Article By: Andy Crouch
Dropping the banner on its twenty-seventh year . . .
the annual Great American Beer Festival celebrated another eventful run in Denver. The festival again gave attendees especially those in the beer industry, an unparalleled opportunity to hob-knob with other beer lovers, brewers and pub owners – and this year did not disappoint. Growing faster than the industry itself is the number of side events occurring at the festival. Wholesalers, industry groups, individual breweries, and even entire cities held special get-togethers to promote their varied interests.
This year’s incarnation of the festival continued to build upon the event’s successful history, if with a few hiccups. With more than 2OOO beers available on the convention floor from more than 45O breweries, the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) remains an impressive logistical undertaking and a complicated feat of coordination. For the second straight year, the GABF sold out of its tickets in advance and did so an impressive two weeks before the doors opened on the opening session. When the totals were counted, the Denver Convention Center had played host to more than 46,OOO beer enthusiasts, brewers, pub owners, and wholesalers, a thirty-five percent increase in attendance from 2OO6.
The substantial increase appears to have had a slightly negative effect on the fest in two important ways: crowd management and industry enthusiasm. In giving access to 46,OOO anxious attendees, several thousand were forced to stand in line for more than an hour before entering the convention hall. Inside the hall, the festival was packed, even during the normally light Thursday session. Despite its gains, the GABF may have reached its tipping point in terms of population. It is difficult to determine whether the perceived lack of enthusiasm on the part of attending brewers was related to the down economy, the surge in attendance and corresponding lack of intimacy and camaraderie, or some other reason. Regardless, brewers were in shorter supply at their tables, and in attendance during the event itself, than in years past. The focal point of the week appears to have shifted away from the convention floor itself and into the city and state more generally.
Where brewers were missing, the burgeoning new media was out in full force. Bloggers were omni-present, with many reporting directly from the festival floor or the adjacent media room. For those beer enthusiasts who were not able to attend the GABF, they could read contemporaneous accounts of speakers and individual beer tastings from a wide variety of sources, including magazines, podcasting services, and individual writers.
The GABF AWARDS by the NUMBERS
The heart of the GABF will always remain its heavily contested beer judging. Setting a new record, 472 breweries participated in the blind tasting process, presenting 29O2 beers for review by 127 judges from 11 countries and grading in 75 styles, with an average of 39 beers per category. All told, the judges handed out 222 medals, resulting in approximately 7.5 percent of all beers entered picking up a medal. When you stop to contemplate that number, you have to respect the results where fewer than one in thirteen beers received a medal and just over 2 percent received the much-coveted gold. While beer geeks may complain about the GABF judging and nit-pick particular selections, you have to congratulate the brewers who continue to win multiple medals, year after year. And there were many such breweries, including two category medals for the most-awarded beer in GABF history, Alaskan Brewing Comany’s Alaskan Smoked Porter (it won a silver medal in the smoke-flavored beer category for its 2OO7 version and a gold medal in the aged beer category for its 2OO6 version). The Firestone Walker Brewing Company again took home multiple medals, in both lager and ale categories. For the top prizes, Anheuser-Busch and brewer Doug Muhleman won the Large Brewing Company and Large Brewing Company Brewery of the Year award, Pyramid Brewery and Simon Pesch won the Medium Brewing Company and Medium Brewing Company Brewery of the Year award, and the Alesmith Brewing Company won the Small Brewing Company of the Year award. In the brewpub category, the Rock Bottom Brewing Company chain won the Large Brewpub of the Year award and the Redwood Brewing Company won the Small Brewpub of the Year.
The event gave sponsor Anheuser-Busch the opportunity to showcase its recent forays into the area of more flavorful beers. Shortly after spinning off its Michelob division into a separate brewing company, A-B announced its purchase by Belgian-Brazilian brewer InBev. While that deal continues to work its way through shareholder, regulatory and legal hurdles and reviews, Anheuser-Busch has not slowed its promotion of its craft-style beers. This summer resulted in a nationwide media blitz for its American Ale, in a bit of unfortunate and ironic timing due to its takeover. The beer was released to the public a few weeks before the GABF but for many beer enthusiasts, the event was the first opportunity to try the large brewery’s efforts. While some described the beer as an attempt to clone a lesser version of the popular Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, my tasting revealed an unusual English yeast and hop character, whole not unpleasant, was certainly not as advertised. At a private media event before the festival, Anheuser-Busch offered several interesting and promising test batch products. Featuring simple labels, the test batches included a spot-on and flavorful Czech-style pils, an impressive kolsch, a clean if unexciting helles, and an overwhelmingly hoppy and bitter India Pale Ale. The entire Michelob series was available for tasting, including the excellent dunkelweisse and the solid porter. If these beers see wider distribution and are made available at price points targeted below the regional competing craft brands, Anheuser-Busch may see some success with these brands. It remains unclear whether the brewery can compete at or near the same price point as the differentiated craft brands.
