Monday, October 15, 2012

Has the Great American Beer Festival Gotten Too Big?

The coming of autumn means cooler temperatures, turning of the leaves, and for craft beer enthusiasts, it means the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). Those of us who live in Denver have the added bonus of the festival being held here every year since its inception in the late eighties. (Technically, I think the first couple were held in Boulder, but I'm splitting hairs.)

GABF is produced by the Brewer's Association (BA). According to BA, the primary purpose of GABF "is to educate the consumer about the quality and diversity in beer-styles and breweries that exist across the United States." Impressively, more than 500 of BA's 1,400 brewery members were in attendance this year, so thumbs up for diversity of beers! On the other hand, with 49,000 attendees opportunities to "educate" the consumer were limited at best.

Tickets to this year's GABF sold out in minutes. Even those of us eligible for the BA members-only  presale were in disbelief how quickly tickets were swiped up, and I was only able to score tickets for the Friday night session... happy hour. Most of the festival floor was shoulder-to-shoulder, and although the organizers did an amazing job of ushering so many people through so quickly, the crowd was just overwhelming.

For serious home brewers, intimacy and the ability to interact with professional brewers has been one of the GABF hallmarks. Because of the crowds, that intimacy and ability was gone this year.  It's nearly impossible to have a conversation with a brewer about aroma-hopping with Simcoe instead of Citra when there are twenty people lined up behind you waiting for a sample of beer. Most breweries are just rushing people through, and that's understandable.

My suggestions for improving GABF in the future are:
1. Hold more BA and AHA members-only events. BA and AHA members are some of the biggest proponents of craft beer. We tell everybody we know about great new beers, beer-styles, hops, and breweries. I think there would be a positive trickle down affect from giving us a little more access without the crowds.
2. Establish an education track in which serious home brewers and craft beer enthusiasts can learn more about brewing, ingredients, and the business of brewing. Sessions could be limited in size and taught by professional brewers or other respected people in the craft beer industry. We would be willing to pay more for such an opportunity.

The size of GABF this year is simply a reflection of the growing popularity of craft beer, and that's good. But in terms of educating the consumer via intimacy and direct interaction with brewers, I think the GABF has gotten too big. Until some new ideas are implemented, like the ones I've suggested above, I'll be skipping next year's GABF and instead going to the smaller and more intimate events and tastings that happen around town in the weeks leading up to the festival.

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