A 10 Point Plan To Improve The GABF or A Few Thoughts On GABF 2012…

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I’ve just returned from a whirlwind trip to the 2012 Great American Beer Festival. I’ve now been to the festival for 16 straight years (in fact it was the first beer festival I ever attended) and have seen both the fest, the craft beer community, and the City of Denver change greatly during that time. From the plush and colorful environs of Currigan Hall and being able to buy tickets day-of to the stone sarcophagus of the Colorado Convention Center and praying that Ticketmaster doesn’t shit the bed in the 20 minutes you have to order, things look a lot different now.

At the outset, I’m struck at how much my personal impressions mirror those I had of the 2011 Great American Beer Festival. Most of my thoughts on that fest unfortunately remain relevant after the 2012 fest.

From the outset, Denver has become a world-class city. From once largely offering Larimer Square and some sketchy warehouse bars to becoming a place without a single empty store front and a Four Seasons hotel/condo complex, the Denver of a decade or more ago is hardly recognizable. It has also grown in smart, classy ways. With its fantastic architectural bones (from bungalow housing to preserved warehouse districts), the new and more modern additions look great against the mountain and city backdrops. Add to the mix a great selection of new restaurants and cocktail establishments, such as Colt & Gray, and Denver is well worth a trip when the GABF hordes haven’t descended.

The local brewing scene in Denver really is on fire. Had a great time at Dry Dock, Crooked Stave, Renegade, River North, Prost Brewing, and several others. The scene has grown so much that I haven’t been to Great Divide, Wynkoop, and other stalwarts in several GABF trips.

10 Points About The GABF

Point 1: Brewers remain in very scarce supply at the fest. Near entire rows of untrained yellow shirts (volunteers) were left to represent hundreds of breweries and thousands of beers from around the country. As with last year, I heard volunteers misinform a lot of inquiring customers about a beer’s name, ingredients, character, style, and even the name of the brewer. I also heard volunteers actively dissuade attendees from trying a certain beer or brewery, all while pouring that brewer’s beers. I can’t help but think of the hundreds if not thousands of dollars spent by the brewery’s founders and owners to receive the ultimate negative service from the fest.

I noted the Great Brewer Exodus last year and it definitely grew this year. The Brewers Association really should address this issue as a large absence of brewers makes the fest even less relevant than it has become. The association could relatively easily require the presence of at least a single brewer for the first hour of each session, in order to train the volunteers (who are passionate, engaged people who are just ignorant about the beers and breweries they temporarily represent). I know this might be a drag for a few brewers who are just in Denver to party but if Sam Calagione, Garrett Oliver, the folks from Golden Road, and tiny Prodigal Brewing can do it, so can other brewers. We’ve hit a time when entire posses of brewers and their friends descend on the city for the fest. Take some turns at the booth and do your brewery and the fest a favor.

Point 2: As the BA isn’t likely to impose or enforce Point 1, how about asking breweries to provide some laminated POS materials so that inquiring consumers can actually find some accurate and reliable info. Providing volunteers with a couple of laminated cheat sheets would also help.

Point 3: As the BA plans to expand the GABF to take over more of the convention center, it shouldn’t just be about stuffing cash in the association’s coffers. The extra room this year with the absence of the stage, though filled with sometimes irrelevant vendors, shouldn’t be squandered going forward. Things are already a bit chaotic in the hall. Adding another few thousand attendees per session needs to be balanced against the above points.

Point 4: The festival itself has become an oddly irrelevant event to an industry saturated with thousands of festivals per year. Brewers show up briefly, talk to their friends, and then head out while tens of thousands of locals come to drink. On a personal basis, I can say that my trips in recent years focus more on the vibrant growing brewery scene in Denver, the city’s dining culture, and hiking than anything remotely related to the festival. I’d consider skipping future GABF’s and just visit Denver in the non-GABF times for a more pleasant and relaxed trip.

Point 5: The festival has become stale and really needs some new vibrancy and ideas. The education events seemed mere afterthoughts, poorly advertised, and relatively stale in attendance. Expansion under the present circumstances seems simply trying to push the cart forward with a lame horse.

Point 6: It would be nice to see the BA try and recruit under-represented brewing regions to better attend the GABF. New England has hundreds of breweries and only a tiny number participate in the GABF, with many of the region’s biggest names choosing to skip the event year after year. California and Colorado aren’t the only states in the American brewing union.

