A Tale of Two Beer Festivals…

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As legend has it, homebrewing advocate Charlie Papazian and beer writer Michael Jackson gazed over the bounty of excellent beers on the floor of the Great British Beer Festival in the early 1980s and an idea struck Papazian. He turned to Jackson and remarked that he wanted to hold a similar festival back in the United States. Jackson nodded in understanding, and wryly retorted, “yes, but where will you get the beer?”

The first Great American Beer Festival, held in a small Boulder hotel ballroom in 1982, saw beers from around twenty breweries, whose numbers mainly included the few regional breweries still in existence, along with upstarts such as Sierra Nevada and Boulder Brewing. In the truest sense of, “if you build it, they will come,” a fast forward nearly three decades finds the GABF to have developed into the world’s largest beer festival, boasting 3,500 beers from 500 breweries.

The grand daddy of beer fests, the GBBF too remains strong and still sets an enviable example for other events. The GBBF at Earl’s Court is a curious place where servers pour beers by the pint, in actual, proper glasses, and where many attendees stand around engaged in conversation while slowly enjoying their ales. To be sure, the GBBF suffers from some of the same issues that plague other fests, but seemingly to a lesser extent. While people still cheer when a pint shatters on the cement floor, no one tries to smack the glass from your hands as with recent GABF’s. There is also something remarkably adult about the GBBF’s format, where the larger vessels counsel visitors to slow down and really get to know their beers. And with bottles available for take away—and often at prices better than what we get in the states—GABF veterans can be forgiven their astonishment.

But there are signs of change at the traditionalist GBBF as well. While the real ale booths remain well-attended, it’s the foreign bars, filled with American, Belgian, and German treats that truly pack in the crowds. Perhaps out of sheer novelty, the often unbelievable prices, or maybe as a palate bashing break from mellower British offerings, these beers remain in constant demand and disappear quickly. Starting with close to 100 casks and hundreds of bottles on the first day of the festival, which was mainly open to brewers and other members of the trade, nearly everything was ravaged by the end of day two. Plenty of thirsty, disappointed beer enthusiasts could be expected for the final two days of the event. Beyond the foreign bars, by far the most popular British beers at the fest had some sort of American connection. I watched the Colorado American IPA from Red Squirrel enveloped in a constant stream of pours until it kicked, all while dozens of other nearby traditional beers sat untouched. Similar scenes could be experienced across the hall with BrewDog’s Punk IPA. Where the IPA moniker once suggested stodgy, old beers your dad would drink, by the end of day two, attendees had killed every IPA at the fest, an incredible change of circumstances in only a few years.

To be sure, hundreds of brilliant, traditional milds, bitters, and porters dominated the beer engines and the awards presentations. All the excitement of the fest, however, centered on the less established offerings and suggested that the future of British beer might not rest in campaigns to return to perceived glory days of old but in the splendor and whimsy of brewing innovation. As brewers at the GABF continue to experiment and push the definitions of beer and the boundaries of the drinking public, it’ll be interesting to see what results in the tug of war between the American and British brewing models in another twenty-five years.

–Article appeared in Issue 43 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Drunk at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival…

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This year’s trip to the Great American Beer Festival was a whirlwind tour, one in which it often felt like I was somewhere other than Denver. From my arrival on Thursday through leaving this morning, we were always on the way to something else: another book signing, a new restaurant, or an event. For the first time in years, I spent less than an hour at the Falling Rock Tap House during the entire weekend. This was, however, tempered by meeting its owner, Chris Black, who stopped by to buy my book during a signing. I want to focus this post on the festival itself but I would be remiss if I didn’t thank the Brewers Association for inviting me to sign books at the festival and to touch briefly upon the book event we held while in town. Conceived as part book release party and part celebration of the many brewers who never get any air time in Denver, we titled the event “The Great American Craft Beer Experience.” I was joined at the excellent Stoney’s Bar and Grill by three wonderfully talented and engaging brewers, Matt Brynildson from Firestone-Walker, Paul Philippon from Duck-Rabbit, and Doug Odell from Odell Brewing. We held a tutored tasting of seven of their beers (all but one are featured in my book, Great American Craft Beer) and a panel discussion about the craft beer industry. The audience was engaged and we (the event was co-sponsored by my buddies at BeerAdvocate) look forward to hosting more of these events during next year’s festival.

By all numeric quantifiers, this year’s Great American Beer Festival was a resounding success. With a record sell-out time, record number of beers entered, and record number of attendees, the festival continues to grow with every passing year. After attending parts of three of four sessions, I left the festival with some new impressions, both positive and critical. On the positive side, the festival staff have clearly gone to some lengths to improve the educational components surrounding the massive consumption of beer. The cooking events were informative and packed and the educational seminars were well-considered if slightly under-attended. The Brewers Association also set up a few helpful displays throughout the hall that attempted to teach attendees more about appreciating and understanding beer. A display of different types of glassware was especially interesting as were the many beer-related vendor booths.