Of the side events sponsored this year were two curious opportunities to sample beers from far flung regions. Public relations contingents for both the cities of San Francisco and Philadelphia came to Denver to tell the beer world of their respective virtues. Touted as “America’s Best Beer-Drinking City”, supporters invited beer enthusiasts to visit the Philly Beer Week from March 6 to 15, 2OO9. Across town, and not to be outdone, the San Francisco Beer Week staff, to be held February 6 to 15, 2OO9, promoted itself as “America’s Original Craft Beer-Drinking City”. When you add in the local Denver area tourism board’s promoting the GABF as the “Super Bowl of Beers” in “the Napa Valley of Beer” and clearly city governments are beginning to recognize the financial contributions made to local economies by craft brewers. On October 6, the Denver City Council honored the Great American Beer Festival with a special proclamation recognizing its contributions to the Denver area and Colorado. The GABF was also honored in late 2OO7 with a Tourism Star Award by the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau.
In contrast, attendance at the Great American Beer Festival by New England brewers, even where the present chairman of the Brewers Association’s Board of Directors is Rich Doyle, CEO and founder of Harpoon, the region’s largest craft brewery, continued to be poor. Of the 472-plus breweries in attendance, only 16 attended from New England. Of those, New England brewers managed to take home only three GABF medals, with Cambridge Brewing winning a gold medal in the highly competitive experimental category for its Arquebus, a bronze medal went to Amherst Brewing Company’s Ryeteous Red in the rye beer category, and Boston Beer Company won a bronze medal in the aged beer category for its Samuel Adams Utopias 2OO3. Together, New England brewers won a little over one-percent of the total medals awarded. When you compare that to other similarly sized towns, such as Philadelphia, let alone the Mid-Atlantic or California and Colorado regions, New England’s attendance is an issue the Brewers Association should work to address.
In attendance at the festival was one curious participant: New England’s new craft brewery, Lawson’s Finest Liquids of Warren, Vermont. Founded earlier this year by longtime homebrewer Sean Lawson, the brewery self-distributes its beers in the Mad River Valley area around the brewery in the Green Mountain state. The brewery focuses on small batches and strives to produce beers that “are different than other currently available microbrews in Vermont, set apart by unique styles”. At the festival, attendees quickly went through the brewery’s hand-numbered bottle offerings, which included the Chinooker’d IPA, a single hop India Pale Ale, and the Maple Nipple, a Vermont Maple ale with 8-percent alcohol.
CRAFT BEER CONTINUES to GROW DESPITE TOUGH ECONOMIC TIMES
During the festival, the Brewers Association held a media event to announce its numbers for the performance of craft beer in 2OO8 to date. In late July, the association announced that craft beer sales continued to grow despite the softening economy and issues involving the prices for raw materials. Craft beer dollar sales during the first half of 2OO8 increased 11 percent compared to the same period a year earlier, which the association attributed to “a grassroots movement toward fuller flavored, small batch beers made by independent craft brewers”. The volume of beer sold by craft brewers grew by 6.5 percent, totaling an estimated four million barrels of beer compared, up from 3.7 million barrels in the first half of 2OO7.
“Newer brands by the larger brewers, like Belgian style wheat beers, have huge distribution advantages over beers by independent craft brewers,” said Paul Gatza, Director of the Brewers Association. “These brands can grow when the large brewers decide they want them to grow with the ability to impact what brands get shelf space and tap handles. At the same time, beer from craft brewers is being requested by the customer, which encourages distributors and retailers to make the beer available.” According to the Brewers Association, 142O of the 1463 US breweries are independent craft brewers.”
The Brewers Association reported that the volume of imported beers is down nearly three percent in the first half of 2OO8, with wine, spirits and the rest of the beer market rising slightly. In 2OO7, beer sales in the United States were nearly $98 billion, with craft beer accounting for $5.74 billion. In the Northeast, craft beer dollar sales have increased more than 11 percent, according to data provided to the association by Information Resources, Inc. (IRI). While all craft beer style categories followed by IRI are on the rise, specialty packaging and seasonal product sales continue to drive sales, resulting in an increase of in sales dollar volume of nearly 24 percent. On a national basis, the seasonal beer category has overtaken pale ales as the most popular style grouping for consumers, with total dollar share up 1.6 percent. Consumers continue to demand variety, as opposed to brand loyalty, as well, with variety packaging up .7 percent in terms of total dollar share. The increased volume of craft beer sales is made further impressive in light of the substantial price increases consumers have seen so far this year. Through the end of August, pricing in the beer category overall is up 2.7 percent with craft beer pricing up 4.7 percent.
While the festival continued to enjoy popular and financial success, the Brewers Association has some issues to address before next year’s event. The festival’s size, in comparison with its relatively cramped environs, is a problem that is not likely to improve without some direct attention. The other complicated issue that several brewers discussed at the festival was whether the Brewers Association, which has so strongly pushed its own definition of craft brewing (small, independent and traditional) will continue to rely upon the big breweries for distribution services and as strong financial sponsors of the event. Some brewers wondered whether Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors, all now all-foreign owned, will be excluded from the “American” beer festival.