A Festival Deserving of "Great"

By John Holl

The Great American Beer Festival Celebrates 29 Years

U.S. Beer festivals are commonplace these days. They can be found at state fairgrounds and local public parks, racetracks or in casino parking lots. They are a fun way to spend an afternoon, of course, but most dare not carry the word “great” in their title. To do so would be blasphemous, incorrect, and just plain wrong.

The name really says it all—Great American Beer Festival. The now sold-out 29th year event kicks off in Denver next month and tens of thousands will arrive looking for beer. An estimated 522 breweries are expected to pour more than 2,200 beers, in dozens of styles, all produced in the United States, a country that just 30 years ago had a pretty bleak beer landscape.

No, only the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) can hold that title.  It is the mecca of fermented beverages, the ultimate event for hop heads, beer goddesses, craft beer aficionados, homebrewers, beer beginners, those looking for god (see Associated Press story), and the just plain thirsty.

However, what most know as the GABF, a three day event inside the sprawling Colorado Convention Center, started out modestly enough, with only about 100 beers from just a handful of breweries. It was kind of an afterthought, a one day event tacked on to the end of the much larger National Homebrewers Conference.

It was well received but took off slowly. In the mid-1980s, it seemed like the whole thing might fail, something impossible to imagine today.

The Early Years

American homebrewers have long been the lifeblood of the American craft beer movement. When beer times were lean, they were the ones supplying flavorful, ambitious, groundbreaking beers, if only to themselves. Prohibition spurred a rise in homebrewing when breweries were forced to change their production focus or simply shut their doors. When homebrewing became legal in 1979, there was a flurry of activity as homebrew shops opened and distributors sought to supply these small at-home operations.  A vibrant community of supportive and enthusiastic hobbyist formed. They shared information through magazines like Zymurgy, and eventually Charlie Papazian formed the American Homebrewers Association.

“In those days it was the frontier,” says Charlie Papazian, president of the Brewer’s Association. “People were really really glad to see the beginning of a reversal of trends.”

After a few years, a decision was made to have a day-long event to showcase beers being produced in America. Breweries from the very large to the very small were invited to pour for the homebrewer based crowd, the first GABF was born.

Although small compared to today, the excitement was the same. All were dedicated beer drinkers looking to try new things, expand their horizons and celebrate the foamy fermented beverage in all its glory.  Twenty-one breweries participated that first year, 29 years ago, pouring their wares from bottles (draft lines would come later) for enthusiastic customers.

For the first few years, things stayed that way, a small event attached to the end of the homebrewers conference. But, big things happened. GABF was where many people had their first tastes of beers like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Samuel Adams Boston Lager (both took home top honors in their first outings) and were able to sample beers from larger, established breweries.

Papazian recalled having Killian’s Irish Red Ale from Coors Brewing in its first public tasting at the GABF. People were impressed, although he noted the beer that carries the name today is a far cry from the early 80s version.

Like today, the early years brought together heavy hitters from all walks of the brewing world. Roger Briess of the great malting family rubbed elbows with representatives of the Siebel Institute. Guests from Weihenstephan, the oldest brewery in the world, met their American counterparts.  Everyone listened to the venerable beer journalist Michael Jackson, who roamed the room, glass and notebook in hand.

“Right from the beginning there was a hardcore group of homebrewing and industry professionals who recognized the importance of what we were trying to do,” said Papazian.

The GABF started in Boulder and in the mid-80s made the move to Denver, where it was situated in the hotel that Jim Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Company, recently referred to as “one step above fleabag.”

“That year was the first that draft lines were used,” he said. “It did not go well—water leaked—there was damage.” Koch gave a laugh of fondness in remembering the early days. There was a hint of mischievousness in this voice when he revealed that the hotel is now being used as student housing.

Papazian remembered sitting in the empty room one night after GABF and being in awe of how the small industry had grown in the last few years and how the demand for American beer had skyrocketed.

One City—So Much Beer

The after parties and side events that have sprouted up around the GABF have become almost as big of a draw as the four sessions in the great hall.

One of the must visit spots in Denver has become the Falling Rock Tap House, where co-owner Chris Black keeps 82 tap lines flowing throughout the week, and a countdown clock ticks off the days until the actual festival. The bar and all of the brewpubs in town play host to hundreds of events where breweries unveil new brews, tap first kegs of the season, or uncap rarities for those lucky enough to elbow themselves in.

“The whole beer world comes to Denver,” said Black in a telephone interview. “It’s impossible to contain the excitement.”

