The 24th annual Great American Beer Festival (GABF), the largest event yet for the Brewers Association, offered beer lovers an unparalleled sampling opportunity and contained a number of surprises for brewers as well. The awards ceremony itself took more than two hours to complete, a perhaps unwanted record for the organizers. Overall, there were two big stories at GABF, each meaningfully contributing to a common theme: the big brewers arrived in 2OO5.
RETURN of the KING
Clearly the highlight of the weekend, the annual GABF awards ceremony unites brewers and owners in a hushed union of nervous anticipation. As the event has grown in size, the significance of the medals, for purposes of both public relations and professional fulfillment, has also increased. The awards process starts slowly, with the announcement of the winners in the Non-alcoholic Beer category. With only five entries, the O'Douls line from Anheuser-Busch quickly takes two medals, including the gold. The assembled crowd, mainly comprised of unshaved, brash craft brewing types, politely claps for America's largest brewery.
Courtesy quickly turns to shock when A-B wins a silver medal in the highly competitive Fruit and Vegetable Beer category - the win by the new 9th Street Market Tuscan Orange product strikes at the heart of the craft brewing industry, besting perennial favorite Raspberry Tart by New Glarus. Even more impressive, A-B went on to score gold medals in the German-style Marzen/Oktoberfest category and the Classic English-style Pale Ale category. Craft brewers looked stunned by the announcements, while A-B's staffers were ecstatic.
With A-B's recent return to the Micro/Specialty segment of more flavorful beers, the timing of the awards couldn't be better for the brewery. The brewery used the GABF as a launching point for the release of its new specialty line of beers, which starts with Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale, a seasonal draft offering. The brewery plans to release a new draft beer every three months to provide on-premise accounts with an alternative to craft brewed products. Jack's is made with Golden Delicious pumpkins from Oregon, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, clove, and the brewery's traditional mixture of Hallertau, Tettnang and Saaz hops.
"Winning medals at the Great American Beer Festival is a great honor for any brewer," said Doug Muhleman, Group Vice President, Brewing Operations and Technology, Anheuser-Busch, Inc. "The festival is an exciting celebration of beer culture, bringing together hundreds of breweries and thousands of beers to be judged by the some of the most knowledgeable people in our industry. The expertise and hard work of many people in our company combined to produce these beers, and it's very gratifying to have them recognized. I congratulate our team for their efforts."
Anheuser-Busch is also expanding its bottled offerings under the Michelob brand name. The Michelob Specialty Sampler Collection will target grocery and convenience stores and will include the newly crowned Michelob Marzen and Michelob Pale Ale, along with Michelob, Honey Lager and AmberBock. A special 18-pack will include three bottles of each beer, two limited-edition pilsner glasses, a collection of recipes featuring the beers, beer mixer recipes, suggested food pairings, and other tips from Anheuser-Busch brewmasters.
The 9th Street Market line appears to be another foray into the flavored malt beverage or malternative category. The series uses a pilsner beer as the base and brewers infuse fruit flavors and spices into the final product. The line includes several flavors, including Blood Orange Grapefruit, Lime Cactus and Pomegranate Raspberry. The company is presently testing the product line in several West Coast markets.
While A-B remains one of the strongest breweries in the world, with the most technically competent brewers, the specialty releases on display at the festival were uniformly under-whelming in terms of flavor. I admit upfront that my tastings were not done blind, as were those conducted by the GABF's panel of judges, and that there is always room for bias. With that said, I always respond to the shrill, tired attacks of beer geeks upon macro-brewers in the same tone: the breweries make the most consistent, technically sound beer in the world and they could make the best in terms of flavor if they only chose to do so. Somewhere between the marketing department and the brewhouse floor, each of these beers went off-target.
Anheuser-Busch also released test samples of the first of two new high-alcohol specialty releases. While the new Brewmasters' Private Reserve was not yet available, the brewers poured Celebrate, a limited edition lager brewed with vanilla beans and aged in oak bourbon barrels. Poured from a 24ounce, champagne style bottle, the 1O-percent alcohol beer possesses a lightly fruity aroma with mild oak notes. The flavor, however, is a let down. Overall, the beer is over-oaked and possesses an odd cotton candy flavor that tends towards overly sweet and sugary.
The award-winning Marzen and Pale Ale also were disappointing compared to the more flavorful products available at the festival. I went to Denver greatly anticipating the new specialty releases and left thinking that A-B had missed an opportunity to prove itself. While the Marzen lacks sufficient color and malty flavor to compare with better representations of the style, it is the Pale Ale that truly confounds me. Though it won for the Classic English Style Pale Ale category, one whose hop profile is described simply as displaying "English-variety hop character", this possible lager beer inexplicably employs Saaz, Hallertau and Tettnang hops. I simply couldn't believe my eyes when I read the label. The flavors and aromas of each were very muted but this beer was anything other than its intended style.
