Bravo to all those brewers and brewery owners
who have decided to say, “Enough“
Every time I claim I’m going to write something short ‘n’ sweet, I fail. This time, I’m going to aim for one or the other and hope to hit…something.
It probably will NOT be “sweet”…
It’s time to get rid of GABF, as we presently know it. When this festival started, it was a fantastic idea: get most of the country’s brewers into one place, have them showcase their best beers, recognize the most accomplished among them, and hang a medal on the winners…a medal that gave the recipient an invaluable marketing tool and helped put yet another small, independent American business that can’t afford national (or even local!) ad buys and its own PR firm a way to Get On The Map.
That time has now passed.
Today, we have 4,500+ breweries currently licensed in this country. It is categorically impossible for anyone to hold a festival where even half that number is represented. Last year, 750 breweries were allowed to set up at GABF. Let’s be generous and say that, this year, they manage to work in 850.That is just a tad less than 20% of all American craft breweries. That means that EIGHTY PERCENT of all current American beers never even have a chance to be tasted by GABF judges. And yet these medals awarded are intended to represent the Best of American Craft Beer. Clearly, the law of averages says that, out of that missing 80%+, some of those beers will be better than the ones that take home the hardware.
There has been, over the past couple of years, a trend developing in Denver, concurrent with the Festival: a growing number of the country’s most prestigious makers of beer are passing on attending the Festival itself, opting to showcase themselves and their products at other events happening all over Metro Denver; in warehouses, event halls, and in other breweries. It accomplishes the same core benefit for those breweries as being in the noisy, crammed-full Festival hall: a chance for brewers from all over the map to reconnect, share their beers and their ideas, meet other brewers they’ve only heard about or know by reputation, and, as a result, continue to raise the collective level of expertise and innovation in Craft Beer.
I cannot applaud this idea loudly enough. In past posts in this obscure little bloglet, I’ve suggested that The Brewers Association, the organization which organizes and produces GABF, might want to spread it out geographically a bit, to accommodate the new reality of craft beer, which now has breweries operating in all fifty states. Regional festivals, under the BA umbrella, could be held in other cities, offering better access for more breweries and economic benefit for cities other than Denver, which is an absolutely WONDERFUL host city but does not have to be – and, in fact is not, anymore, and never really was – the nexus of American brewing. If those regional festivals were held, the winners of those could be gathered in Denver, with attendance to the Finals limited to smaller and more manageable numbers, and a real, credible Best Of roster of beers could be produced each year. BA wouldn’t even have to give up its in-town cash cow (BA is headquartered in Denver…I know: shocking). One of the regional festivals could be held there. Simple. ZERO response from BA. NOT shocking.
I have personally stood in the hall at GABF and watched people so drunk they were actually staggering, bumping into bystanders and throwing up in trash cans and completely incapable of forming a coherent sentence. If any of them remember what they tasted, the next day, it would be a major miracle. Tolerating this state of affairs is nothing short of outrageous and just serves to reinforce the image many Americans still (erroneously) have of “beer” that all of those who drink it are a pack of slobbering, mouth-breathing, blue-collar schlubs, only out to get hammered and raise hell.
Bravo to all those brewers and brewery owners who have decided to say, “Enough“, who think outside the box and invent – with the same creativity that marks their ales and lagers – a way to accomplish what they would be doing at GABF – and more! – without becoming part of a sad and bloated spectacle which is clearly no longer living up to what were its original goals.
NOTE: REVISION: I’m posting two screenshots, here, which do little, really, to improve my opinion of how inept and irrelevant the Brewers Association is, now. My Facebook friend, Gary Rosen, sent the instagram shot below, in which BA states that the actual number of breweries represented at GABF 2015 was 1,552. The second screenshot, which is on THEIR website, refers to how many breweries were offered ON THE Festival floor, without saying that was ONLY those with booths. They say that there were 6,647 beers poured. Neither changes my point and, as both figures come from the same organization, this sugests that the left hand and the right hand are blissfully unaware of each other’s activities. A reader, brewguy, responded below, saying “You’re mistaken about how the GABF works. A brewery can enter the GABF contest without being on the festival floor. The judging does not happen at the festival itself, but in the basement conference rooms of a nearby hotel.” I knew that, having been to that judging space and seen the process but I wasn’t talking about what they do behind the scenes. I was talking about the huge, irrational mess the festival itself has become. But let’s use those other figures…
As of December 31st of last year, I added up all licensed breweries from the websites of all 50 states. The total number of licensed breweries in the US was 4,388. Let’s use a reasonable number and say that, between core beers, seasonals, reserve series beers, and experimental taproom beers, each one produced ten beers a year (and that number is WILDLY conservative) for a grand total of 43,800 different beers produced in the US, last year. As a percentage of 43,800 beers, that 6,647 beers poured at GABF was…15.1 percent of all American craft beers produced in 2015. I’m sorry but I’m not ready to swallow the notion that 15% of all beers represented is a sufficient sample size to hang a gold star on ANY beer and, even by implication, call it “Best”.
Brewguy also adds, at the end of his comment below, that “Entering the GABF is expensive, which does exclude a lot of hobbyist-pros. Honestly, most of them make beer that wouldn’t win anything, anyway, because of myriad technical faults.” I’m at a loss as to what those “myriad technical faults” may be. In my experience in tasting beers from literally all over the Pacific Northwest, I’ve found TWO breweries whose beers exhibited serious and consistent technical faults. Now, I’ll grant you that the general quality level in the PNW and California is WAAAY higher than in the rest of the country, on average, but there’s that word in brewguy’s statement: “…most...”. The idea that there is something is presumptively inferior because it’s produced by a “hobbyist-pro” is the sort of elitist nonsense that sets my teeth on edge. It’s part of why I keep on stating flatly that The Pour Fool is not written for beer geeks, wine “aficionados”, and booze purists. It’s also a part of my experience that several of what would be on my list of the best beers I’ve ever sampled were made by what brewguy dismisses as “hobbyists”. And it’s also a part of why I’m saying that GABF doesn’t matter, anymore. “GABF is expensive“…Yes, it is, which is just another filter that keeps their judged beer list from being credibly complete. As a matter of fact, just this morning, I finally did get an email from someone who claimed, anyway, to work at BA and who predictably replied that BA “does the best we can” to represent all of America’s breweries, while knowing that they won’t be perfect. As to my suggestion that regional festivals COULD solve the problem, he stated that “We have all we can do, right now, just to get this one festival organized and executed“. Yes, I’m sure they do. And I’m equally sure that it wouldn’t occur to them to staff out those festivals to independent promoters working under their supervision…or to make each festival run at a smaller and less daunting scale…or to develop a staff of people in those regions to organize the events and serve as liaison with BA…or any other reasonable alternative to simply continuing to become less and less truly representative, each year, of the culture the try to serve…and, no less relevant is that 6,647 beers is simply TOO MANY for any panel of judges to reasonably taste, evaluate and judge.
I don’t know if my idea is the best answer for GABF and its developing problems. But I do know that, as it stands right now, GABF no longer does what it was created to do. And that is a huge disservice to all those brave and hopeful American small-businesspeople who entrust BA with their hopes and dreams.