A fly-on-the-wall’s view of this year’s GABF.
By Michael Agnew
Article Photos by Brian Kaufenberg. Panorama ©Brewers Association
Every fall the Brewers Association, a trade group representing the nation’s craft brewers, hosts the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver, Colorado. It is the largest gathering of beer fans and breweries in the country. According to the Guinness Book of World Records®, there is no other place on earth where a beer aficionado can find more beers on tap. It boasts the largest collection of American-made beers in one place. With 624 breweries pouring 3,142 beers at this year’s event, it is almost certainly one of the largest beer festivals in the world. Simply put, the GABF is a most-impressive event.
It does, however, have its caveats. I know, it doesn’t sound so bad to be in a room where 3,142 beers are being poured. In fact it sounds a bit like heaven. The problem is that there are 10,000 other people in that room with you. Most are experiencing at least a mild state of intoxication, many somewhat more than mild. It’s difficult to move through the hall. The constant roar is like standing inside of a jet engine. It reaches eardrum-shattering peaks as shaming cries of “Ohhhhhhh” move across the hall in waves every time a glass is dropped, which is often. For a serious introvert such as myself, it can be a most-unpleasant event.
That being said, I keep going back. And I have a blast every year. There are sanctuaries to be found in the hall and special events are happening at every bar and brewery taproom in the city. There is no shortage of beer to be sampled and beer people to connect with.
The GABF is also a good platform from which to see what’s happening in the American beer landscape—to get the lay of the land, as it were. Here are a few trends and tidbits that I picked up this year.
American Beer Has Arrived
If you still need evidence that American beer has come into its own, look no further than GABF ticket sales. When I attended for the first time in 2007, the festival sold out the week of the event. I swear I remember tickets being available at the door. This year the nearly 50,000 tickets sold out in just 20 minutes. You read that correctly. 50,000 tickets, selling at $75 apiece, were gone in 20 minutes. People want the beer. There were a record number of media in attendance as well, including approximately 22 representatives from the foreign press.
The increased popularity of the festival has made it more expensive to attend. In addition to the ticket price, one can’t forget the ancillary expenses like hotel rooms. When attending a beer festival with 3,142 beers it’s good to stay within walking distance. As early as July, it was difficult to find rooms in downtown Denver for under $300 per night. And on Hotwire, where I have historically bagged 4-star hotels for $100 to $150, I never saw anything under $400. If you plan to attend the GABF, be prepared to drop some cash or cab it to distant lodging.
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It wasn’t just tickets that went fast. Reflecting the nation’s rapidly-rising brewery count, brewery registration for the GABF filled in an hour and forty minutes, with a wait list of 375. This caught everyone by surprise and left many big-name breweries and fest regulars out in the cold. They were largely replaced by small—in some cases very small—newcomers (see the brewery map above).
This was both a blessing and a curse. It was good to see new faces. It is a testament to the growth of the industry and the movement. These upstarts are the potential super-stars of the future. Some of them are making beer that portends great things. The problem is that many of them are not. I thought this year’s fest offered a higher-than-normal number of sub-par beers. I make it a point at the GABF to try beers from breweries that I have never heard of—the small unknowns that nobody lines up for. Perhaps I was unlucky enough to randomly hit the worst of the bunch, but that seems unlikely. With all the boom-and-bust talk of market saturation, new breweries are going to have to step up their game or risk going under. Hopefully they won’t take the whole thing down with them.
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Regarding your comments about the lack of gender/racial diversity in craft beer, has it occurred to you that maybe, for purely cultural reasons, women and/or minorities just aren’t that ‘into’ craft beer and leave it at that? I think it speaks to our country’s insecurities when people are uncomfortable with perfectly natural patterns developing around gender and racial lines. My assumption is that if you were reporting on the Great American Scented Candle Festival rather than GABF, your observations about gender diversity would be virtually the polar opposite. There’s nothing wrong with that. Nothing needs to be ‘corrected’. Craft beer is everywhere. Regardless of gender and/or race, the people who are inclined to enjoy it can and will find there way to it on their own. No need to force the issue.