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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Craft Beer Evolution: It’s Time To Put ‘No Crap On Tap’ To Bed…

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Craft beer promoters love their slogans. Slapped onto bumper stickers, t-shirts, and bottle coozies, they help define the narrative for the craft beer movement. Whether they be a fabricated quote never uttered by a founding father or a call to support your local brewery, such sloganeering is often harmless if not particularly clever. There is one craft beer catch phrase that I wish disappeared entirely: no crap on tap.

This particular aphorism may be older than the original New Albion Ale, having appeared in countless advertisements, bumper stickers, t-shirts, and other schwag. I first recall seeing it on a bumper sticker at the Falling Rock Tap House in Denver during one of my first Great American Beer Festival visits. I recall chucking at it, all the while feeling a touch superior compared to the unenlightened folks drinking lesser lagers that night in the Mile High City. As I started to travel more, I started to notice the slogan popping up in bars, tap rooms, and breweries around the country, from San Diego to Tampa.

As with a catchy summer pop song that grabs your attention from the first beats but whose omnipresence then drives you crazy, this slogan provokes a particularly negative response in me. At its core, the No Crap on Tap motto suggests that any non-craft beer is undrinkable garbage. Let’s not kid ourselves, the big brewers make beers of a consistent and technical quality that few if any craft brewers will ever attain.

I remember gasps of horror at one BeerAdvocate festival when a very well-respected brewer told panel attendees that the beer he most often drank after a long shift was Budweiser. He then politely attempted to disabuse audience members of their misconceptions of macro products as being of inferior quality. It remains one of my favorite moments from these events.

In the past year, I have heard people toss craft beer pioneers, such as Boston Beer and Sierra Nevada, into the category of “crap” beers. Such incoherent mumblings, which I heard a few times during the recent Craft Brewers Conference, are the surest sign you’re dealing with either a crazy person or an insufferable beer nerd.

I loathe the clannish air of superiority that underlies such boasts. Craft brewers and the legions of bar owners, distributors, retailers, and fans supporting them have achieved amazing things in the last thirty years. They have created a previously unknown beer and flavor culture in the United States that is now spreading throughout the world. They have built strong businesses, employed thousands of enthusiastic workers, and rejuvenated a flagging beer industry set on rendering itself irrelevant.

With all of its successes, this nation of craft beer should not define itself through its larger corporate rivals. Craft beer is about more than simply presenting an alternative to the big brewers. In focusing on a negative proposition, craft brewers waste energy casting macro beers as some sort of enemy. Craft beer is about more than the big guys. As its success grows, craft beer nation needs to stop pretending they aren’t major players themselves now.

My aversion to this slogan does not overlook the tough and sometimes questionable tactics employed by the big guys in competing against smaller craft players. Brewers should call out any business, whether macro or micro, for engaging in corrupt practices. But casting macro beers as crap, shit, or otherwise undrinkable is simply juvenile mudslinging.

It’s time for a new generation of craft beer slogans, focused on promoting the positive characteristics the industry symbolizes. Or at least something more clever than rhyming crap and tap.

–Article appeared in Issue 68 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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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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