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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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3 thoughts on “A Brief Recap and Review of the 2008 Great American Beer Festival…

  1. Doesn’t it rather devalue the medals that so many are handed out? 222 to go around 450 breweries seems pretty good odds to me. Are 1 in 13 of the beers exhibited really that exceptional?

  2. Hey Ron, hope all is well with you and your travels. The BA hands out 222 medals in 75 categories at the GABF. More than 2900 beers participate for those 222 medals, which provides that approximately 7.5 percent of all beers that are entered win an award and correspondingly that 2.5-percent win gold. In any grading scheme if only 2.5 percent of the entrants get the highest grade, I think that’s pretty fair. Now the 222 medals are not given to 450 breweries. In fact, I’d venture that 85-percent of the entering breweries walk away with nothing. Many breweries take home more than 1 medal (with the biggest breweries, A-B, MillerCoors, and Pabst taking home probably 10-20 medals) so that significantly drops the medal total. It also shows how impressive a particularly brewery’s performance is (see Firestone Walker, Alaskan, Port Brewing, etc) when it manages to take multiple medals year after year in a blind tasting. I would say that yes, every one in 13 beers would be solid enough to achieve a bronze, and every 1 in 26 a silver, and every 1 in 39 a gold. Those numbers get much bigger when you subtract the winners in categories that are not well attended (say under 20 entrants versus nearly 200 in the most competitive style categories, say IPA) and those categories dominated by the biggest brewers (American-style light lager, premium lager, etc). I think, with so many styles represented, that it would be impossible and a little ridiculous to try and select a “Champion beer” as is done with many CAMRA events.

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