The Brewers Association does an incredible job organizing and executing the Great American Beer Festival. There, I said it. Thing is, two weeks ago you would have never heard those words come out of my mouth. To be honest, I was a bit frustrated with the whole damn thing: frustrated that eight years ago I was able to buy tickets to the fest in the few weeks leading up to the event, frustrated by the yearly increase in ticket prices, frustrated that those – what I considered overpriced – tickets sold out in 20 minutes, and I was really frustrated when three hundred breweries were unable to register for the fest due to space limitations. In the months leading up to the event I’d pretty much convinced myself I wasn’t even going to attend at all. Further fanning my protest was an article written by Andy Crouch in the September issue of Beer Advocate. In “Identity Crisis at the GABF,” Andy touched on a number of topics being discussed throughout the industry: the overcrowding of the GABF, the coldness of the convention center’s interior, the lack of brewers at the booths, the failure of brewers to educate the volunteers in their booths, the fact that the BA allows the hated three-headed Ghidorah that is BudMillerCoors to attend after penning an article attacking the Big Three’s crafty marketing tactics. I walked away from the article very impressed. Andy had touched on a number of topics in an educated, well written manner, and as a matter of fact, I was planning on writing a column commending his piece and stating why I, as an individual in the industry, agreed with every bit of his logic.
Then I attended the Friday night and Saturday morning sessions and the naysaying world as I knew it imploded.
First of all, the line for the thousands of attendees is far-and-away the most efficient queue I’ve ever had the pleasure of standing in. It actually took my girlfriend and me longer to walk around the building to the end of the line than it did to get in the building once we hit the line. At one point we were in a light jog. That’s impressive. As anyone who’s ever been to a concert or theme park knows, lines that typically look long are long. We could hear the grumblings of a number of folks in front of and behind us as we continued to circle the building looking for an end that seemed to never come. We then saw the very same folks light up as soon as we entered the entrance doorways in less than ten minute’s time. Not bad for a festival hosting an average of over 12,200 people per festival. Once inside, you’d barely know there was that many individuals milling about, and the festival itself was a beautiful sight to behold. From the side-by-side booths to the vendors to the end caps – floor to ceiling, wall to wall – the layout was as inviting as any enclosed gathering of the masses I’d ever attended. Sure, I waited in some slower lines for the bathrooms and some of the longer lines for the more popular breweries took a little while to navigate, but never did I find myself bothered by an uncontrolled, overwhelming mob scene.
In fact, it was when I was in line that I actually experienced another epiphany: the people that attend the GABF are there for beer. Apart from what a few overly-concerned beer geeks think (and please trust me here beer geeks, I consider myself a proud veteran member of your thirsty hoard), the acronym doesn’t stand for Great American Brewers Fest. Yes, it’s really cool that Sam Calagione hosted a television show, and holy shit, it’s really cool that Tomme Arthur attends the fest every year, but the egos and beer-scene celebrity of a few brewers isn’t what draws 49,000. The draw then? The fucking beer. The majority of the people who attend the fest couldn’t care less if they met Sam or Tomme or any other “Master Brewer” for that matter – including my fearless leader, Adam Avery. They just want to be able to taste a great number of beers from the around the country, especially those they can’t regularly get their hands on. Plus, if every individual who attended the fest took a minute or two to gain some “education” from their favorite head brewers (many of whom haven’t touched a brewhouse in years) the lines would only grow longer, holding up those attendees who’d rather educate themselves through the hands-on practice of drinking. Up the road in Boulder, we served thousands of people in our tap room during the week of GABF and it was a rarity to find someone who was there to meet and greet with Adam. They were there for the beer, and the same goes for the fest.
The same goes for the volunteers. The people who take the time to volunteer are doing so because they love beer and they want to score a free ticket to the GABF. Good for them. At no point should we expect them to name off the hops in the final addition of the beer we’re drinking. If they know, cool, but to be even more honest, I don’t even know some of the hops we put in our beers’ final additions, just like a number of brewers at Avery probably don’t know the in-spec carbonation levels for our Out of Bounds Stout bottles. Besides, if a brewery decides they don’t want to educate their volunteers, knowing full well they’ll risk losing some potential customers in the process, they’re doing as much of a disservice to themselves as they are the attendees. In my seven hours of perusing the GABF, with my ears to the ground, I only heard a handful of people dig for details on the beer they were drinking, and both came after the awards ceremony when folks typically flock to the booths in search of instantly-famous, medal winning beers.
As for the medal winners themselves, some of those who took home awards were, believe it or not, the Big Three. Turns out they make beer too, and anyone who hates crappy, yellow fizzy lifting drinks should always keep in mind how incredibly hard it is to replicate the same beer in several different breweries all over the world. From the US to China and all points in between, the mega-brewers maintain a level of consistency unmatched in the world of beer. For that, they too deserve medals. I’m not a one bit ashamed to say I love Coors Original, Old Milwaukee and Labbat, and although I do take issue with a lot of the corrupt tactics employed by major corporations, beer related or not, cheap domestic lagers made by very large companies are the type of beer I grew up on and the flavor profile is one I really enjoy. For those familiar with the BA and their December 2012 press release, “Craft vs. Crafty,” Andy’s argument does make some bit of sense. Why on earth would the BA lash out against the big boys and then invite them to the party? I’d say that has a lot to do with the content of the article itself. Though the BA mentioned a shift away from “light lagers”, they never meant to attack Michelob Ultra’s marketing campaign, nor did they accuse Bud Light Lime of mimicking any craft beer on the market. They were concerned, and rightfully so, with the graphic design and marketing of products made to look eerily similar to those of small-scale craft brewers. Does that mean they need to exclude them from the GABF? Again, it’s the Great American Beer Festival. Not craft beer, not micro-brewed beer, not nano-brewed beer; it’s simple, to the point, beer – and Bud, Miller and Coors certainly produce products that fall into that category.
Lastly and briefly, I have to commend the BA for this year’s GABF app. It was pretty badass. I don’t even know how to navigate a sma-art phone and I think the app was badass. For those of you who didn’t download it, the app allowed attendees to guide themselves through the festival with an overhead view of the regional sections. Clicking on a region brought you to a list of the representing breweries, a map of the booths (with any brewery you’d selected highlighted within the map), and a list of the beers they were pouring – and if you wanted to geek out just a little bit more you could rate each beer individually. Not only was the app visually appealing and easy to use (even for the novice), it was a million times more efficient than hauling around a thick, cumbersome program for four-plus hours.
I’m not trying to counter Andy’s points for the sake of argument. Like I said, I was truly inspired by his article in the days leading up to the fest and I think it was the impression left on me by his article that led me to reanalyze the GABF in the first place. And though I found myself thoroughly impressed with this year’s fest, I still feel there’s a number of issues that absolutely need to be addressed in the coming years, namely sold-out tickets, scalpers, the ever-increasing number of awards categories, and, most unnerving, the BA’s potential inability to host the growing number of breweries that are paying hard earned money to join the BA in the first place. For now I’ll leave the naysaying and nitpicking on the backburner – last week’s memories are still fresh and enjoyable and the ol’ liver’s just recently begun functioning properly. As a bona fide beer geek and a proud member of the ever-growing craft beer industry, I say Congratulations, Brewers Association; the 2013 GABF was a glorious success.