Point 7: Finally, the awards. This may be the reason that many brewers attend the fest. And while the value of a GABF or any competition medal can be disputed, especially in light of the BA’s substantial entrance fees and requirements, the growth of the competition over the years has been dizzying. I went back to my post from ten years ago (can’t decide whether that is impressive or depressing) to check the numbers:

This year’s festival saw growth in several areas over previous festivals. A select group of 91 professional judges from six countries judged 1820 beers in 58 style categories in the Great American Beer Festival’s (GABF) competition. The judges critiqued an average of 31 beers in each category. At the annual awards ceremony, the judges awarded 172 medals. At the festival itself, 301 breweries poured more than 1300 beers for more than 21,000 attendees.

The 2012 numbers look a bit different:

“Award-winning brewers received prestigious gold, silver and bronze medals in 84 beer categories covering 134 different beer styles (encompassing subcategories), establishing the best examples of each style in the U.S. Winners were chosen from 4,338 competition entries from 666 breweries, hailing from 48 states, Washington, D.C. and Guam. Matching its largest field of entries to date, this year’s GABF competition saw its biggest panel of judges ever, with 185 beer experts from 11 countries participating, with assistance from 120 competition volunteers.”

In talking with current and recent judges, they largely agreed that the competition has hit a critical mass, especially in light of the industry-wide increases in alcohol and hop levels. While in 1997 or 2002 it might have been acceptable to have a person judge a set number of beers, the beers of today rarely reflect the beers of a decade ago. Judges complained of palate fatigue very early during judging sessions and one very well-respected judge even noted that he simply gave in to the strong opinions of other judges as he knew his palate (and believed theirs) was compromised. While the occasional low alcohol beer genre has been added to the mix of judged styles, most of the growth in the 26 new categories has come in aggressively flavored beers. Any attendee or beer drinker can attest that trying a few samples of DIPA or imperial stouts pretty much renders all that follow very hard to judge.

After talking with brewers and judges, in light of these changed circumstances, the BA should expand the pool of judges. Simply keeping up with the numbers of old (the actual number of judges to beers judged ratio has slightly dropped in the last decade) isn’t going to be good enough in light of the vast growth and flavor profile explosion.

Point 8: I think it is time to either change or do away with the Brewery and Brewer of the Year Awards. I know they give the association a chance to highlight its relationships with sponsors, but the math behind these awards, largely not known, really confuses and upsets some brewers.

Beyond this, you have hundreds if not thousands of breweries competing against one another in three main categories (the Small Brewpub, Small Brewing Company, and Mid-size Brewing Company), far fewer competing in the Large Brewpub category, and a true pittance in the remaining two categories, namely Brewpub Groups (2 or more locations) and Large Brewing Companies. In the final categories, there are only a handful of breweries competing against one another. This leads to some rather ridiculous results, such as Pabst winning a Brewer of the Year award that it can tout in ad campaigns, thus bolstering its image, even though it only won 1 gold and 1 silver medal.

Far more ridiculous is the result of the Brewpub Group category, in which the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company of Madison, Wisconsin, won the award even though it won only 1 medal in the second least competitive category! Beating out 18 other entries should entitle you to a medal not a GABF Brewer of the Year plaque. While I love the Great Dane and head there anytime I’m in Wisconsin, I’m not sure even they will truly think the prize should have been awarded considering its limited showing. That doesn’t stop the ad campaign from flowing forward. When some breweries and brewpubs won as many as four medals in far more competitive categories and came home with no Brewer of the Year hardware, something is grossly out of whack.

Point 9: During the festival I tweeted that it would be interesting to see the BA, or any group, conduct a blind tasting involving the same beers during two sessions in a single day and on consecutive days. I have long said that the GABF competition, which I respect and have written about over many years, should not pretend to suggest that one beer is definitively better than all others. Instead, the GABF awards reflect the views of a small group of well-established individuals, all human with subjective palates, trying to follow a set of oddly rigid guidelines, on a single day in a hotel conference room. It’s nothing more than that and I hypothesize that such an experiment as I describe above would cause some substantially anomalous and disturbing results.

Point 10: This one requires an entirely separate post because of how much it bothers me.

Random Facts And Thoughts

-The number of American-style India Pale Ales judged in 2002 was 94. In 2012, it was 203, requiring an extra round of judging. Both were the most highly competitive categories judged.

-In 2002, the least competitive category fielded only four competitors. In 2012, it was Classic Irish-style Dry Stout with 16.

The above line makes me pretty fucking sad. So does the fact that Vienna Style Lager only had 36 entries whereas the Coffee and Pumpkin beers had almost double as many entries each.

