First-time brewers at GABF

For 33 years, new breweries have been barreling and delivering their beer to the Great American Beer Festival for public consumption and professional appraisal and 2015 will be no different.

A medal awarded by the festival’s Professional Judge Panel is instant validation of their efforts and sacrifices along with some enviable hardware for the taproom. And, getting your beer in front of 60,000 enthusiasts can increase brand awareness and help consumers make difficult decisions when it comes to their next beer purchase in a crowded market.

This year a plethora of new Colorado breweries will be submitting their wares for judging and manning booths among the 90,000 square feet of hall space at the Colorado Convention Center. While most involved in these breweries have attended the festival in some capacity in the past, this will be the first year that they enter as their own entity.

“We have been attending GABF as craft beer nerds and employees at other breweries for years,” said Zach Rabun of Mockery Brewing (booth Z5), which opened in November 2014. “We are really excited to be finally pouring our own beer (and blood, sweat, and tears) at the festival. It is a big milestone for us at Mockery to be part of one of the world’s best gathering of beers, brewers, and beer fans.”

The tap room at Mockery Brewing - Photo credit:  Mockery Brewing

The tap room at Mockery Brewing – Photo credit: Mockery Brewing

Rabun and the Mockery team were committed to making their inaugural GABF foray memorable, “…our preparation hasn’t been the same as the rest of the festivals we have done. We brewed six beers specifically for GABF and we are tapping several barrel-aged beers during GABF week at the taproom.”

Zach Lowery of Ratio Beerworks (X4), which opened in February, shared a similar sentiment, saying, “It is important to us to take part in GABF as a new brewery for multiple reasons. To be able to get our brand out in front of the consumer, both locally and for those that are visiting Denver for the fest, for them to not only be familiar with but also to perhaps visit the taproom later in the week or on their next visit to downtown Denver…We are very excited to be able to show this year’s beer fans what Ratio Beerworks is all about.”

The fact that the festival is held in their backyard gives extra impetus for new brewers to get involved. It’s also a bonus in terms of logistics for smaller operations.

“There are a lot of breweries our size that could never imagine being able to make the trip out so we’re lucky to be local,” explained Kevin Greer of Baere Brewing Company (Y7), which opened its 2.5 barrel brewhouse in July 2014. “We love being part of the craft beer community and this is our biggest gathering so…why not?”

For many festivals, preparation involves throwing a couple sixtels and some tapping equipment in a vehicle and showing up. Not so at GABF where the planning starts months in advance.

“Prep for GABF on your first go around is a little stressful,” admitted Gardiner Hammond of Alpine Dog (O6), which opened in November 2014. “There are a lot of things to be done and they all happen earlier in the year than you would expect.  It begins with registration in July, competition beers, booth beers, communicating with the BA [Brewers Association], staffing (we are even training volunteers), of course showing up and much more that goes into planning this. Most festivals we just load up the truck, get a couple people to go, and pour some beer but the magnitude of GABF demands a higher level of prep.”

GABF organizers are fairly lenient when it comes to what you can do with your 6×8 space and with over 750 different booths at GABF it’s important to stand out. While the product will hopefully be what people remember in the end, the myriad options mandate some special adornment to get their attention in the first place.

“We had a booth built,” laughed Ryan Kilpatrick of Fiction Beer Company (P32), which opened in September of 2014. “Lucky for us we have a lot of cool regular customers and one of them is a metalworker with Industrial Luxury.”

Opening up at Fiction Brewing

Opening up at Fiction Brewing

The goal was to create an ambiance similar to the one at their east Colfax taproom. That included the creation of a 12-ft high welded frame with a bar built on stacked books just like the one at the brick and mortar.

“You’ve got 60,000 people there, how do you get those people to notice who you are? It’s different then when you’re one of 40 at a festival and everyone can try every beer…There’s no way anyone can try a third of the beer at GABF,” explained Kilpatrick.

Beyond the booth itself, GABF offers other ways for brewers to connect with their patrons and get their stories out. New for this year is the “Meet the Brewer” section. A little less than 100 breweries will be featured and the booths will be staffed exclusively by brewery employees.

“We are really excited to be pouring in the new ‘Meet the Brewer’ section of GABF this year,” said Rabun of Mockery. “This whole section must be staffed by brewery employees, no volunteers available…No one will be tasting our beer without somebody from Mockery pouring it for them. Which is great because we can talk about the beer and answer any questions.”

Another option is “Sit & Sip” where participating brewers can pour their beers and give an informal presentation on the topics of their choice. Kilpatrick of Fiction plans to talk about the special ingredients they use and how they go about naming their beers (based on literary characters and themes).

Of course, the chance of medaling at GABF in a field stacked with more established heavyweights is also a draw for festival first-timers.

“As a brand new brewery we really feel it’s necessary to be at GABF…because it’s such a high-profile event,” said Mike Blandford of Declaration Brewing (P23). “And you know, if for some crazy, oddball reason we were lucky enough to come home with a medal it would do more for the brewery than a lot of the other events and competitions we can enter.” Declaration opened in February and is Denver’s first certified green brewery.

Inside at Declaration Brewing

Inside at Declaration Brewing

On a more personal level for Blandford and crew, a key member of their team is currently dealing with some medical issues, but will be back in town for the award ceremony and, “being able to step up on stage and get an award in front of him – especially with one of the recipes he wrote – would just be the end all be all for us.”

Down in Sheridan, possibly the newest kids on the block entered in this year’s GABF, Boggy Draw Brewery (O24), is preparing for the “Big Show.”

“It has always been a dream of mine,” admitted David “Beef” Miera, who first attended the event in the early ‘90s. “Ever since I started thinking about having a brewery, I wanted to be in GABF.”

Boggy Draw, which opened this summer, snuck in just under the GABF mandated starting date to be eligible for inclusion.

“It’s a little more nerve-wracking,” added head brewer, Todd Williamson, regarding preparation. “It’s the big show. There are a lot more people there that are going to be watching you and critiquing your beer. It’s all about critiquing beer at this festival.”

But, should a particular beer find favor with the judges, the amount of time and effort put into planning and executing the GABF experience will be a distant memory.

“Winning a medal at GABF is instant street cred,” said Williamson. “People seek you out then for you beer.”

Be sure to check the individual brewery websites for information on specialty tappings and releases during GABF week. There are a host of them…


Breweries mentioned in this article:

About Matt Sandy

Matt Sandy, a self-proclaimed “Beer Gadabout,” has been enjoying beer since he was of legal drinking age. Having been born across the pond where “legal drinking age” is a relative term, let’s just say he washed down a shandy or two while still in short pants. He moved to Denver in 2007 and immediately took up residency at the Great Divide taproom. Since then, he’s enjoyed exploring all of the craft corners in this great town.