Impressions and comments about the 2017 Great American Beer Festival

A regular feature in the SBR is the articles covering the great craft beer events in the ‘Motherland of Craft’, the US of A. The organization for small and independent breweries in the US, the Brewers’ Association, organize the most amazing craft beer events on the planet – the annual Great American Beer Festival (GABF), comprising both a beer competition and a public beer festival, and the bi-annual World Beer Cup, which is ‘only’ a beer competion, but always hosted in conjunction with the annual Craft Brewers Conference and BrewExpo America, the most important trade show world-wide for craft brewers. Again this year, our cherished ‘senior US correspondent’ Finn Bjørn Knudsen attended the GABF and gave us the following report on it:

 

Author: Finn Bjørn Knudsen

Having reported many times about the annual GABF and competition judging, let me, please, this time concentrate on some comments, impressions, and key facts about another record-setting 2017 GABF event.

 

The GBAF beer competition 2017

However, having been a judge since the start, when we were only seven in our group and now with only a few of us left, let me say that I am so happy to be able to report that this year there were a record 276 judges, including judges from 13 other countries. Many from the judging panel also participated in and judged the Pro-Am entries.

 

The Great American Beer Festival® Pro-Am (GABF Pro-Am) competition is an opportunity for commercial breweries to team up with homebrewers to vie for top honors. The GABF Pro-Am entries are served during the Great American Beer Festival® at the Pro-Am booth.

 

During 31 years of judging at the GABF, since the start of professional judging, it amazes me that more beer entries are being received every year, and this year was no exception with 7,923 entries from 2,217 breweries in 50 states plus Washington D.C.! That is a 15% increase in entries and 24% in participating breweries!! It is great that there now are many judges and not just the 7 original judges!! This year, there were 365 volunteers helping to serve the beers during the Wednesday through Friday judging starting at 8:45 and running through 17:00, with a lunch break noon – 13:30. Some judging lasted well in to the lunch break, and several afternoon sessions lasted even beyond 17:00, especially when some of the tables were to award medals. The entries were entered into 98 main categories and, if you count the sub-categories, then there were really 161 categories. The BA website shows the 293 professional medals awarded to 266 breweries – please look at www.greatamericanbeerfestival.com, with a link to the winners under the competition button. The largest amount of entries were once again for American-Style India Pale Ale (IPA), sporting 408 entries this year and indicating that this style is still the most popular category.

Photo © Brewers Association

The judging took place at Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel, and we started with the traditional orientation Tuesday afternoon. It included a great inspirational presentation by sensory expert Jeannine Delwiche, PhD, CFS from FMC. After that, there was an enjoyable judge’s reception held at the Denver Beer Co., where we had a great time with good food and beers. We were bussed to and from the hotel.

On Wednesday, we started in the early morning with judging at more than 40 judging tables. This year, a new pilot program was included and tested by some of the judges, namely the Digital Judge Comments or “EJudging”, as we now live in the digital world. Based upon the results, this might be expanded for all to use instead of the paper scoring sheets.

 

Wednesday evening the traditional Brewer’s gathering was held on the street close to the hotel, with easy access to other hotels. There were plenty of excellent foods and many beers to taste, and live music. The weather cooperated, and all had a great time.

 

The GBAF public beer festival 2017

Thursday at 17:30 is Opening Night for the public GABF, this year being the 36th anniversary festival – and the 31st of GABF competition. Can you figure how many beers I have tasted over the years? The Festival Hall at Denver Convention Hall could easily accommodate the more than 800 breweries offering 3,900+ beers. Over the three days – Thursday through Saturday – people/attendees purchased 60,000 tickets, again selling out within a couple of hours during the early registration. Thus, the attendees had a chance at this once-again sold-out event to taste as many beers as they could. The servings were still at no more than 1oz per pour. That is a good price if you managed to taste all the beers offered between 17.00 and 22.00. No way would you be able to do that, but I can assure you there were a lot of happy people every evening. The ticket price of $85/person seems a reasonable price for the public session. There were around 4,000 volunteers assisting with the public sessions.

 

I only had a chance to attend one of the special daytime events during the week arranged by various breweries. This year, it was the Ska Brewing afternoon event at the Rialto Café on 16th street, which offered us a great opportunity to taste, among others, two of their specials, namely the BHC (Bad Hop Contract IPA) and the Pink Vapor Stew, which is described as a tropical medley of citrus, sour and tart flavors blended together originally for Ska’s 21st anniversary party. Citra and Belma hops combined with beets, carrots, ginger and apples turns this brew into a pink vapor stew!

