There’s a pretty fantastic passage in Tom Acitelli’s The Audacity of Hops in which he describes an early moment in the history of the Great American Beer Festival. It’s small, it’s quaint and it is described as being the one site where the best beer in America was being poured.

Now – are any of those things true?

My apologies. I’m a journalist and a columnist, and asking open-ended questions like that are kind of like cheating, so let me rephrase. None of those things are true. GABF is certainly neither small nor quaint – and it is no longer the site of the best beer in America.

Let’s be clear here; I’m not suggesting that the GABF is not a venerable institution, an incredible festival with just as much happening in the surrounding area and breweries around Denver as actually takes place inside the massive conventional hall that will host 623 breweries this year. I’ve never had the opportunity to go, but I highly doubt I’d turn it down if it comes my way. I love meeting new people at beer festivals, and GABF certainly remains as the King of the beer fest.

But it is no longer the end all, be all of beer festivals. Back to that list: Is it small? No. Is it quaint? No. So what, these are good things and signs of beer’s growing popularity. How about my claim that it is no longer the site of the best beer in America? The beer competition at GABF has long been held in high regard as the most prestigious of its kind. Along with the World Beer Cup, nothing says “I make good beer,” like a gold medal at GABF.

But those gold medals no longer carry the same value – and here’s why:

First, there are 84 chances to win a gold medal. That’s not totally accurate. There are 84 categories, with many of them having two or more subcategories. Want to call yourself a GABF gold medal winner? It’s as simple as brewing the best Leipzig-style Gose, also known as category 64b. I recognize that brewing a knockout Gose, Leipzig-style or not, is not something one does simply, but the point is that there are ways to plan ahead and give yourself a stronger shot at taking home a medal than if you just go ahead and enter your standard offerings.

Second, GABF cannot be a competition for the best beer in America, simply because not all the beer in America is represented or entered into GABF. You may recall the fiasco that arose when registration for GABF filled up in a manner of minutes. I know that at least one fantastic Pilsner, one brewed by Santa Barbara Brewing Company (even though it’s called a Blonde Ale… that’s a whole other story) that won’t be judged because brewmaster Kevin Pratt wasn’t waiting at his computer to enter when registration opened. Would it have won had he entered? Maybe not, but there’s certainly a chance.

My third reason why GABF no longer represents the best beer in America is a little more detailed, so let me break it down into sections – or subcategories since we’re in GABF mode here.

3a) GABF gives too much attention to “crafty brands. Normally, I’m all for “drink what you like,” but I always sided with the Brewer’s Association when they pointed to big beer brands imitating craft brands and cried foul. So why on Earth does the BA welcome breweries like Blue Moon and Band of Brewers into the festival? If you’re going to rail against big beer like that, then don’t let them into the festival or competition. Craft beer is big enough now that it is not necessary to include these brands. I would bet big money that GABF would sell out just as quickly and tickets would go for just as much on eBay if Blue Moon and Band of Brewers weren’t included. If you like Blue Moon, that’s fine. My mom likes it a ton. It’s not for me, and it’s clearly not for the Brewer’s Association either, which makes the following list of breweries attending GABF this year that fit their “crafty” definition so confounding.

  1. AC Golden
  2. Band of Brewers
  3. Blue Moon
  4. Goose Island Beer Company
  5. Project 12
  6. Sandlot
  7. Shock Top

3b) GABF gives too much attention to Big Beer*. By Big Beer, I mean beer that is considered non-craft. This may be because of ownership, it may be because of brewing methods or ingredients – or it may be because of some other arcane reason. Regardless, what’s the point? These brands are ubiquitous enough that, for the most part, anybody could pick up a bottle in their local store. Granted, some are regional brewers that may be strange and new to someone from another region, but maybe they’re the exception to the rule. If it were up to me, I’d turn GABF into a craft-only festival and competition. Budweiser tastes the same as it did two, three and five years ago. So does Miller Genuine Draft. What is the point in having them go head to head year after year? The following is a list of breweries not considered craft breweries by the BA, but are attending the festival.

  1. Anheuser-Busch
  2. August Schell
  3. Berghoff Brewing Company
  4. Christian Moerlein Lager House
  5. Coors Archive Brewing
  6. Coors Brewing Company
  7. Genesee Brew House
  8. Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company
  9. Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co.
  10. Magic Hat
  11. Mendocino Brewing Co.**
  12. Miller Brewing Company
  13. Narragansett
  14. Pabst
  15. Pyramid
  16. Saranac

3c) GABF is overrun with new, unproven breweries. Don’t get me wrong, I love new breweries. I love nano breweries. I loved covering some of them for BeerAdvocate Magazine in my From The Source columns. I love passionate newcomers with a burning love for beer. I really do. But are they better than Santa Barbara Brewing Company, which didn’t get a spot (not to keep pumping SB Brewing Co, they’re just my local example)? I know there’s a real good chance they aren’t better than Thai Me Up, the reigning Alpha King champion that also didn’t get a spot.

