pete', helped start the craft brewing movement with his popular Pete's Wicked Brewing Company. Several years after selling his share in the company, which has suffered a startling decline since he left, Slosberg decided to indulge another passion: Belgian-style chocolate. At this year's GABF, Slosberg, who now goes by the moniker 'Cocoa Pete', offered pairings of his chocolates and American craft beers in a little booth tucked away in the beer garden section off the festival's main floor. His products reflect the quality and drive he puts into all of his projects, and his pairings at the festival demonstrate the best this industry has to offer. His pairing of chocolate and Russian River's high-octane Damnation was glorious. Cocoa Pete's Chocolate Adventures Company sets a good standard the festival should follow in future events.
LEADERSHIP for the FUTURE
During the awards ceremony, Charlie Papazian, President of the AOB, announced that the organization would merge with the Brewers Association of America (BAA) to form a new organization dedicated to promoting and lobbying on behalf of America's small brewing industry. The new organization, which will begin operation on January 1, 2OO5, will be named The Brewers Association and will be based in Boulder. The group's leaders also hold to establish a legislative affairs office in the Washington, DC area. The new agreement is subject to approval by the membership of the BAA, an organization formed during World War II to insure that small brewers received their share rationed items, including tin and barley.
"We believe that a combined organization will result in a stronger voice for small brewers in the media, in the nation's capital and in state legislatures," said Gary Fish, Chairman of the BAA and President of Deschutes Brewery, in a press release. "We are part of a government-regulated industry, and we need to marshal all the support we can to represent the interests of small brewers. The goals of both organizations are to promote and protect the industry. Together, we will do a much better job."
The leaders of the AOB were also excited about the merger. "There now are more than 15OO breweries in the United States, more than any other country in the world, and a united voice will enable us to tell our story to the world more effectively," said Charlie Papazian, founder and President of the Association of Brewers, formed in 1979 to promote the then fledgling small brewing industry.
BAA President Daniel Bradford has been offered the position of Legislative Director. The new organization's transitional board includes local brewers, including Rich Doyle of Harpoon Brewery and Jim Koch of Boston Beer Company.
"No one expects this to be an easy year as we work to integrate these two organizations into a single, stronger and more dynamic one," said Papazian. "But with the energy and dedication of everyone involved - from staff to board members to the membership as a whole - this will be a great new day for the small brewing industry." to more than 28,000.
BREWING for DEMOCRACY
Continuing to blend politics, marketing and beer, the Magic Hat Brewing Company released a new beer to encourage citizens to get out and vote. Magic Hat's new Participation Ale is part of the brewery's ongoing efforts to encourage citizens to become engaged in the political process. The beer's label features Magic Hat co-founder Alan Newman dressed as Uncle Sam and promotes itself as "an ale to provoke political discussion".
The brewery has a history of political involvement. Shortly after Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords switched his party affiliation from Republican to Independent, thus handing control of the United States Senate to the Democrats, the brewery released a beer in celebration. Magic Hat's 'Jeezum Jim' was a special release that garnered a great deal of media attention. When reached for comment, Senator Jeffords quipped, "This beer is a moderate beer - totally consistent with my philosophy."
Participation Ale is a take on the traditional English brown ale style. It is four percent alcohol, is made with pale, chocolate, dark crystal malts and molasses, and the beer is dry hopped with Fuggles. The beer is available in 22-ounce bottles and on draft.
The release was part of a collaboration with HeadCount.org, a non-profit organization of volunteers dedicated to increasing voter turnout on election day. During the Magic Hat Tavern Tour, the brewery's sales staff and other volunteers helped promote political discourse and debate and helped patrons get registered to vote. The brewery also released a 29 question political quiz, including questions on the Supreme Court, the number of Senators in Congress, and how many states presently implement the death penalty, in order to enliven debate.
The brewery offers the following in support of its efforts: "Participation Ale is Magic Hat's declaration of interdependence between the health of the commonwealth and the will of its people to patronize their polling places. Those who seek its pleasures will find it presents upon the palate a rich and satisfying moment not unlike those enjoyed during the exercise of unalienable rights."