The Inevitably Late GABF 2009 Review…

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Things could have gone very differently this year. In the midst of the worst economy for consumer goods in more than half a century, craft and domestic brewers alike braced for a painful and unknown impact. They anticipated sharp declines, the product of worried consumers staying home and away from stores, bars, and restaurants. What they received, instead, was a rousing slap on the back, verification that their efforts, while not recession proof, are recession resistant.

Another Successful Great American Beer Festival

Buoyed by news that the dollar growth of their trade jumped nine percent in the first half of this year, while their volume of beer brewed increased five percent during the same time period, craft brewers celebrated their sales of nearly 4.2 million barrels. These impressive numbers, made all the more so by the withering economic landscape surrounding them, paved the way to the industry’s most awaited event, the annual Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver, Colorado.

By the numbers, the GABF was another rousing success. The event sold out all of its four sessions far in advance, all while substantially increasing its attendance by expanding to new areas of the Colorado Convention Center. A total of 457 breweries served more than 2,100 beers to 49,000 attendees in the hall, while 495 breweries sent 3,308 beers to be judged by 132 judges from ten countries in the blind judged competition. This year also saw beers judged in a mind-blowing 78 categories, which averaged 42 beers per style, with the American Style India Pale Ale topping all others with 134 entries. Unsurprisingly, Colorado and California again dominated the competition, winning 45 and 39 medals respectively.

New England Scores Despite Low Attendance

In the Northeast, New York brought home nine medals. Attendance from New England continued to be poor, a result of several contributing forces, from questions over the value of a medal, the long travel distance for the beer, and most of all the cost of attending and submitting beers. To participate in the Judge-only portion of the event, the cost for non-members was a whopping $375 per brand, an amount many small breweries and brewpubs do not consider a wise investment.

Despite the hurdles, the few New England brewers in attendance—a mere eleven in total out of more than one hundred possible participants—performed well at the event. Even though it was the smallest region by far in the country in terms of participating breweries and brewpubs at the event, New England brewers managed to score medals from every state, save for Rhode Island. The Cambridge House Brew Pub from Granby and Torrington, Connecticut, won a silver medal in the Classic Irish Style Dry Stout for its Three Steve Stout. In New Hampshire, Redhook Ales of Portsmouth won a bronze medal for its Weizen in the South German Style Hefeweizen category. In Maine, the Allagash Brewing Company continued its winning ways with a silver medal for its Tripel in the Belgian-Style Abbey Ale category.

Tying for the lead as the biggest New England winners at the Great American Beer Festival this year were Massachusetts and Vermont, whose brewers each brought home two medals. In Massachusetts, the Boston Beer Company won a silver medal in the German Style Doppelbock or Eisbock category for its oft-winning Double Bock. An infrequent participant in the GABF over the years, the Harpoon Brewery also managed a surprise bronze win for its UFO Hefeweizen, an American-Style Wheat Beer With Yeast. In gold-medal winning Vermont, the Otter Creek Brewing and Wolaver’s Organic Ales collaborative won the Bohemian Style Pilsener category with its Vermont Lager. The region’s biggest winner was undoubtedly the little Alchemist brewpub of Waterbury, Vermont, which took home a gold medal in the Gluten Free Beer category with its Celia Framboise and a bronze in the same category for its Celia IPA. The win was especially sweet for brewer Jon Kimmich, whose wife had been recently diagnosed with Celiac’s Disease, a condition that prevents her from consuming most beers produced with grain. With her as the inspiration, Kimmich brewed two award-winning beers that will hopefully pave the way for more brewers to extend an olive branch to our beer deprived brethren in the future.

Success Outside Of New England And Education On The Rise

Taking home the big awards, Will Kemper of the Chuckanut Brewery in Bellingham, Washington won the Small Brewpub and Small Brewpub Brewer of the Year award and Pizza Port of Carlsbad, California won the Large Brewpub and Large Brewpub Brewer of the Year. A new entrant to the awards, the Dry Dock Brewing Company of Aurora, Colorado picked up the Small Brewing Company and Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year award. Robert Malone of the Flying Dog Brewery of Frederick, Maryland won the Mid-Size Brewing Company and Mid-Size Brewing Company Brewer of the Year and Dr. David Ryder of the Coors Brewing Company of Golden, Colorado won the Large Brewing Company and Large Brewing Company Brewer of the Year award.

The event itself enjoyed an expanded presence and still manages an effective presentation of the assembled brands, despite trying to balance the crush of more attendees. With the benefit of extra floor space, the Brewers Association wisely expanded the festival’s educational opportunities, running a series of events at different venues throughout the sessions. At the festival’s Great American Beer School, participants had the opportunity to hear brewers speak about their favorite beverages, learn how judges determines winners during tasting sessions, and listen to authors of beer books speak about their projects. At the Beer and Food Pavillion, attendees heard from expert chefs and brewers on the art of pairing beer and food and about cooking with beer. Voices from New England were well represented on the panels, as were brewers and chefs from around the country. Allagash’ founder and brewmaster Rob Tod teamed up with the Beer Chef, Bruce Paton of the Cathedral Hill Hotel in San Francisco, California, to pair butter poached prawns with a ginger scallion sauce and Allagash’s Hugh Malone ale. In teaching the audience to pair Belgian and sour ales with food, Sean Paxton, known as the Homebrew Chef, worked with Will Meyers, head brewer at the Cambridge Brewing Company and Ron Jeffries of Jolly Pumpkin Artisanal Ales.

In the Brewers Studio Pavilion, Steve Dresler of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Patrick Rue of The Bruery, Mitch Steele of Stone Brewing Company, and Scott Vaccaro of Captain Lawrence Brewing Company entertained the crowd with predictions about the future of craft brewing as well as discussions about American-Belgian hybrid beers. Later, Geoff Larson of the Alaskan Brewing Company—one of the great winners of GABF medals over the years—walked participants through several vintages of his classic Alaskan Smoked Porter.

On the floor of the festival, a younger generation of craft beer drinkers has clearly emerged since the early days of the event. Sometimes overwhelmed by their surroundings, the behavior can sometimes be lamentable but the GABF remains an important event on the American beer scene. Acting as a microcosm for the beer industry at large, you can see trends emerge and new avenues of sales develop. Within the last decade, the festival served as the showcase for specialty barrel aged beers that brewers could not otherwise sell in bulk at their pubs and breweries. This occurrence later gave way to the barrel aged trend that we see in full force today, resulting in specialty beer festivals of their own solely dedicated to the diverse array of such offerings. The GABF also played home to the early rounds of highly hopped beers that later became enshrined in the Double India Pale Ale category that is so well attended at the event.

A trend that could be seen at this year’s event was the emergence of lager beer from its protective cocoon. Since the early days of craft beer, small brewers have shied away from producing lagers for a variety of reasons, ranging from cost and time to a misperception that lager beer was somehow inferior to ales due to its link with larger domestic producers. Slow to come around on the issue, a handful of American craft brewers, from Victory Brewing to Capital Brewery, have found a niche market success in selling lager beer. At this year’s festival, small pub and production brewers from around the country served up dozens of Pilsener beers that could not have been found five years ago. Ranging from sharply hoppy and zesty offerings to lighter, maltier bases, these Pilsener beers showed a remarkable gift of skill and the application of time and patience to the craft of making fine lager beers. With the success of beers such as Victory Prima Pils, it is suddenly becoming acceptable to venture into lager brewing. I expect that as this trend develops, that we will see an expansion of Pilsener brewing into other, less explored areas of lager beer, ranging from Helles to Schwarzbier and beyond.

–Article appeared in December 2009 issue of Beverage Business Magazine.

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