It’s Time for a Great American Beer Festival Overhaul
At the end of the Great American Beer Festival award ceremony, closing out our seventh year covering this massive industry event, I felt strongly that the craft beer industry has finally fully outgrown the current format of The Great American Beer Festival proper and the awards ceremony. The format worked perfect when we were dealing with less than 1,000 breweries in the country, but at nearly 6,000, it’s now a mess, but a mess that can be easily cleaned up.
I am going to outline all the issues that are apparent, and rather than just complain, I will offer up a new format that will make the Great American Beer Festival as prestigious as it used to be.
The current format of the festival is too large but not large enough to encapsulate American Craft Beer. There’s 800 some breweries, certainly not 5,000+ breweries in the convention center, so we are really honoring the lucky (those who made the lottery) and those with the finances to ship their beer and their team to play around in Denver for a week. Yet on the other hand, with the 800 breweries and nearly 4,000 beers being poured, how on earth would a festgoer ever get a good experience during any given festival session, unless they just want to pound 1 oz. shots nonstop?
In its current format, money talks and BS gets a tiny generic booth with their bland, throwback beers. If you are Dogfish Head, Stone Brewing or Oskar Blues, you are able to get a sweet endcap with amazing branding and presence. There’s two issues I’m identifying here. Now that the BA has all but shamed macro beer out of the festival, the new Big Beer is flexing their resources by getting all the attention the new and small guys can’t afford. The other issue is there are many brewers who made the lottery, scraped up the money to participate, then take up space with the most boring booths and some pretty boring beer offerings. Yellow background on the booth, an unnamed Pale Ale, Red Ale, Hefe and an IPA brewed from a 15-year-old recipe. Think of how many of these breweries you see that are getting passed up, and some, rightfully so.
The awards ceremony has multiple problems from where I sit, the first being that it’s a flawed method of finding the best beers made in America. Right off the bat, the touted 2,200+ breweries represented is around one-third of the breweries in the country. Are the other two-thirds not cranking out good beer or is it cost prohibitive to submit?
There are too many judged styles, many of which are not relevant in 2017. We know the hottest style in the country is IPA, but we can’t have a Great American IPA Festival, that’s just silly. 98 categories is a bit much and dare I say, overboard. Three categories for fruit beer, two categories for coffee beer, two categories for Brett beer, Wood and Barrel Aged Strong beer AND Stout, English-Style Summer Ale (come on now!), a Double AND Imperial Red Ale, three Saison categories, most likely all interchangeable, and my favorite, Robust AND Brown Porter, as if they both aren’t brown.
The judging feels a bit skewed to the old guard that provides the judging service. I’ve been taught to respect my elders; I am truly convinced that people who have lived longer and have experienced more life than myself should be revered and respected. I also believe in growing salty, jaded and stuck in old ways, which brings me to this observation: I would guarantee the collective taste of the panels’ 276 judges are not in line with what consumers find to be the best. This is not a new issue at all, but it’s something worth mentioning. From the beginning of the West Coast IPA craze in the mid 2000s until today’s New England Style IPA phase, it’s been the classic tale of the old man yelling to the clouds whenever I observe the “old guard” discussing beer on social media and on message boards. I’m not here to say who is right, but there is a huge discrepancy between online beer ratings and who wins at the GABF, and after observing both sides, I tend to lean towards the school of thought that the beer judges are grizzled veterans who are happy with the way beer used to be, and are using their familiar tastes and tenure to judge accordingly.
The Brewers Association has touted 60,000 attendees including volunteers, brewers, judges, volunteers and journalists. We don’t have the breakdown on this but we have watched the award ceremony for the past seven years and see that some breweries roll deep to the award ceremony. I understand the owner, the head brewer and maybe someone from marketing or the brew team are there for support, but when each brewery brings ma, pa, Auntie Myrtle, the taproom gal, etc., it not only slows down the show, but it’s also taking up valuable seat real estate. The Brewers Association has gotten stricter in handing out media credentials from years past, but I couldn’t help but notice their criteria of media outlet seems a bit loose. I saw a few “I love beer and I’m going to share my journey on Instagram” folks providing coverage, flashing media badges on said Instagram account, and thought, oh no, it’s gone too far. People were shut out of the award ceremony and this is something that can be fixed. I mean, even Matt Brynildson, arguably one of the country’s best brewmasters, was shut out of the awards due to over-capacity issues. If Matt can’t get in but a “blogger” with 300 Instagram followers can, then what’s the point of the awards?
How to solve these problems? Reform the old GABF format
- The festival is now too big, yet it still doesn’t represent the nearly 6,000 breweries in this country. I propose the following: break each session of the event into regions. Thursday is the Northeast, Friday is the Southeast, Saturday day is the Midwest, Saturday evening is Mountain and Pacific.
- Do big companies like Dogfish, Oskar Blues and Stone need the endcap to “get their name out?” They really don’t, but the hot, new up-and-comer might. I propose the BA offers a lottery system to get a nice endcap spot, and pool sponsors to offer a grant to help said brewer fund and decorate said endcap.
- BA should pay respect to the hottest brewers in the country by trying hard to get breweries like Trillium, Monkish, The Veil and other darlings to attend. Again, there is a big disconnect between what’s winning gold and what is hot on the streets, and that gap should be closed, not closed minded.
- Much like the issue of a small sample being represented on the festival floor, the same goes for competition entries. Competitions should be held at the state and/or regional level to whittle down the good from the bad. Make the GABF competition similar to the World Series of Beer. Producing beer and winning the lottery should not be enough to enter this prestigious competition.
- Cut down the categories by half. I know home brewers and many diehards love and respect all 98 beer styles judged, but there are many who don’t, and I doubt the winner of the English Summer Ale category’s business will begin to skyrocket due to winning a Gold Medal. To be fair to the legacy styles that many don’t care about, perhaps they can be woven in and out of alternating years. Also, some consolidation should be considered, as I suspect there is quite a bit of system gaming. Consolidate some of the IPAs, consolidate the saisons, consolidate the porters, etc.
- Fresh blood needs to be mixed in with the old guard for beer judging. I admit, it’s my strong assumption that it’s all old guard based on the printed materials on the GABF website and they very well could be mixing in some fresh blood into the judging process.
- Provide a larger arena for the award ceremony and/or limit how many representatives per brewery can participate. It’s hard for me to suggest BA analyze the media credential situation, as we were once a very small, scrappy publication with no readership, but I would just suggest they think about the ROI per media outlet.
The Great American Beer Festival remains the apex event for brewers and beer enthusiasts, but it’s just an animal that has gotten too big and needs to adjust to stay as legitimate as possible.