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The GABF That Was And Wasn’t…

I’ve just returned from my 15th annual trip to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. That number still boggles my mind and I’ve seen the fest (from its days at Currigan Hall), the City of Denver, and the attendant brewing and drinking communities change greatly in that time. Taking a cue from another beer writer, I’ve decided to avoid writing another lengthy diatribe on the GABF (like the controversial one from last year) and here’s an only slightly less diatribe-y list of my thoughts on this year’s GABF.

Let’s Start With The Positive…

1. What an electric moment it was when Jack McAuliffe walked onto the stage during the awards presentation. It was great to see him receive the praise he never did during his brief brewing days.

2. Denver is becoming one hell of a city. I’ve been attending the GABF for 15 years and the changes have come fast and furious in that time. The last year has seen a massive amount of new construction and the continued expansion and growing prominence of new neighborhoods, such as the Highlands. No longer are visitors restricted to scouring the same two or three bars in the increasingly seedy LoDo district. By avoiding the usual suspects, I also ate (and largely drank) better than I ever have in Denver during the fest. The potted salted caramel cheesecake at Colt & Gray was reason enough to leave LoDo.

3. It was fantastic to visit a bevy of new breweries of varying sizes that have opened up in Denver in the last week to year. From the unbelievably tiny Wit’s End Brewing to the fantastically communal Denver Beer Company to the excellent Renegade Brewing Company, these new entrants have brought a renewed vitality to a self-proclaimed “Napa Valley of Beer” whose scene was frankly getting a little stale. That several of the new faces also won their first GABF medals was a great celebration of their hard work.

4. The best beer I had at the festival was Remi’s Saison IPA from the Equinox Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colorado. This was apparently (and sadly) a one-off collaboration with a local homebrewer, named Remi Bonnart, who won the National Homebrewer of the Year title in 2010. Tasty and intriguing stuff.

5. Despite some grumbles from attendees regarding floor space, I actually thought recreating the 30th anniversary floor plan with the original brewers was kind of a nice touch.

6. Thank god that Falling Rock finally reopened the lower pit area in front of the bar (if only for one night). I attended one Dogfish Head event and an Oktoberfest style event in this area a long time ago and the extra room makes the difference between being smashed together in a hot assed bar after standing in a half-block long line and having the ability to actually talk and share pints with friends. Let the nerds pack together in the basement. I’ll take the outside pit any day. We almost skipped Falling Rock this year (in part because of Point 2 above) due to the horribly packed environs this central meeting point offers experiences every year. Let’s hope this happens again next year.

The Less Positive Parts Of The Festival…

1. I have no idea what a dozen or so of the awarded beer styles mean. I’m sure you can explain to me what Field or Indigenous Beers are but the categories left folks around me at the awards presentation scratching their heads.

2. I really wasn’t blown away by many of the beers that I tried at the festival. Perhaps it is age, cynicism, or something else, but I thought the overall trend was towards pretty mainstream flavors and without many particularly noteworthy offerings. I did have some solid lager beers and saw more of them at the fest, which was a very positive trend. The IPA’s, however, tasted pretty samey across the board.

3. Considering this was the festival’s 30th anniversary, I expected the Brewers Association to celebrate with more events or to put a greater focus on it. The association really didn’t and it seemed a bit of an afterthought.

The Downright Disappointing Parts Of The Fest

There is only one point to be made here, with a few sub-points:

1. Where did all the brewers go?

1a. Putting the awards presentation aside, I saw or ran into a grand total of 5 brewers at the 2 sessions I attended. I’ve never experienced such a shortage in my years of attending.

1b. Brewers were as scarce at booths as sartorial good taste (paging Garrett) and sober restraint. I lamented this fact last year and called upon the Brewers Association to do something about it. Instead, I saw a lot of booths (even whole aisles) staffed only by volunteers (many of whom knew nothing about the beer–I heard one get both the beer’s style and brewer’s state wrong in one exchange with an inquiring consumer) or by faux-brewery staffers wearing brewery lanyards but who actually were just working as know-nothing stand-ins for their brewer buddies.

