The GABF That Was And Wasn’t…

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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.

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Is It About Beer Or Beer Politics: The Brewers Association’s Baby Step…

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The Brewers Association today released news that it had once again changed its definition of the term ‘craft brewer.’ The change relates to the association’s use of the word small to refer to its qualifying members. As the press release noted:

In the BA’s craft brewer definition, the term “small” now refers to any independent brewery that produces up to 6 million barrels of traditional beer. The previous definition capped production at 2 million barrels.

From a practical standpoint, this change allowed the Boston Beer Company, maker of the Samuel Adams line of beers, to remain a qualifying member of the craft beer club, for purposes of definition by the Brewers Association. It also allowed the association to continue to include Boston Beer’s explosive sales growth and category dominating production volumes in the craft beer segment’s total numbers.

Now, some of you may be thinking, here comes another rant on the definition of craft beer, the likes of which we’ve seen here many times before. To the contrary, I applaud the Brewers Association’s action today. In truth, it was an inevitability. Like a woman who is perpetually turning 29, Boston Beer has been coyly telling everyone that its beer production numbers were below two million barrels per year for at least a few years after many people believed it likely blew past that number. Point being, the definition of small, like much of the rest of the Brewers Association’s craft brewer definition, is entirely arbitrary and the two million barrel number, while finding some viability in tax law, really had no relevance for purposes of determining which breweries qualified as craft.

I have to admit that over the last three years I have experienced a growing disconnect between my own thoughts on the definition of craft beer and those held by many in the craft brewing community, including some very close friends. The prevailing view among hardened beer geeks seems to be that while Boston Beer may have helped craft beer along, that it is now some how now indistinguishable from brewing giants InBev and SABMiller. This view, in my opinion, combines the twin sins of ingratitude and short-sightedness, a rare feat to be sure. As Brewers Association board president Nick Matt himself said in today’s release, “Rather than removing members due to their success, the craft brewing industry should be celebrating our growth.”

So with this part of the issue addressed, there remains the sticky proposition of dealing with the association’s most controversial definitional language, namely that of excluding breweries where more than “25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.”

For those who have not lived and relived this fight, the definition excludes a handful of brewers, including Redhook, Widmer, Kona, and Goose Island, Magic Hat and Pyramid, Mendocino Brewing, and others.

I remain disappointed that some well-known craft brewers, for some reason I have yet to fully comprehend, continue to play a game of us versus them, all while perpetuating this myth of the small, hand-crafted brewer. Because an otherwise small brewer, certainly smaller than many of those bitching about their independent status, sends his beer out on trucks run by Anheuser-Busch affiliated distributors or have some twisted corporate tie to a bigger brewery, that their membership in the craft beer club should suddenly stand revoked continues to confound me.

Because, in the end, at least for me, it really is about the beer and these associational definitions actually do a disservice to the cause of better beer. While I can understand excluding Coors and its Blue Moon product from the craft brewer party, it is to my mind and palate indisputably a craft beer. Not the greatest beer I have ever had nor a shining example of the style, but perfectly acceptable nonetheless. But the exclusion of its nearly two million barrels of production (you read that number right) under-reports and undersells the advances better beer has made in the United States in the past fifteen years.

When craft brewers and beer enthusiasts mindlessly disrespect Boston Beer by deriding it as just another “macro beer” or big brewer, I worry about the future of better beer in America. Beyond its pioneering role in the development of craft beer in the United States, Boston Beer continues to be one of the greatest innovators in the industry and its thoughtful, flavor forward advertising campaigns do nothing but help progress the cause of better beer in this country.

Along these same lines, it thoroughly disturbs me when beer geeks and even my beer writing colleagues disrespect and dismiss craft beer pioneers, such as the Goose Island Brewing Company of Chicago, who have found themselves on the outside of the Brewers Association, looking in. As I wrote of company founders John and Greg Hall in a recent issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine:

Despite all of Goose Island’s successes, the city’s notoriously competitive distribution challenges in part led to the brewery’s decision in 2006 to enter into an equity agreement with the Widmer Brothers Brewery and the Craft Brewers Alliance, which has ties with Anheuser-Busch InBev. With their decision quickly came harsh words from self-appointed craft beer purists. Greg Hall quickly dismisses the criticism by noting that the big guys give them better access to market but “zero direction whatsoever” as to the beer. For others he jokes, “Can’t you taste the beechwood in there? Don’t you think it makes it taste better?” Simply put, “the beer is coming on a different truck now, but it’s the same beer from the same brewery and people.”

