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16th GABF
October, 1997

By Bobby Bush

Each year the organizers of the Great American Beer Festival try to improve on last year's production. Since I first attended in 1991, the festival has moved from a cramped barn-like structure on Denver's north side to a modern downtown convention center. Many years ago, a popular vote for Best Beer was supplanted by an official blind contest conducted by certified judges. An upstairs beer garden, where tired tasters can relax with food and a larger portion of beer than served on the exhibition floor, was added last year. As the number of breweries in attendance has grown, so grow the problems of herding 30,000 people safely through an amazing array of tempting beer.

This year saw the advent of Discovery Zones, where those interested imbibers can watch ancient beer commercials, check out on-line brewery homepages and learn all about beer history and brewing techniques. The beer garden concept was continued from last year, offering respite to weary drinkers.

Several changes to the GABF XVI schedule were more controversial. Anyone in attendance during the three public sessions, held Friday, October 3 and Saturday, October 4, at Currigan Exhibition Hall, can testify to the crowded conditions. Each session saw about 10,000 folks following their own game plan in search of those alluring one ounce samples. But this year's event maxed out at 403 brewers.

There simply is no more room at the inn for brewers to serve their beer. So for the first time, administrators allowed breweries who missed the festival deadline, or otherwise found themselves with no exhibit space (62 were listed in the program), to submit their beer for evaluation and judging only. So, in effect, a brewer could pick up a gold, silver or bronze GABF medal, truly a coveted award, without being in attendance, or even having their beer served at the Denver festival. One brewer who submitted beer without joining the festivities in Colorado, confided in me that this was a better way for his brewery to participate, saving time and money- low risk, with prestigious medals to gain.

At past festivals, medals were awarded during a private Saturday afternoon tasting session open only to brewers and members of the American Homebrewers Association. Attendees at that night's tasting session would strive to sample all the gold medallion winners. Top ranked beers would often disappear quickly, or for the first time, might not even be available if the winner was a non-attending brewer. This year, the award ceremony and the private session were moved to Thursday night. The rush to taste the golds still went on, Although since it was the festival's first night, there was more available. And the private session, which I'd missed in the past, was a success, not nearly as packed as the hall would be over the next two days.

In an attempt to spread the wealth, recognizing that the number of breweries is increasing rapidly and to rectify past errors of style consolidation, this year's judging welcomed entries in 50 different categories, compared to 37 in 1996. For instance, two stout categories are now five. Likewise lagers, bocks, scotch ales and specialty beer were expanded. Many brewers welcome the bloated list, partly because proper classification is important when entering beer and, no doubt, because there were now 150 chances to win a metal medal.

The GABF is always well organized, operating from a list of rules printed in the 140 page festival program, which, along with a commemorative glass, is part of the admission fee. With 1700 beers- from megabrewers, microbrewers, brewpubs and contract brewers- to choose from, four hours of one ounce tasters is plenty. Trust me on that one.

At least Southern brewers did better at GABF XVI. Except for a couple from Texas and one from Virginia, the previous year's medal total for the region came close to a shutout. This year the former Confederate states brought home 18 medals, including six for Texas, four for Florida and three for Virginia, where Old Dominion of Ashburn won two golds. Microbrewing is relatively new in South Carolina brewpubs, but two brewpubs, Southend of Charleston and Liberty Steakhouse of Myrtle Beach, received bronze and silver awards, respectively. And newly renovated Cottonwood Brewery of Boone, NC, won a shiny bronze charm for their American-Style Brown Ale. Even with around 50 entries per category, there often is one brewery that really racks up. This time it was a struggling brewpub from Covington, KY. Brew Works at the Party Source proudly claimed four bronze medals.

You can't please everyone. There will always be controversy over GABF, which will remain at Currigan Hall through 1999. Sixteen years show that there's more than a little interest from the public. That says a lot about good beer.

Look for an East Coast version of GABF in May, 1998. The festival, still on the drawing board, will be staged in Baltimore and feature many of the Denver winners and eastern brewers who couldn't make it to the Rocky Mountains last October. Can't wait!

This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.

Bobby Bush

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