1c. A number of brewers either decided not to attend the GABF or were locked out from attending due to the awards and floor space closing up early. I heard several grumbles about some breweries being permitted to enter a large number of beers while others were then shut out entirely. I also heard from several well-known brewers that they were focusing on their local markets instead of attending the more national (or hyper-local, see below) GABF.

1d. It appears that the GABF is no longer vital to the industry nor a must-attend event for many brewers or beer lovers. It is at its essence grown into a company paid vacation (for admittedly hard-working) brewers and a gigantic local beer fest. Without the benefit of numbers, I would imagine that three-quarters of the attendees at minimum hail from within 30 miles of the 80202 area code. And while the hotels and car rentals are booked long in advance, beyond industry folks, the impact of the festival seems largely lost on many of the 49,000 attendees. And I understand why you would be hesitant to attend. If you run a little brewpub in Virginia or even a large craft brewery in Boston, it’s hard to say what value the GABF offers your brand or brewery. (With this said, I need to ask someone like Joe Short why he spends so much time and money on his GABF presentation. I may be missing a whole side to this or maybe he just likes to party). Perhaps the GABF medal is still a coveted commodity and it’s clear that many breweries still want to take a shot and send a few beers to compete. But the festival itself seems much an afterthought. It has simply turned into the world’s largest bar for Denver-ites. Unless you’re trying to sell beer in Colorado, it seems as if the festival has turned into the last place you’ll see a brewer during the last week in September.

Reading over my post from last year on the unfortunate aspects of the Great American Beer Festival, I think most of the criticisms remain true and that the opportunities for beer education and brand building have essentially been lost at the GABF. For next year, I hope the Brewers Association considers the simple point I made last year: breweries that choose to pour beer on the festival floor should be required to have a representative at the booth at all times.

Be Social:

23 thoughts on “The GABF That Was And Wasn’t…

  1. Thanks for this! As a volunteer, I echo the sentiment of the lack of brewers to be found. Many times I would step up to pour, and there would be nobody around to tell me what I was offering. The few breweries that had someone standing in were great to work with, and that was very important to me from the start – to hear from the breweries about their beers. Especially before trying to serve them to someone else.

    I hope the brewery presence at the stations is a bit stronger next year.

  2. I too wanted talk to more brewers. I wanted to thank them first of all then ask questions about their beer. The fact that Volunteers are required to be used by the festival has taken away some of the interaction among us home brewers that want to brew great beer and those that already do.

  3. Wow, I’ve never been to GABF, so it’s crazy to hear that so many of these booths are staffed entirely by volunteers. If I’m paying that much for travel/admission, I’d like to get the chance to meet the person who made the beer, or at least talk to someone more knowledgable about it.

    Maybe you’ve already written about this, but I’d like to hear what your ideal festival would be like, for breweries and attendees.

    It will also be interesting to see what GABF is like in 5 or 10 years as the market continues to localize. Large regional festivals? Hm.

  4. Are you upset you didn’t see brewers behind the tables? Or sitting around waiting (hoping) their name would be called. I shook hands with at least five brewers that I either knew or had seen somewhere else before (Dave Thibideau is really damn short) while I was looking for someone during the awards ceremony.

    Yes, there are few sitting behind their tables, but they have better things to do. I have a good buddy who is professional brewer in Seattle. They have three brewers, but only he (#2 on the totem pole) came out. On Friday, we went on a tour of the various breweries. On Saturday afternoon, we did the festival, and we wandered trying to find the best sours, bourbons, and a decent IPA (I’ll echo your sentiments there). And Sat night we were at Falling Rock.

    A brewer only gets asked a question every 10 minutes if he’s behind a booth. He wants to be other places, drinking good beer and enjoying people like the rest of us. Also, those brewers behind the table are often more smashed than the attendees.

    1. Hi Matt-

      My point related to having knowledgeable reps (brewers or sales staff) at the tables for those breweries that chose to pour beer on the festival floor. I certainly appreciate the desire to visit other brewers (and the value in that experience, beyond the community aspect). But if you as a brewery decided there was value in undertaking the not inconsiderable expense of pouring beer on the festival floor, it seems an utter exercise in futility to not also represent your brands there. Or at least, as DBC notes here, give the volunteers some sort of information on your brands. I doubt you’d let strangers give your brewery tours and representation at a festival with 49,000 possible consumer visitors seems like the absolute wrong place to turn over the control and security of your brand’s value. All it takes is one errant statement to turn off a possible customer.

