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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