Another event outside the GABF that people have come to look forward to is the announcement from Samuel Adams of which homebrewers have won the Longshot Competition. On the Saturday morning of the GABF weekend, Koch will announce the two beers that were selected, out of hundreds submitted, to be commercially brewed, bottled and distributed in the spring of next year. (Full disclosure: This reporter participated in the final judging of this year’s competition.)

Koch said he could not think of a better location to announce the winners, since it was homebrewers who “kept us in business and made what is today a vibrant and established craft brewing industry.”

Geoff Larson, of Alaskan Brewing, said, all of the side events “started organically.” People would start something one year and others would come to expect it the following year.

“It’s great to see the community – all these people passionate about beer,” Larson said.

The Brewing Industry Academy Awards

While the general public comes to the GABF for the beer, the brewers come for a chance to win a medal. Of all the brewing medals available it seems that most hold GABF medals in the highest regard.

“It’s essentially the Academy Awards for American brewers,” said Clay Robinson, co-owner and brewer at Indianapolis’ Sun King Brewing. The brewery has been around for a little more than a year and won a slew of local awards, even two at the World Beer Cup. But, Robinson said winning at the GABF is an honor above all others.

“The competition is hot and heavy,” he said,” so winning is pretty big.”

This year, 3,594 beers have been entered in the competition, encompassing 79 styles with numerous sub-categories.  New for 2010, dedicated styles include the American Style India Black Ale, Wood and Barrel Aged Strong Stout, Pumpkin Beer and Field Beer. GABF judges expect the competition to be cutting edge in regards to the entries from the professional brewers.

As winners are announced in the great hall during the Saturday Afternoon Members-Only session, applause mixes with a dazzling display of flashbulbs, wide smiles and gleaming gold, silver and bronze medals hanging around necks. Beers awarded with medals at the festival immediately become a focus of desire for beer enthusiasts with many winning beers quickly consumed to the last drop during the festival’s Saturday evening session.

“It’s about the quality of the competition and the caliber of the judges we recruit,” said Papazian. “That’s why brewers find this festival so important.”

GABF VolunteersVolunteers Make GABF Go Round

For all the fun, clinking of glasses, one ounce pours, funny t-shirts and overall celebration of the all-American beverage, the GABF would be nothing without its volunteers.  According to Carol Hiller, the volunteer coordinator, it takes no less than 3,200 people working about 50,000 hours to pull off the greatest of beer festivals.

“A lot of these people come to Colorado on their own dime and their own time,” she said. “They fly, drive, get their own hotel room, it’s fairly incredible.”

In return, they are rewarded with a shirt and sample glass, admission to the great hall and a chance to haul kegs, ferry attendees, take tickets, and just about anything else that needs to be done.

Hiller said she has to decline hundreds of volunteer offers each year. The ones who are selected, she said, take great pains to educate themselves about the breweries and the beer they will be serving. Many, in keeping with history, are homebrewers, who see this as a chance to obtain some wisdom and insight from those who have gone pro.

“But, the bottom line, said Hiller, is that without volunteers, the GABF would not be what it is today. They are deserving of praise, not envy, by each entrant to the festival.”

Excitement Builds

As was the case with previous years, tickets to the GABF sold out weeks before the first pour. The Internet has been abuzz with chatter around the festival, with people asking breweries via Twitter and Facebook what beers they will be pouring, where the outside parties will be located, and if there are special tapping events. Breweries are happy to oblige and answer the masses. The action is easy to follow on Twitter with #gabf and #craftbeer and Facebook.

For breweries making a first appearance at the festival, it is both exciting and nerve wracking.

Matt Steinberg, president of the New Jersey Beer Company, which began production earlier this year and will be pouring three beers at the festival said serving on the world’s biggest beer stage is an honor.

“I am sure I might have some butterflies,” said Steinberg. “I am looking forward to the critiques, but it is simply amazing that we will be standing shoulder to shoulder with great breweries. It’s pretty awesome.”

Even the old hands of the American craft brewing world get excited when GABF time rolls around. It’s hard not to.

“Well it’s an amazing display of breweries and beers – quite a festival. There has never been anything quite like it,” said Ken Grossman, founder of Sierra Nevada.

Photos © 2010 Jason E. Kaplan


John HollJohn Holl writes about American craft beer and the culture of drinking. A journalist since 1996, he has worked for the New York Times, The Indianapolis Star and Star-Ledger of Newark. Holl is a regular contributor to Craftbeer.com, The Beer Connoisseur Magazine and the Ale Street News. He lives in New Jersey and occasionally uses Twitter where you can follow him @John_Holl .