      And I disagree that brewers/reps don’t field questions. I watched the few reps there actually tell consumers about the beers they were pouring and I often saw the consumers give a response. That sort of interaction has real value. I also saw plenty of consumers ask questions of volunteers, only to receive blank stares or incorrect information in response.

      If you can afford to pour on the floor, you can probably afford to have one staffer attend each session or at least the first hour or two. Sitting at Falling Rock shooting the shit with your buddies seems like a lost opportunity for the brewer, brewery, and consumer combined. Otherwise, why not just skip the festival altogether and just visit the bars and breweries?

      @Heather With my obvious conflict of interest/bias stated up front, I think the Beer Advocate festivals in Boston (including its very large American Craft Beer Festival) are good models for beer fests going forward. You will rarely if ever find a booth that doesn’t have a rep pouring the beers and informing consumers and there usually are several. Beer education also takes a front seat at these fests, from the guide to the panels (which for full disclosure, I run).



  5. There were SO MANY visitors asking questions of the beers I poured. Jolly Pumpkin’s brewer spent the majority of the event ON THE FLOOR just outside his station, fielding questions and engaging people. When there was a question I couldn’t answer, with no brewery person around to help, there was disappointment in the crowd. To hear that brewery staff were using the time they could have been building up their product to new drinkers relaxing at Falling Rock really disappoints me as a craft beer geek and a consumer.

    Maybe GABF just isn’t the craft beer forum I expected it to be.

    1. Hey Stan-

      I think that issue can be addressed by improving the fest’s layout and just by common courtesy, which routinely happens at other fests I attend. I don’t think the answer lies in a complete absence of brewer presence on the floor. As for me, I’m not particularly interested in attending the festival next year for the reasons I cited. Might be time to break my streak as it just feels de rigueur at this point.



      P.S. Were you in town? If so, sorry to have missed you once again…

  6. 100% a great summation of GABF. This was my first time attending. I was only able to make the Saturday night session. No one informed me beforehand that everything I wanted to try would be out before I even entered the doors. I was heart broken, as I flew all the way from Detroit, and I was eagerly excited to cross the festival off my bucketlist. I saw maybe two representatives from breweries, the rest were volunteers.

    Perhaps just like a lot of breweries are pulling back the states they distribute to, they are also pulling out of festivals and staying local. Only 11 breweries from Michigan came to GABF, and being from Michigan and knowing their products, they didn’t even bring their tastiest brews. I’ve attended many festivals in state and almost never do I come across a booth without a brewer or rep there.

    I was sadly disappointed about GABF. I love Denver, but I won’t come back to GABF unless someone pays me. I attended the Beer Advocate festival in Boston in June, and felt much of the same as I did about GABF.

  7. I worked for one of the Guild’s during GABF this year and it should be noted that the BA requires two representatives from each Guild to be present at the booth during every session. This could be a program manager, brewery owner or brewer. We had all three present at one time or another. It didn’t seem to be that way for every Guild and I’m not sure why this requirement is made on Guilds and not breweries in general.

    I fielded a lot of questions about the beer and attendees were very happy to see brewers and owners behind the table.

    On the other hand, in defense of brewers, GABF is a major networking opportunity (with brewers, equip co’s, etc.) and also need to explore the festival to learn about beer trends, styles and so on.

