Observations at the Great American Beer Festival


It’s a White Man’s World

When was the last time you were at a large public event, one with more than 10,000 people in attendance, and saw long lines at the men’s room but no lines at the women’s? That’s exactly what was happening in Denver. For a man, relieving oneself of the accumulating liquid refreshment meant a 10- to 15-minute wait. Meanwhile, whenever I looked toward the female facilities, women were strolling casually in and out.

This says something about our beloved beer scene. While the participation by women is growing, both inside and outside the industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. Groups like The Pink Boots Society and Barley’s Angels are doing a great job attracting women to the cause with events, blogs, and educational outreach, but the beer industry as a whole needs to do more. Women represent just over half of the world’s population. They should be encouraged and actively recruited to pursue careers in beer, be it in sales or production. A greater effort should be made to reach out to women as consumers.

Related Post: The ABCs of the GABF

Racial diversity was also noticeably absent at the fest. Scanning the hall I saw very few people of color in attendance. Photos from the festival bear this out. Pictures posted on the festival website show hundreds of people. I spotted only five among them that were not white.

There is a glaring lack of representation of other ethnicities in craft beer. Michael Ferguson, Beer Geeks television show host and director of brewing operations at the BJ’s Restaurant group, calls himself “the other black brewer.” There are exceptions, like the Latino-owned 5 Rabbit Brewing Company in Chicago, but African Americans, Latinos, and Asians remain a tiny minority in both the craft beer industry and consumer base. Even National Public Radio has taken note. They did a story on September 10, 2013 entitled Why Aren’t There More People Of Color In Craft Brewing?

Perhaps it’s time for craft beer to look for ways to broaden its appeal.

Barrels and Hops Are Still Big…But Other Trends Are in Evidence

This will come as no surprise to hop-loving Minnesota beer drinkers but hops are still king in American beer. American-style IPA was the biggest competition category with 252 entries, followed by Imperial IPA with 149. American pale ale and strong pale ale were close behind with 124 and 120 entries. The continued love affair with hops was reflected on the festival floor as well. The Brewers Association doesn’t track festival-hall beers by style, but I can tell you that nearly every brewery had a hopped-up beer of some kind.

Other interesting trends can be gleaned from the competition entries. Herb/spice and field/pumpkin beers—beers that use vegetables as an adjunct—got a surprising number of entries and ranked third and ninth respectively in the entry count. Barrel-aging is still popular, with wood-aged beers—sours, strong stouts, and others—all among the top-10 entry getters. Competition entries also show a love for coffee beers, Belgian blondes, and French Bières de Garde.

The Brewers Association style guidelines also offer some insight into the directions American beer is moving. They are updated annually with styles being added and adapted to reflect what is happening in the real world. One category worth noting is “session beers.” While the trend for the last several years has been to make everything bigger and bolder, the session beer category can be thought of as anti-imperial. It consists of classic-style beers made smaller. The examples given in the guidelines include “half-alt,” “baby bock,” and “single fest.” Beers entered in this category cannot exceed 5.1% ABV. The minimalized medal winners this year included a Belgian golden ale, an American stout, and a session IPA.

People have been talking about a coming wave of session beers for a while. Does this mean the time has finally come? I hope so.

Beer People Like to Dress Up

Something about the GABF inspires people to dress up in crazy costumes. Sumo-wrestler sized Scotsmen, 80s hair-band rockers, beer bottles, and bears—one sees every imaginable getup at the fest. Some groups come dressed all alike. My festival companion once photographed a row of Where’s Waldos standing at the urinals.

I don’t want to discourage this practice but I do think that it’s odd. I’m trying to imagine a wine tasting with people dressed as the Fruit of the Loom grape guy. But perhaps that’s exactly what the wine world needs. It’s a reflection of the sense of fun and frivolity that makes the beer community what it is. Let’s keep it that way.

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About Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint

Michael has a passion for beer. He is Minnesota's first Certified Cicerone (think sommelier for beer) with the Cicerone Certification Program, and a National Beer Judge with the Beer Judge Certification Program. In addition, Michael is himself an award-winning brewer. He writes a monthly column on beer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.


  1. barkingshins says

    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.

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