GABF Bump: What winning a Great American Beer Festival medal means for breweries

Five Minnesota breweries won six medals at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival // Photo © 2017 Jason E. Kaplan

Five Minnesota breweries won six medals at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival // Photo © 2017 Jason E. Kaplan

Very soon, the three-year-old Beaver Island Brewing Company in St. Cloud will hang its Great American Beer Festival (GABF) bronze medal behind the bar in its taproom.

“‘Holy shit!’ Then ‘thank you,’” were the first thoughts that popped into Beaver Island co-owner Nick Barth’s mind when they won the award. “It was so affirming to be acknowledged nationally, in a blind tasting, for the hard work and dedication we have put in to our craft.”

In addition to the affirmation and congratulations from fellow brewers’ texts and fans’ tweets, Barth was shocked by something else.

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“We are getting calls, emails, and social media messages from retailers and customers across the country wanting to get their hands on our beer,” he says. “It’s incredible how much recognition this award has given us in such a short period of time. As the Great American Beer Festival has grown, it has given medalists an amazing opportunity to reach new customers who follow the awards and appreciate the dedication and commitment to elevating craft beer in America.”

For the uninitiated, GABF wrapped up in Denver over the weekend. The festival is the largest gathering of beer brewers and imbibers in America, providing not only many great beers for patrons to enjoy, but also bronze, silver, and gold medals to beers deemed worthy in 98 beer categories.

The awards ceremony at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival // Photo © Brewers Association

The awards ceremony at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival // Photo © 2017 Brewers Association

To get a feeling for the scale of the fest, 800 breweries and 60,000 people attended this year. Judges were tasked with assessing 7,923 beers for this year’s competition, with entries from 2,217 breweries flowing in. Of the beers entered, only 293 awards were given, with five breweries from the Land of 10,000 Lakes taking home six GABF medals.

While the experience of winning and feeling a “GABF bump” is new to Beaver Island, some longtime Minnesota brewers have felt the similar effect over the years.

Town Hall’s head brewer Mike Hoops, a stalwart of the Minneapolis brewing scene for nearly two decades, remembers how even years ago he was enamored of GABF.

“When I first started brewing professionally my goal was to be able to enter the GABF, as I respected the competition,” he says. “My first year, I was able to enter one beer that did not win. I was very happy even to have taken part. My second year, one of the five beers entered brought a gold medal. Let’s just say that was a very special moment, a feeling that I could only hope all brewers experience at some point.”

Town Hall sees a lot of patrons pass through thanks to Twin Cities metro area travelers. But the GABF certainly helped get word out for the brewpub.

“The GABF certainly has helped put Town Hall Brewery (a small non-distributing brewpub) on the national map before information was more easily available,” Hoops explains. “We see visitors often at the pub that mention they first saw us in Denver; and vice versa, we see people at the booth in Denver that stopped at the pub while in Minneapolis. We also receive more inquiries than usual from distributors outside our area that want to carry our beer after a medal is won.”

Not every recent winner has felt the same demand as Beaver Island or Town Hall. But winning a medal has provided validity.

The Freehouse won two silvers this year, one for the No. 33 Gose and the No. 20 Barleywine.

Matt Asay and The Freehouse brewing team accepted two medals at the 2017 GABF // Photo © 2017 Jason E. Kaplan

Matt Asay (second from right) and The Freehouse brewing team accepted two medals at the 2017 GABF // Photo © 2017 Jason E. Kaplan

“For our brewpub, it represents five years worth of hard work,” says brewer Matt Asay. “It’s been great to be acknowledged that we have the ability to brew beers true to style, and that our guests have come to enjoy that aspect of our beer.”

Asay wasn’t even aware of the first win when it was announced, realizing it when another brewer was fist pumping. “I was a little shaky walking up on stage,” he admits.

Lupulin’s “head beer drinker” Matt Schiller says the gold for the brewer’s Dortmunder this year felt “especially sweet” because the small, independent microbrewery beat out a brewery partially owned by brewing behemoth AB InBev.

Jack Pine owner, founder, and brewer Patrick Sundberg says getting “unbiased feedback from a blind tasting up against other similar beers is really something else,” let alone winning a bronze medal last year for its Vengeance! Jalapeno Cream Ale.

“I certainly think avid craft beer fans follow the GABF awards, so it helps build some name recognition for Jack Pine beyond our distribution area,” Sundberg explains.

A bump in business or the validation amongst one’s peers wasn’t a consideration when Summit Brewing won its first medal, a gold for the Great Northern Porter, in 1987. Winning a medal back then didn’t amount to much, because craft beer just wasn’t a thing, explains Summit president Mark Stutrud. In ’87, he recalls, porters were made by maybe five breweries in the world; and at GABF that year, there were only around 12 breweries in attendance and about 100 people.

Summit Brewing's medal for Great Northern Porter from the 1987 GABF // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Summit Brewing’s gold medal for Great Northern Porter from the 1987 GABF // Photo by Aaron Davidson

“Winning an award from 1987 to 1996, putting that little medal on the side of your packaging, didn’t really push sales since we were so confronted with competing with larger brewers at the time,” Stutrud says.

“But to be recognized and to receive an award for what we do on a daily basis is absolutely huge,” Stutrud answered when asked what it means to him and his team over the years. “That’s the crazy ass thing about the whole ordeal. This is our 31st year producing Extra Pale Ale, and to have so many awards for that style, we don’t take that for granted. That’s a huge accolade.”