  8. I couldn’t agree more. My Dad and I said the same thing especially during the Saturday Afternoon session. On Thursday their seemed to be a good number of brewers interacting with the fest goers and that’s probably due to the excitement of it being the first day but during the Saturday afternoon session limited to AHA members (the group who arguably would like conversing with the brewery reps the most) there were almost no reps. All I saw were waves upon waves of green shirts who had difficulty answering basic questions. Alternatively, I will point out there were quiet a few volunteers that actually knew their stuff and were helpful (albeit, they could just be good at sounding confident with their answers as for some brewery’s I wouldn’t know if it was accurate information or not)

  9. Just a comment from Shorts.

    We did go all out this year bringing 15 reps from the brewery and of course constructing what we thought was a cool and functional booth. Why did we do this when we are so far away and do not reguarly distribute in CO? Firstly our staff have fun and want to do it so it has become a tradition for us. We will reuse the booth at other events and maybe again at GABF next year. Secondly we recently renewed our Michigan only commitment but realize that we have received much support nationally and especially from Colorado. Therefore we decided to send beer to Colorado and use the profits to fund our GABF booth. We held a sponsorship drive to fund some of the travel costs. So in the end we had a great time, hopefully made Colorado happy, and represented Michigan breweries to the best of our abilities all at a reasonable expense. Hopefully this will inspire other brewers to up their game as next year we will be upping ours even more making GABF as good as it can be.

    Scott Newman-Bale

    1. Hey Scott-

      Without question, you guys killed it. And know how to party…



      P.S. The half-dozen or more folks serving at your booth could answer any questions folks had (assuming your info detailed banners didn’t already put their questions to rest).

  10. Scott – I’m glad to hear you guys have a good time! I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to get to your booth and try you guys out! There are many breweries I had never heard of, or had heard of, but can’t get in Colorado. New Glaurs of course comes to mind. It’s exciting and fun to try beers from ‘exotic’ places you can’t get to every day, and getting a chance to hear what the beer scene is like in other cities always intrigues me. I completely understand the networking and enjoyment side for the brewers, but from a marketing and outreach standpoint, having a brewery representative at the booth means a lot to us ‘little guys’.

    1. Agreed Denverbeerchick, I think a rep at the booth at all times should be the norm not the exception. That is why we brought so many people to Denver. We love the volunteers for what they do but we have to be the ones to present the product and answer questions. Another reason for the end cap is that even having a regular table we needed 6-8 people to staff to an okay level. The end cap massively increased the staff we could utilize.

  11. Andy – Perhaps I was being a bit flip with my comment. Except for a few exceptions it seemed possible for brewers to talk with drinkers.

    However, I also found plenty of brewers to talk to Thursday and Friday evenings and Saturday afternoon (except during the awards, which I did not watch). Even if it were one in five (and it sure seemed like more) there were plenty there.

  12. I can see it both ways – if I’m “the brewer”, no way I’m standing around chatting with fanboys and drunkards the whole time. If I’m there 10-20% of the time, odds are very strongly against you (or any other single person) being there at the same time. On the other hand, yes, at least someone from the brewery should be there. This is nothing new – this year was my 2nd GABF, the first one was 3 years ago, and I felt the EXACT same thing, volunteers who knew less than I did there to answer questions. That said, I overheard at least one brewery employee talking about the lengths they went to to cover their booth and how many hours he had to put in. So not all are equal – I assume the more popular a brewery is, the more hands there are to shake and the less inclined any rockstar brewers (Sam C., Greg K., etc.) are to be there (although I did shake Sam’s hand at the DFH booth on Thu.)

    I heartily agree with Stan’s comment above. Beer geeks holding up the line to chat up the brewer is NOT what we need. And the problem with, as you suggest as a solution, common courtesy is that it ain’t that common. I can’t tell you how many times I stood in a moderately long line while Joe Dude stood at the table, slowly working his way through every sample, pausing to reflect between each one, with nobody official to tell him he should move along and get back in line.

    There’s no perfect solution, in my opinion. Yes, brewers and staff are there to enjoy themselves as much as the rest of us. It’s a festival, not a trade show or conference. Festival=festive=party down. I randomly met several awesome folks, from Charlie C. to Garrett O. and they were all completely pleasant and courteous, which is far more than a lot of people would be in the same situation (meeting hundreds of people, shaking countless hands, posing for photos non-stop).

  13. I’m glad I’m not the only one disappointed with the lack of brewery reps. There was one local Atlanta brewer I knew who was always behind the table. I mentioned how nice it was and he said they received a letter saying there needed to be a rep at the booth at all times, which was obviously not followed. Happily this brewer won an award. He should get another for following directions like in elementary school.

