Riding an impressive and seemingly unbreakable wave of industry growth, the Brewers Association recently celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of its signature event, the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), in Denver, Colorado. With expanded floor space and increased offerings, the festival broke its old records and new ground in the promotion of craft beer.

The festival benefited from a 39 percent increase from the 2OO5 attendance level, booming to a record of 41,OOO attendees at the newly expanded Colorado Convention Center. Ticket sales were unexpectedly high in early September, with 'sold out' signs greeting visitors to the Saturday evening session. "We knew we would have high attendance, but the excitement about the festival was amazing," said Cindy Jones, marketing director for the Brewers Association. "This is the first time we sold out before a session opened."

Spread over an additional 44,OOO square feet of convention space, the three-day event allowed attendees from around the world to sample more than 165O American beers. With 384 breweries of the 45O represented at the festival pouring beers, beer lovers had the unparalleled opportunity to sample the widest imaginable range of offerings. This year's GABF featured a marked departure from the adventuring efforts of past events, with brewers making noticeable attempts at producing more traditional beers.

On the floor, only barrel-aging continued to be a popular means of experimenting with flavor, while brewers offered a range of new organic beers.

GLUTEN-FREE BEERS One interesting new trend in the craft beer category is the emergence of gluten-free beers. Millions of Americans suffer from a physical inability to tolerate a protein in wheat and other grains, including barley and rye, called gluten. Known as Celiac Disease, it is an autoimmune disorder whereby ingestion of these proteins causes a reaction in which the small intestine is made incapable of absorbing nutrients from ingested food or beverages. The symptoms can range from abdominal bloating and diarrhea to anemia, osteoporosis and malnutrition. More serious complications can develop if even small amounts of gluten are ingested over a long period of time.

Celiac Disease sufferers generally avoid commercially produced beers or have been forced to settle for highly dumbed-down versions of beer. In response to the problem of thirsty, gluten-averse drinkers, craft brewers have started producing palatable beers made with non-traditional ingredients. Brewers have formulated their beers with 1OO-percent gluten-free ingredients and processes that ensure the purity of the consumable product.

The new substituted ingredients often include sorghum, buckwheat, rice, maize, corn, and sunflower. Sorghum and buckwheat are by far the most common ingredients used in American gluten-free beer. Native to northeast Africa, sorghum is a grass that tolerates dry weather and is frequently used in African brewing circles. With its origins in central and western China, buckwheat is an herb of the Buckwheat family Polygonaceae.

Unlike with non-alcoholic beer, which is with few exceptions not mistakable for real beer, American gluten-free beers are passing a new standard for consumer taste tests. In this era of experimentation where brewers strive to expand the very definition of what constitutes beer, craft brewers are producing gluten-free beers that not only serve a niche market but also appeal to adventurous beer drinkers. The gluten-free beers I tried during the GABF were clean and full of unusual flavors. A real standout product is New Grist, a gluten-free beer produced by the Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The brewery claims the beer was "fueled by consumer demand and a relentless pursuit of brewing great tasting beer." The New Grist is brewed with sorghum, hops, water, rice, and gluten-free yeast grown on molasses. A brochure promoting the brand quotes Celiac-sufferers from across the country asking when the beer from the little Wisconsin craft brewery will be available in their areas.

Honestly, I never thought much of gluten-free beers until I tried the New Grist. Pouring with a light pale golden color, the aroma is slightly sweet and faintly of cotton candy. The taste is oddly like a fermented, cherry Halls cough drop - but in a pleasant way. The flavor is lightly fruit and tart, like dull melon at times and similar to passion fruit at others. Overall, the beer is somewhat spritzy and very drinkable. If you're used to big, bruising malt bombs, sorghum beers are unlikely to be your thing. But for those who otherwise would have to stick to soda pop or other non-grain based alcoholic beverages, beers like the New Grist suggest a promising new future.

THE COMPETITION The festival's famed judging event continued to set new record marks this year. Comprised of 2431 beers from 452 breweries, this year's entries competed for gold, silver and bronze medals in an eye-opening 69 style categories. Gone is the non-alcoholic beer category, replaced by a host of new styles representative of the expanding creativity of American brewers. The average number of beers entered in each category was 35, with 94 entries marking the high in the American-style India Pale Ale category.

Brewers crowded the expanded award ceremony stage as Judge Manager Chris Swersey announced the three beers that best represented each beer-style category as described and adopted by the Great American Beer Festival. In an impressive feat, two breweries repeated their wins as Brewpub of the Year and Mid-Size Brewery of the Year. The breweries, the Pelican Pub & Brewery of Washington State and the perennially lauded New Glarus Brewing Company of Wisconsin, not only repeated their wins but also managed to win in the same categories with the same beers. New Glarus won gold medals in 2OO6 and 2OO5 in the Wood-and-Barrel-aged Beer category for its Cherry Stout and gold in the Fruit and Vegetable Beer category for its Belgian Red. The Pelican Pub won silver in 2OO6 and 2OO5 for its MacPelican's Scottish Style Ale and gold for its Kiwanda Cream Ale in the Golden or Blond Ale category. While some critics complain that the judging of beer is an inherently and unreliably subjective undertaking, to win categories in back-to-back years with different panels of judges should be enough to silence the naysayers.