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Death of the Flagship…

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There comes a time in the story of every generation when the end draws near and a new chapter begins. In the craft beer industry, it has taken nearly thirty years for that page to turn but a new story of is about to be written, one where many of the beloved main characters are going to be written out or relegated to background roles.

For the better part of thirty years a handful of big name craft beers, from pioneering brewers, led the way as the industry’s ultimate front line warriors. Beers such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Samuel Adams Boston Lager were the twin drivers of craft beer’s narrative and growth. They fought a ground war in airport bars, chain restaurants, and convenience stores from coast to coast. They ran ad campaigns to bolster the public’s understanding of better beer and to teach consumers that taste, flavor, and character meant something. Their salesman built the tracks on which the craft beer express smoothly rides today.

A funny thing happened to these wildly successful brands on the way to craft beer utopia: a new generation of craft beer know-it-alls used the success of the beer pioneers against them. Content to reject Sam Adams, Sierra, and other popular brands as passe examples of the Old Guard, or even dismiss them as corporate beer shills, these founding fathers suddenly became something other than craft. Beyond the industry insider definitional debates over volume and barrelage numbers, the young started to prey on their elders in quiet but vicious fashion.

After enduring years of cheap shots, the generational attitude shift appears to have rubbed off on the beer pioneers themselves. For the first time, the future prospects of the industry’s two most stalwart brands, Samuel Adams Boston Lager and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, the yin and the yang of the craft beer world, look dim. Supplanted by seasonal brands, endangered by the race for the holy one-off grail, and lost in the hunt for more hops, these respected and balanced brands look increasingly out of place in the wider world of craft beer. And the pioneers seem to know it. In response, Sierra Nevada has focused a lot of energy on its Torpedo IPA brand, which ups the hops from the company’s style defining flagship Pale Ale. Even Boston Beer has launched its own IPA, Latitude 48, even as Twisted Tea offering surpasses Boston Lager as the company’s best selling product and a series of seasonal beers capture the attention of beer drinkers and distributors.

Other breweries aren’t immune from this shift. Widmer Hefeweizen receives a lot less attention from the brothers in the wake of new releases, including a rotating IPA series. The flagship brands of Redhook, Boulevard, and Deschutes have also started to lose focus to other brands and line extensions. Even once seemingly invincible Fat Tire is losing share of New Belgium Brewing’s mind to the brewery’s juggernaut Ranger IPA.

So in the end of an era for some pioneer brands, where consumers appear ready to fully embrace their long-developing beer brand promiscuity, the first era of the flagship is over. The ultimate result of the evolving craft beer consumer’s fickle palate is the end of relations with these former beaus, only to be replaced with a new, younger, and hipper string of beer relations.

While some nostalgia for these great and trailblazing brands is warranted, the new chapter shows the continued maturation and development of craft beer in America. Even as market share slowly inches up, consumers are deciding for themselves that they want new beers, happy to push beyond their early favorites into new and unexplored flavor territories.

–Article appeared in Issue 66 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Death to Beer Cocktails and Collaboration Beers: the Latest Rant…

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It’s been a wild ride in the world of craft beer over the past few years. The craft beer market has experienced serious flux and now appears at a crossroads, one from which it’s difficult to forecast what will happen next. We’ve gone through the highs and lows of the twin extremes of hop bombs and alcohol monsters, the milder influences of session beer, and the pocket wrenching experience of expensive beer rarities. While things appear to be settling down for the moment, don’t expect craft brewers and the beer enthusiast community to stand idle for long.

Taking a look at the most recent beer trend of craft beer cocktails, I have to admit to some initial skepticism. It may be that the roller coaster ride of recent years has set us up for a comparatively ho-hum transition period. That would be understandable considering the incredible boost of creative energy of the extreme beer era.

In theory, a melding of the artistic sciences of distillation and fermentation might seemingly result in the best of both worlds and an incredible gastronomic adventure. In my experience, however, it’s more like members of your favorite bands getting together in a super-group jam session, only resulting in a dissonant and confusing melange of incompatible styles. And I say this as someone predisposed to liking this concept. After more than a decade as an avid beer explorer, I hit a period of beer burnout. In this time of ale fatigue, I’ve connected more with spirits and the burgeoning American cocktail renaissance.

The societal return of cocktails and spirits to American drinking culture bears a strong similarity to that of craft beer. With a focus on quality over quantity, craftsmanship, and the art of presentation, the two cultures seem destined to work together. In reality, however, beer tends to get lost and overwhelmed as an ingredient in cocktails. The mix of carbonation levels don’t play well together and the small amounts of spirit ingredients, especially those used in smaller measures, often get washed out in the process. The end result is a muddled mess of flavors, often splashing against one another for dominance instead of rowing together in a controlled and directed fashion.