I spoke with a brewer, whom I won’t identify, who told me that he thought GABF was heading in a terrible direction. He said he didn’t see the point in attending a festival or competing in a competition that was overloaded with so many breweries, that “half of them won’t be brewing five years from now.” I don’t share his pessimism, and I’m not sure that GABF should prohibit new breweries from entering. That flies in the face of what the festival and competition has always been about. But when newcomers and their nano system get the nod over defending gold medalists, I think that the system needs to be tweaked.

The following is a list of breweries that are new breweries this year and attending GABF. Some may have been founded prior to 2013, or opened in late 2012, but all should be considered newcomers. There are 57 of them – or 9% of the 623 breweries in attendance.

  1. 903 Brewers
  2. Apocalypse Ale Works – Forest Virginia (not to be confused with Apocalypse Brew works in Kentucky, or Apocalypse Brewing in Oregon)
  3. Beer Army Combat Brewery
  4. Beer By Design
  5. Benchmark Brewing Company
  6. Big Hurt Brewing
  7. Blackberry Farm Brewery
  8. Cannonball Creek Brewing Co
  9. Cherry Street Brewing Cooperative
  10. De Steeg Brewing
  11. Deep River Brewing Company
  12. Discretion Brewing
  13. Evans Premium Lager
  14. FATE Brewing (in CO) (not to be confused with Fate Brewing, in Arizona – which will also be in attendance, although not new this year.)
  15. Freewheel Brewing Company
  16. Front Range Brewing Company
  17. Full Tilt Brewing
  18. Hall Brewing Company
  19. Headlands Brewing Company
  20. Highway 1 Brewing Company
  21. Hunter’s Brewing
  22. Jupiter Brewing
  23. Little Egypt
  24. Lost Highway Brewing Company
  25. Lynnwood Brewing Concern
  26. Madtree Brewing
  27. Mazama Brewing
  28. MobCraft Beer
  29. Modern Times Beer
  30. Nevins Brewing Company
  31. New Helvetia Brewing Company
  32. Newburyport Brewing Co.
  33. Odyssey Beerwerks
  34. Railyard Brewing Company
  35. Redstone Meadery
  36. Rhinegeist
  37. Riff Raff Brewing Company
  38. Saint Archer Brewing Company
  39. Saint Patrick’s Brewing Company
  40. Santa Clara Valley Brewing
  41. Saucony Creek Brewing Company
  42. Scratch Brewing Company
  43. Sun Up Brewing Company
  44. The Austin Beer Garden Brewing Company
  45. The Lab Brewing Company
  46. Tivoli Brewing Co.
  47. Trickster’s Brewing Company
  48. Twelve Degree Brewing
  49. Valiant Brewing Company
  50. Verboten Brewing Company
  51. Wicked Weed Brewing
  52. Wiley Roots Brewing Company
  53. Wisconsin Dells Brewing Company
  54. Woodfour Brewing Co.
  55. Worthy Brewing Co.
  56. Yellow Springs Brewery
  57. Zio Carlo Magnolia Brewpub

So – GABF? What can be done? What should be done? I’ve got some ideas, and I’ve heard some good ones as well. Perhaps it is time to start having qualifying competitions, similar to the way national homebrew competitions are carried out. Perhaps established breweries, especially defending gold-medal winners, should be given something like a bye and automatically given a berth into the category they’ve won.

Perhaps you should realize it’s not everything it’s cracked up to be and let me have your ticket next year. Even if nothing is done, and great breweries are still left out of the showroom floor and the competition, it will still be an incredible festival. And right now, it’s certainly the biggest beer competition in America as well. But craft beer has never been about settling for simply good, or even incredible. Craft beer is about constantly challenging the status quo and striving for excellence. Let’s keep moving forward.

*Perhaps this subcategory of mine needs tinkering. Part of me feels like it is wrong to exclude brands like Lexington Brewing, Mendocino, Pyramid and Saranac because of Brewer’s Association technicalities.

** I’m honestly not sure why Mendocino Brewing is not considered a craft brewery.


2 thoughts on “So… GABF?

  1. Great read, Sean! Your first list of 10 “why craft?” breweries struck a chord with me so I looked some of them up and was shocked to find that Goose Island is now owned by Anheuser-Busch. Now I see why those are on the list. I was also disheartened to find Magic Hat is no longer technically “craft.” You are my vicarious life of brewing, and I’m glad to know you. Thanks for being the writer and sharing your thoughts and life so well.

  2. Pingback: Figueroa Mountain takes Five at GABF – Telegraph Wins One and Firestone Wins Midsize Brewery, Again | Santa Barbara Beer

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