While California and Colorado breweries continued to dominate the winner's list, with 39 and 28 medals respectively, New England breweries managed a very respectable showing despite relatively poor attendance at the festival. New England brewers have for a long time chosen not to focus their efforts on the GABF, for a variety of reasons. Some cite the expense of attending versus devoting more time to developing local markets, while others claim an inherent disadvantage in their ability to compete due to long-distance shipping to the event site. Regardless of the reasons, New England breweries and brewpubs have enjoyed remarkable successes considering their scarcity at the festival.

Steve Schmidt of the Cambridge House Brewpub in Granby, Connecticut, won a silver medal in the German-style Brown Ale or Dusseldorf-style Alt Bier category for his "Alt 45". The Opa Opa Brewing Company of Southampton, Massachusetts, won a silver medal in the American-style Hefeweizen category for its American Wheat. Will Meyers of the Cambridge Brewing Company continued his winning-streak at the festival, not with his famed Benevolence, but by branching out to win gold in the Herb and Spice Beer category for his The Wind Cried Mari heather ale. Brewed with aromatic Scottish malt, Will adds fresh, hand-harvested heather flowers from the Sylvan Nurseries in Westport, Massachusetts, along with sweet gale and lavender to the boil. The brewpub describes the beer as having an aroma and flavor that are "a surprising jog of ancient memory, with notes of sweet gale, heather, an obscure wildflower spiciness, and a grace note of lavender, complemented by the interplay of mild but assertive, toasty-sweet malt."

Redhook of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, won a silver medal in the Rye Beer category for its seasonal Sun Rye. The Boston Beer Company picked up another gold medal in the German-style Marzen or Oktoberfest category for its Samuel Adams Octoberfest. The Amherst Brewing Company won a gold medal in the highly competitive American-style Amber or Red Ale category for its Anniversary Ale.

Rob Tod of the Allagash Brewing Company added a couple more medals to his collection, and this time he did it without his category defining White beer. In the highly competitive Belgian-style Abbey Ale group, Allagash's Tripel won the gold medal, while its baby brother, the Interlude, took a silver in the Belgian-style Strong Ale category. The Interlude is another release in Allagash's experimental series. Presented in 75O-milliliter bottles, the beer employs two yeast strains, including Brettanomyces, and is aged in French oak barrels. The beer includes an interesting mix of flavors including fruit and toast, and a distinct, dry finish.

THE BREWERS STUDIO The Brewers Association debuted a new event at the festival designed to promote education about beer and the personalities behind the breweries. The Brewers Studio was set up to "explore the intersection where great brewing talents meet - and where the creativity behind some of today's most successful craft beer stories comes alive." The forum featured interviews and stories from Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing, Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker Brewing, Rob Tod, Adam Avery of Avery Brewing, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, and Tomme Arthur of Port Brewing Company. The Brewers Studio pavilion also hosted a series of beer and food pairings and cooking demonstrations from brewers and chefs alike.

ANHEUSER-BUSCH MAKES A SPLASH America's largest brewer used the GABF as an opportunity to promote its rededicated efforts to the promotion of beer generally and its specialty release portfolio. Starting with a fancy media event at the new Hyatt overlooking downtown Denver and following up with a media tour of several breweries in Fort Collins, A-B jumped into the better beer fray. Since 1997, A-B's Michelob Specialty Sampler Collection has included several unusual offerings for the company. A-B rolled out a series of new releases at the festival, some impressive, many unremarkable. Their Bavarian-style Wheat beer is brewed with wheat malt, is unfiltered and is fermented with a hefeweizen yeast strain. It is an impressive beer, full of clovey and light banana aromas and flavors. Overall, the wheat beer is on style and remains very drinkable with a great malt balance. The Michelob Porter is brewed using aroma hops from the Pacific Northwest and two-row caramel and chocolate barley malts. With a deep, burnished, off-red hue, the beer has a mild, roasted aroma with a touch of cinnamon. The beer is full in flavor, with sharp yet refined bitterness and a distinct roasted malt finish. While a perfectly enjoyable version of the porter style, it is a bit disturbing that A-B brews this beer, and indeed all of the other specialty release beers with the exception of the wheat, with its standard Budweiser house lager yeast strain. Some brewers and writers at the festival marveled at this achievement, but I think it demonstrates a continued disconnect between the big brewery and the core philosophies of the craft brewers. This detachment is best demonstrated by the brewery's continued reliance on Continental European-style hop varieties, including Saaz, Hallertau and Tettnang for its English-style pale ale.

CONTINUED IMPRESSIVE PERFORMANCE The Brewers Association also used the festival as an opportunity to promote the continued growth of the industry as a whole. Though official numbers will not be available until early next year, the BA reported that the volume of craft beer sold in the first half of 2OO6 enjoyed a robust 11 percent increase compared to the same period in 2OO5. "The rate of growth in the craft beer segment appears to be accelerating," said Paul Gatza, Director of the Brewers Association professional division. "This is the third straight year we've seen an increase in the craft beer growth rate."

On top of 7 percent and 9 percent growth in the last two years, this year's impressive numbers appears to solidify the permanent status of this category. "This growth represents strong performance by established craft brewers over several years," said Ray Daniels, Director of Craft Beer Marketing for the Brewers Association. "Unlike the early days of our industry, newly founded breweries do not add significantly to industry-wide production."

Return To:

Return To BeerScribe.com

Article appeared in the December 2006 issue of Beverage Magazine. For information on reprinting any of the above articles, please contact Andy Crouch.

All materials, content, and articles remain under copyright held by Andy Crouch.  2002-2006 © Andy Crouch.