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
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