But where the festival succeeds due to the planning and dedication of its staff, it has also become a victim of its own success. Approximately 49,000 people attended the various sessions and at times the hall felt spacious and then curiously ill-designed for the event. While the back of the hall boomed with space, the middle and front sections were impassably crowded during much of the fest. But this quibble aside, the vibe of the festival has definitely changed in recent years, from a niche event to a full-fledged, general public mass gathering. The attendees by my view now skew considerably younger than a decade ago. Now I acknowledge that I have not attended the GABF around fifteen times so I have aged as the fest has and this could be a factor. With that said, I attend a dozen or so beer fests throughout the year and go out a few nights a week, so I’m not exactly a wallflower or homebody. But, as many commenters would likely be quick to tell you, age is not necessarily an indicator of seriousness when it comes to beer, a point I willingly concede. With that concession made, age does, in my opinion, add a new level of perspective to the proceedings and you don’t usually see a lot of older inebriates at the GABF.

Where the Thursday night session used to offer beer enthusiasts an early reprieve from the boisterous booze storms that are the Friday and Saturday night sessions, this year things took a turn for the worse in the first hour of the first session. The overall vibe now tends more towards consuming a large number of samples as opposed to consideration of the beer in front of the attendee. I’d be curious to see whether the GABF keeps any count of its beer stock, in order to make an estimate about the change in consumption rates at the festival over time.

This brings me back to my original point, namely educating consumers with an aim towards fostering a greater appreciation of beer. As I spent more time on the festival floor this year than I usually do, I noticed by Saturday night that I had run into only a small fraction of the industry people I usually see at the festival and its outside events. I also met a surprisingly large number of many beer industry folks who weren’t even attending a single session of the festival or were only planning to visit for the awards portion of the Saturday afternoon event.

After some consideration, I think the issues I witnessed at the festival (beyond the usual acts of drunkenness and poor judgment that can be seen at nearly any alcohol related event, be it beer, wine, or spirits) can be addressed by a single, simple rule: breweries that choose to pour beer on the festival floor should be required to have a representative at the booth at all times. There are several other well-regarded festivals around the country that have this rule and the reason is simple: craft beer is about place, about the people behind the brands. And where the people behind the beers are removed, beer simply becomes an inefficient means to an end of inebriation (to paraphrase the late Michael Jackson). Attendees have no reason to linger at a table if the volunteers pouring their beers know nothing of the brands and breweries (a refrain I heard repeated countless times from well-meaning volunteers). And so they simply slam their sample and move on to the next beer with a funny name that reminds them of their pet dog or cat.

The lack of education at the tables only matched the number of lost opportunities to interact with potential craft beer consumers. And I don’t mean this in the sense that some small, local brewpub in Arizona, Georgia, or Michigan is likely to get any business from a local Denver attendee. The Great American Beer Festival is about much more than promoting individual beers and breweries, a definite forest over the trees situation. It is a celebration of and testament to the continued success of flavorful beer in its fight against interchangeably flavored beers. By not having anyone around who can tell an inquiring consumer about a particular brewery or beer, or more generally educate them about a particular style or hop variety, the organizers of the festival are failing at the very goal they profess their dedication to achieving. For an organization dedicated to promoting craft beer and educating consumers, the Brewers Association shouldn’t relegate information and knowledge to 100 person capacity dens of beer nerd-dom. Many of the attending consumers want a more interactive experience and the Brewers Association should do a much better job of giving it to them. The association is trying to promote craft beer, not throw the world’s largest keg party.

The unfortunate vibe I am describing also leads to an unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy. Brewers travel from all over the country (and the world) to attend the festival and promote their craft. But as many, many brewers have expressed to me, both this weekend and at past festivals, they don’t really want to spend a lot of time on the festival floor because it tends to devolve into a semi-drunken shit show, especially at the weekend evening sessions. Seasoned festival veterans long for the brief moments in between the raucous screams that accompany the near-constant dropping of glasses (many of which are now done on purpose). Many brewers simply don’t bother to attend the sessions because they have no role to play and the scene isn’t about their talents and what they do for a living.

Beer education at the Great American Beer Festival needs to be about more than just token displays of beer education. And I certainly understand that there may be some reluctance to require brewers to attend all four sessions. And I also appreciate that hard-working brewers view the festival as a camaraderic opportunity to relax and enjoy beers with their brewer friends from around the country. Despite these concerns, the Brewers Association can still encourage brewers to spend more time during the sessions at their booths interacting with the attendees. The association can also ask the attending brewers to educate the volunteers working their booths or at least provide them with some information and promotional literature about the beers. Each brewer (or the association itself) should also be required to provide a laminated sheet identifying and describing the beers on offer for attendees. The brewers who presently provide these services are rewarded by more engaged volunteers and better informed attendees, many of whom tend to linger a little longer at the booth and thus develop some connection to the brewery and its beers.

Gearing up for its 30th anniversary, the Great American Beer Festival should always be evolving and looking to improve. The organizers should appreciate that bigger is not always better and that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if fewer breweries poured beer on the festival floor. If attending breweries think it is too big a bother to help educate consumers during the craft beer world’s largest marketing opportunity, give them more time to hang out with their buddies at Falling Rock or the Cheeky Monk.