    There was someone at each booth at the Farm to Table but a few seemed bitter about it. The end booths were an exception as well. Sierra Nevada had 30 people there for the week and they took advantage of it by having company meetings. Dogfish Head is always great about it and Shorts did it up right!

    There are a number of industry only and/or special events around town during the week that the reps attend. I wish they would make the fest, especially the Members Only day, more of a priority.

  14. Getting to hear things from the side of the breweries really does help. I completely understand the need to network AND enjoy the festival. Maybe a happy medium would be something along the lines of an across-the-board standard of information about each beer at the stations. There were some breweries with laminated signs for each beer with brewing information, ABV, IBU, etc… When I would step up to pour for that station, I could read the facts, taste the beer, and at least be prepared for general questions. If every brewery had that information available, a moderately-knowledgable beer geek volunteer could be quite successful in the task.

    Which brings me to another point I’ve noticed a few mention – volunteers that seem to know aboslutely nothing about beer. I’d love to help someone new to beer learn about it, and get the opportunity to try new things, but maybe a Friday night volunteer shift at GABF isn’t the time for that.

    And maybe I’m just taking the whole thing too seriously.

  15. Andy, interesting analysis. This was my first trip, and I had no basis for comparison. My own experience was slightly different–perhaps because I was seeking out smaller, less-known breweries from the South and Midwest. From the first booth on the first day (Jolly Pumpkin), I was continually surprised to find either a brewer/rep or a knowledgeable volunteer pouring the beer. It was only during the final session that I started to find clueless vols, and I asked them about that. A couple were doing their second shifts and said that earlier in the fest, they’d been trained up by the brewery about the beer. (Obviously, volunteers couldn’t answer many questions I had, like what souring organisms were used, how long a beer was lagered, etc, but they knew the basic info–often including hop types.)

    But I would happily endorse the broad contours of your post, which seem spot on. I’m one of those people who has never gone, and my wish to return isn’t especially strong.

  16. Andy,

    Really interesting observation. I am completely guilty of not manning my table enough.

    This was my first year not attending as media, but as a brewery rep/ brewer (Yes, I even had a beer entered…happy face. I lost, though… sad face). Personally, I found it hard to stay behind the table the entire time because, although I wanted to represent my brewery and my beer, temptation to taste other people’s beers and hunt down friends can be overwhelming. Which, now looking back, was probably very selfish.

    My goal one night was to taste all the saisons on the floor to see what my beer was up against (and hunt down the previous years winners). I can’t help but think I’m not the only brewery person who did this.

    We did, however, try to have a rep at the table at all times. Obviously, being a small brewery with only 3 people on the floor, it wasn’t always easy.

    Something I did notice about this year was how many events conflicted with the actual sessions. There were a lot of events that coincided with the fest, and I’m sure that they drained many brewers. Another conflict during GABF is the Farm to Table Pavilion (also known as the brewers haven). I didn’t attend this year, but I know that a lot of brewers spent a significant amount of time inside and not on the floor.

    Ironically, the most time I spent behind the table was during the awards. But I know that almost all the others were in fact in that area.

    On a different note: I totally agree with you on Denver’s amazing beer and food scene. I also had the opportunity to venture out to colt & grey. Had some amazing bone marrow and a great beer cocktail. Euclid Hall was also another highlight.

    And although I can see why you feel that way about Falling Rock, I’m still newbie enough to love all the craziness that ensues there during GABF. Heck, if it wasn’t for hanging out at Falling Rock, I wouldn’t have seen half the brewers that I missed seeing on the floor at GABF. Not to mention, I finally got to meet the Alstrom Bros (which, after past altercations, was actually one of the highlights of the weekend).

    Just unfortunate I did not get to meet the famous Andy Crouch. I guess I will have to keep that one on my bucket list for next year.



  17. Here is a thought-why not have the fest move around the country to a different city each year? Seems unfair that it has become a Denver locals thing, I haven’t been and I am unsure if I ever will, but changing locations each year makes it more likely others will.

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