THE RISE OF SANDLOT
While Anheuser-Busch failed to impress with its renewed foray into the high-end, specialty beer market, another brewery, a subsidiary of Coors, proved again why it is one of the best brewers of lager beer in America. I first came across the SandLot Brewing Company, which is attached to the Coors Field ballpark in downtown Denver, a few years ago at the GABF after attending a media event there. I later interviewed head brewer Tom Hail in this publication and have written about them in several pieces on the GABF. SandLot has accumulated a number of medals and awards for their beers. At this year's GABF, SandLot cleaned house in the German beer categories and walked away with seven medals. SandLot specializes in brewing true-to-style pilsner beers and won four awards. The wins culminated in the brewery winning the award for Small Brewing Company of the Year. As explained to me by Tom Hail, SandLot is actually not licensed as a brewpub, but has a separate brewery license. The brewery sells its beer in the Denver metro area and mostly to the pub at Coors Field, where the brewery is based. That serves as the basis for its small brewing company classification.
It's been a long road to respect for the guys at SandLot. Due to their corporate ties to Coors, and their dedication to the under-appreciated cause of lager beers, many beer geeks simply dismiss the ballpark brewery. While clearly a little sensitive to the criticism, the SandLot team responds with humor. At the GABF, they let two humorously named beers make their case for them. When Chris Swersey, the director of the judging competition, announces the silver medalist in the European-style Pilsner category, he does so with a laugh. The "Most Beer Judges are Bone Heads" pilsner from SandLot also proves popular with the assembled crowd. While SandLot's brewers are on-stage to collect gold and silver medals in the American-style Specialty Lager category, Swersey announces the winners in the Vienna-style Lager category. Unfortunately, SandLot's delightful "Clueless Beer Writer" offering does not medal, narrowly missing another opportunity for poignant humor, but entertains those who stop by the brewery's booth.
NEW ENGLAND BREWERS
While participation in the GABF continues to remain on the low-side for New England brewers, those in attendance achieved some impressive results. First-time attendee Cambridge House brewpub, located in Granby, Connecticut, won a gold medal in the Cellar or Unfiltered Beer category for its Copper Hill Kolsch. Moments after the win, co-owner Steve Boucino beamed like a proud father while he poured his award-winner. "It feels incredible," he said. "Only six months old and we're already getting recognition." He praised head brewer Steve Schmidt, who also works as a lead brewer at Redhook in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
A few booths down, the Allagash Brewing Company secured two impressive medals in the highly competitive Belgian-style categories. Owner Rob Tod stood confident and proud over his brewery's accomplishments. "I feel good," he said. "We didn't win the last few years so it feels good to win a medal. The White is our flagship and we've been brewing that for a long time, so I'm happy it won a gold." While Tod considers attendance at the festival to be a good business opportunity for the fast spreading Allagash brands, he also enjoys the camaraderie of meeting other brewers and enjoying the craft beer scene. "It's a blast," he says. "I love it here - think part of the reason we come out here is it's just an excuse to have fun for a weekend - it's also a nice way for us to expose our beer to people who maybe haven't tried it before. Being two-thousand miles away from the brewery, they may not have heard of the beers."
Other winners from New England include a bronze medal in the Bohemian Style Pilsener category for the Vermont Lager from Otter Creek Brewing/Wolaver's Organic Beers in Middlebury, Vermont, and a gold medal in the Other Strong Ale or Lager category for the Wheat Wine from the Smuttynose Brewing Company in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
THE RESURGENCE OF SAM ADAMS
The Boston Beer Company enjoyed a successful festival, winning four total medals, including two gold medals for its Sam Adams Light and Samuel Adams Doppelbock products. The accolades were the reward for the company's redoubled efforts on promoting craft beer and the flavor of its products. During the initial release of the Sam Adams Light product, Boston Beer appeared to change its focus from flavor to hype. The loud, raucous television ads accompanying the new light beer more closely resembled those produced by America's macro brewers. Boston Beer is now in the middle of a large media buy with a new set of television ads, done in chapters, which focus on the quality of the beer and its ingredients. Each new installment introduces consumers to the brewing process, hops and barley, and underscores the importance of flavor in beer.
Boston Beer has also started a new consumer campaign called the Beer Lover's Choice program. The brewery has produced two new beers, a Bohemian Pilsner and a Brown Ale, that it is promoting at tastings in bars across the country. Tested side-by-side, consumers will learn about the two very different styles of beer and then be given the opportunity to choose which beer should appear in the upcoming mixed 12-pack, to be called the Brewmaster's Collection. While the pilsner has a beautiful, deep golden hue and a light peppery flavor from the sharp Saaz hops, the big, malty Brown Ale, rich with Marris Otter malt flavor, re-energizes an otherwise moribund style.
THE REST OF THE STORY
The Brewers Association also took the opportunity of having assembled dozens of members of the beer press to announce craft beer production numbers for the first half of 2OO5. Paul Gatza, Director of the Brewers Association, announced that volume for the craft beer industry increased by 7.1 percent in the first half of the year, while imports increased similarly and macro products are down nearly 3 percent. "The most interesting piece of news I have seen of late is that imports, after a strong spring for sales to wholesale, tanked in July, down 6.5 percent from last July," he said. "That puts the 7-month growth at 4.5 percent, with estimates that it will finish at 2 percent once the year is over. The large domestic brewers should also get closer to level. It was a strong summer, but Katrina will dampen the progress made there."