With these points made, I’m certainly interested in hearing from brewers and their thoughts on the subject and how the festival itself can improve (or how it is perfect just the way it is). I’m also interested in hearing from consumers, attendees, and anyone with some thoughts on better educating people at beer festivals.

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Upcoming Events for Great American Craft Beer…

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So now that we have a few weeks of interviews behind us, now comes the fun part: celebrating Great American Craft Beer. The lovely folks at Cambridge Common will be hosting the book release party for Great American Craft Beer on Thursday September 2, 2010, from 6-8pm. There is some information on Facebook and a little more about this event on BeerAdvocate. Everyone is welcome to join us and beer will be pay as you go.

Great American Craft Beer Book Release Party.

Come join us for the release party for beer writer Andy Crouch’s new book, Great American Craft Beer. He’ll be leading one of Cambridge Common’s Beer Skools, talking about selections from his book (all available on tap at the Common), and also will be signing copies of the book. There will be snacks, great beers, a wee bit of education, and a great night celebrating American craft beer.

Gordon’s Culinary Center and Beer Education.

Starting next month, I will be hosting a series of beer related events at the Gordon’s Fine Wine and Culinary Center in Waltham. We’re calling it “The Art, Beauty and Complexity of Beer; A Series of Not-So-Serious Discussions.” I will be hosting “a revolving lineup of engaging craft beer personalities as they dish out their opinions on everything from the state of American craft beer to the preposterous amounts of facial hair in the industry. As any good beer discussion must be, these intimate conversations will take place over samples of beer from the brewers themselves.”

The first installment of the series, “Brew to the Future,” first event will be held on September 8, 2010, and will go from 7-8:30 pm. I am fortunate to be joined by two of New England’s most interesting and exciting brewers: Dann Paquette, co-owner and brewer of Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project and Jon Curtis from the Haverhill Brewery. These two experienced and adventurous brewers will be discussing the impact of traditional brewing cultures on their work, from Jon’s modern take on German classics to Dann’s roots in English methods. With Jon and Dann, there will be no shortage of opinion, hilarity, and (of course) period costumes.

From the folks at Gordon’s on the venue: “Gordon’s Fine Wine and Culinary Center is the preeminent venue for beer education in the Boston area. Through trips, classes, festivals and electronic media, our knowledgeable beer staff is constantly busy championing the necessity for respect and admiration for mankind’s original beverage of choice.”

Great American Beer Festival – The Great American Craft Beer Experience.

We of course will be holding an excellent beer education and tasting event in Denver during the upcoming Great American Beer Festival. Join us for the Great American Craft Beer Experience, a tasting event featuring three of America’s most exciting and talented brewers.

Part book-release party, part celebration of American craft beer, the event will give attendees an excellent opportunity to taste beers from around the country and interact with the brewers.

Brewers will be attending from Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery (Paul Philippon), Firestone Walker Brewing Company (Matt Brynildson), and Odell Brewing Company (Doug Odell).

Beers: Duck-Rabbit: Milk Stout and Wee Heavy Scotch Ale; Firestone Walker: Double Barrel Ale, Union Jack, and Parabola; Odell: IPA and 90 Shilling. Other beers may be added.

Sponsored by BeerAdvocate, the event will feature at least six beers from these breweries, selected from Great American Craft Beer, in a tutored tasting event with the brewers themselves. Andy Crouch will moderate a panel discussion and attendees will be able to ask questions of the author and the brewers.

Limited to 50 tickets, for a more intimate event, so get yours while they last.

Ticket price is $45 and includes beer tastings, a signed copy of Great American Craft Beer, light appetizers, and a 6-issue subscription (just a taste) to BeerAdvocate magazine.

Buy Tickets

Please note tickets will be “will-call” (physical tickets will not be shipped; guest list at the event). And sorry: No refunds. No door sales. No media passes.

Newly opened, Stoney’s Bar & Grill is located at 1111 Lincoln Street in downtown Denver, Colorado.

Published in August 2010 by Running Press, Andy Crouch’s Great American Craft Beer takes readers on a passionate and informative journey through the most palate-pleasing ales and lagers produced by American craft brewers today. A personal guide and companion to the exciting world of American craft beer, this unique book also touches upon several related subjects including food, travel, history, and the stories and personalities of America’s best brewers. More than 60 styles and 350 beer profiles are accompanied by full-color photographs and illustrations of the beers and beer labels. It also includes perfect pairing recipes and profiles of 25 of the best beer bars in the country.

Andy Crouch, an award-winning freelance writer, has provided articles to Ale Street News, American Brewer, Celebrator Beer news, New Brewer Magazine, Yankee Food News, and through his website, BeerScribe.com. He writes columns for both Beverage Magazine and BeerAdvocate Magazine. In addition, Crouch’s first book, The Good Beer Guide to New England, was published by the University Press of New England in May 2006. He resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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