I also feel the same way when it comes to collaboration beers, another trend of which I’ve not been a big fan. Beyond the eventual overkill of the subject—it seems as if a handful of breweries have collaborated with breweries from nearly every country—I can’t quite get past the confusing and disjointed resulting beers. When it comes to beer, I prefer focus, precision, and clarity of concept. I love it when a brewer sets out a defined, clear path and then executes with both style and grace, leaving the drinker with a crystalline understanding of the craftsman’s vision and an easy path to appreciating whether they achieved it.

If genius is said to be the ability to reduce the complicated to the simple, then muddling the elemental with excess adornments convolutes the beauty of the thing you first sought to appreciate. When it comes to beer, I’m more impressed with the brewer who can tease great flavor from fewer ingredients than one who requires a half-dozen hops, malts, and yeast strains to achieve a complicated mess.

I feel the same way about beer styles. Despite the growing cacophonic chorus of naysayers and critics, beer styles provide clarity and structure to an otherwise entirely subjective enterprise. While it’s easy to grab attention by painting well outside the lines, there remains much creativity to be demonstrated by working within the existing palette of beer ingredients. Sometimes the next big thing is the one obscured by its simplicity and proximity.

-Article appeared in Issue 62 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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A Beer Language Problem…

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We have a language problem in the world of beer. I’m not talking about our over-use of four-letter words or an inability to speak after too many pints. Instead, we lack a cohesive and agreed upon central terms for discussing our shared are of passion.

Let’s start with the term whose popularity continues to grow every day, namely craft beer. Brewers, distributors, writers, and industry insiders have been engaged in a long-standing battle over what to call the flavorful, colorful, characterful beers we all enjoy. As with defining pornography, we know it when we see it, or in the case of beer, also taste it. But we still don’t quite know what to call it. Do we define what constitutes a craft beer or just a craft brewer? Can a big brewer (macro? Behemoth? International conglomerate?) make a craft beer? In terms of flavor, is Blue Moon by Coors so different from dozens of other average witbiers made by smaller brewers? Should we instead use the term better beer, and if so, better than what? Anything brewed by the big brewers? Nowadays, even the Boston Beer Company is derided by many beer geeks as being too big, so that hardly seems appropriate.

Having grown up with the term microbrew, many seem loathe to let go of this iconic word and the related imagery of beer made in tiny, handcrafted batches. While many small breweries still operate at least in part by hand, the days of handcrafted beer belong to a different, quickly disappearing era, having been supplanted by much welcomed automation and greater control. And with many once small breweries now producing tens or hundreds of thousands of barrels per year and distributing beer from Denmark to Japan, the micro designation is an anachronism if not a myth.

Beyond these big picture terms, the creativity of brewers also continues to create new issues and areas of confusion. In the last two years, beer geeks and brewers from coast to coast have waged a nerdy battle over what to call dark beers that display strong hop characters without the bite and flavor of roasted malts. Depending upon which viewpoint you subscribe to, you might tend to call such beers Black IPA, India Black Ale, or Cascadian Dark Ale. With a somewhat murky history, either having first been made by the late Greg Noonan at the Vermont Pub & Brewery or somewhere in the Pacific Northwest or Britain, there is no agreement over what such beers should be called. It does, however, seem a bit ridiculous to call a dark beer with no connection to the sub-continent an India or pale ale.

Perhaps the most troubling and recent example of our parlance problems comes with the American use of the British-based session beer moniker. As discussed in a recent issue, beer cultures are largely not transferable between countries and that’s a good thing. You shouldn’t expect to find a vibrant Belgian beer culture in Cleveland just as San Diego’s thriving beer scene can’t be recreated in Tokyo. While pursuing the goal of lower alcohol yet flavorful beers is a very worthy goal, trying to cross-apply the session label just doesn’t work in the states.

Even the otherwise appropriately named nano-breweries have come under some scrutiny. Just how small does a brewery have to be to qualify as a nano? I’ve recently started seeing the term pico-brewery pop up, denoting something even smaller than a nano, if that was possible. I’m not sure if this involves beer made by boiling the mash in a microwave but it boggles the mind.

As a beer writer, I’ve been struggling with these language issues for a long time, usually with little to no results to show for it. While we generally agree on what we’re discussing, defining these beer-related concepts remains a difficult task. Maybe you’ll figure out the whole craft beer language debate over your next pint.

Then we can get started on gastropubs.

-Article appeared in Issue 55 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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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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