Having just spent another afternoon at the Chicago production brewery, I can honestly say that I have visited few breweries with such a dedicated passion for producing great, flavorful beers and to pushing the edge of brewing. The brewery simply puts many other regional breweries, with all of their independent, craft brewer puffery, to shame. Put crudely, if Goose Island is not craft, then I have no fucking idea what is. The Hall’s were brewing great beers while many pro-exclusion “craft brewers” were busy playing beer pong with Carling Black Label.

Perhaps it is time to just call it like we see it. Wouldn’t it just be easier to name the breweries that we don’t believe are craft breweries rather than trying to set arbitrary and meaningless definitional labels for entry into the craft beer cool kids club? I say let’s just have a voice vote and move on. We can all agree that when we’re talking about craft brewers, we’re not talking about Anheuser-Busch, Coors, Miller, or Pabst. We might split a bit on Yuengling but frankly, those guys could give a shit what you think about their solid beers.

Because if we’re really getting down to which breweries qualify as craft, I have a whole list of Brewers Association members whose beers scream faceless, nameless mediocrity, akin to those beers brewed by the big guys. Many so-called “craft brewers” make a lot of soulless, boring, clumsy, and inartful beer that I am far more troubled by than the fact that Goose Island needs A-B’s might to help do battle in the Windy City.

With this definitional change, the Brewers Association has taken an important first step in the process of resolving its internal identity crisis. I remain hopeful but not optimistic that the group can manage to figure out how to plan a great family reunion so that the craft brewing clan can once again stand united.

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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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The Black IPA Problem…

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I’ve been loathe to get involved in the growing dispute over what to call dark beers that display bountiful hop characters without the bite and flavor of roasted malts. Their recent appearances have generated monikers such as Black IPA, India Black Ale, and Cascadian Dark Ale. The history and genesis of this style, whatever you choose to call it, has bounced between New Englander’s proclaiming that the Vermont Pub & Brewery, founded by the late Greg Noonan, and its then brewer Glenn Walter, created the first version called the Blackwatch IPA, to Pacific Northwesterners noting that it is their hops that give the style its signature character, to beer historians who point to old recipes from Britain from more than a hundred years ago to shut up the Johnny-come-lately Americans.

Without going into great detail about the sordid history of this interesting and developing style area (I do, however, tend to side with the Greg Noonan/Glenn Walter/Vermont Pub and Brewery as pioneers side), I hope we can all agree that the names to date have been off-the-mark. For its part, the Brewers Association has classified the ‘American-style India Black Ale style this way:

American-style India black ale has medium high to high hop bitterness, flavor and aroma with medium-high alcohol content, balanced with a medium body. The style is further characterized by a moderate degree of caramel malt character and medium to strong dark roasted malt flavor and aroma. High astringency and high degree of burnt roast malt character should be absent. Fruity, floral and herbal character from hops of all origins may contribute to aroma and flavor.

The first beer I can recall having that tasted like this would either be the New World Porter (first released in 1997) from Avery Brewing or the Alpha Klaus Christmas Porter from 3 Floyds, both of which I think fit the emerging style quite well. I’m not entirely convinced that the simple inclusion of American hops suddenly leads to the creation of an entirely new style of beer or one that should not be properly housed under the Porter banner, as Avery and 3 Floyds have done. That perspective, I acknowledge, is not likely to carry the day in the present climate.

But in looking at the present names for the style, the deficiencies are as obvious as they are myriad. The style, as far as I can tell (in this day and age, you almost always have to qualify historic approximations), has no connection to India. It is also in no way pale. So a Black India Pale Ale or Black Pale Ale makes no conceivable sense except for the connections to the hops. But we use American hops in a substantial number of other styles without the need of bringing the South Asian sub-continent into the nomenclature debate, so why apply it here? Moreover, as hard as they try, the Cascadian Dark Ale moniker also suffers. Despite weak protestations to the contrary, you guys pretty clearly didn’t invent the style. If you guys want to try and lay claim to the American-style India Pale Ale name, have at it. You’re on slightly surer ground there at least.

So what are we left with, except three or four different and confusing ways of saying the same thing?

Well, I believe that styles are important, if for no other reason than consumers can have some reasonable understanding of what they might be getting when they select a certain beer. It is in the hopes of creating some logical détente that I humbly offer the following suggestions for resolving this seemingly intractable debate.

-Dark Bitter Ale (DBA)
-Black Bitter Ale (BBA)
-Black Hoppy Ale (BHA)

or perhaps my favorite, the NBA: Noonan Black Ale. Feel free to vote and let me know your thoughts.

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