 

All the sessions were well-attended, including the Beer Judging GABF Award Ceremony in the Mile High Ballroom on Saturday morning. In fact, not everyone could get in to the ballroom – standing room was filled as well, since the Denver Fire Department prevented more people from entering. There were screens outside, so one could follow along. Nancy Johnson had arranged the program, which included Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper – original brewer/owner of the first Denver craft brewery, Wynkoop. He gave a great presentation, followed by Chris Swersey moving all along with the awards presentation. Charlie Papazian gave fist bumps to the winners when they received their medals, which included a photo op with him. The ceremony lasted well beyond noon, and then we went into the “member’s only” session in the Festival Hall until 4PM. The Scottish pipe band opened that session again with their march and music – very festive and fun to watch as they tried to get through the crowds.

Thoughts on the development of the GABF and what it reflects

This year, the big brewers and many of their owned “craft” breweries were noticeably absent. The Brewers Association has started to recognize that it is an organization for independent “craft” brewers, and this year it launched a symbol for such breweries with an upside-down bottle. The definition of “craft” beer seems to me not to focus on how well the beer is “crafted”, but more on whether the breweries are local and independent from the big international breweries. As examples, New Belgium and Sierra Nevada are still considered “craft” breweries despite being around 1MM hL production, and even Boston Beer Company with close to 3 MM hL.

Photo © Brewers Association

I have an idea where this will end, since investment firms and/or larger breweries have purchased and are in the process of purchasing more and more of the smaller great previous independent “craft” breweries and brands. That will, of course, ensure that their now-owned brands are guaranteed shelf space in the liquor or grocery stores. Also, the smaller breweries are now experiencing more and more competition from their local independent breweries as well as many out-of-state brewer friends. This is all part of the normal business cycle and not surprising. Last year, in February, I talked about the “craft-beer” industry outlook for the US at the Rocky Mountain Microbrewery Symposium, and later in May about the global “craft-beer” future outlook at the Nordic Meeting on Brewing Technology in Åland, Finland. The local pub breweries will typically do well, producing interesting flavorful, clean beers, not like the big corporate marketing-sales departments which have to focus solely upon sales volumes per week/month, distribution, etc. Obviously, they do look at the big margins enjoyed by many of the independent “craft” breweries, so they decided some years ago to invest in specific independent “craft” breweries and their brands, to add them to a specific division within the company. But, in the interest of both parties, the principle is to give the acquired breweries some independent allowance to keep running their breweries as before, except those small breweries can now enjoy easier access to capital for brewery expansions and enjoy other benefits of marketing/sales/distribution and possibly access to less costly raw materials sourcing and support.

 

The beer consumers are the decision-makers in this business game, but the independent “craft” brewers as well as the big brewers need to take a serious look at the changes in demographics and especially look at the generations with regard to what the Millennials are looking for and what the following generation is looking for too. The push is on, but as long as the brewpubs can serve a great, clean beer and the larger “craft” breweries can supply a consistent, clean beer, then they will have loyal followers. But the beer drinkers will be upset if they get a bad or old “craft” beer, or if such beers are not available in the trade. There is really no consumer brand loyalty any longer.

 

My hope is that we brewers can all continue being friends, even between competing breweries, as we have always been. However, the market is changing, and I cannot forget that when I arrived in the USA in 1969, there were about 25 breweries and the industry prediction was that, by the end of 1970’s, there would be only about 5 US breweries operating. That trend has certainly changed with now almost 6,000 small and large craft breweries operating, and the reason has been that, suddenly, different interesting, flavorful “craft” beers were offered. That was once again demonstrated with the beers offered during this event, showing the ingenuity of the many brewers and the variety of beers during this successful 2017 GABF.

 

Now we can look forward to the 2018 World Beer Cup® Competition this coming Spring (April 30-May 3, 2018), in Nashville, Tennessee, and in conjunction with the “2018 Craft Brewers Conference® and BrewExpo®”. Please take a look at www.worldbeercup.org and www.craftbrewersconference.com, and I do recommend early registration and hotel reservation.

About the author

 

Finn Bjørn Knudsen, M.Sc. – Ch.E. (KP) lives in Evergreen, Colorado, USA, where he, for quite a few years, has run his own firm, Knudsen Beverage Consulting. Finn started his career on his home turf of Denmark with the Tuborg Breweries. But, at a relatively young age, he moved to the US and Canada, where his corporate career really took off working for Molson. He then returned to Denmark to work in the Carlsberg Group and went on to hold a long-time post as Technical Director of Coors Brewing in Golden, Colorado, before working as Technical Director for Procordia Beverages/Pripps in Stockholm, Sweden. Finn finally returned to the US, where he started his consulting company in 1993.

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