This past weekend was an important one for craft beer fans and for the beer industry in general. The Great American Beer Festival, the massive, impressive, larger- than- life, granddaddy of all beer events was held in Denver Colorado. It was back, bigger and better than before and it showed once again that something already large and influential can continue to expand, grow, and change with the times.
The 2012 Great American Beer Festival was, once again, expanded to accommodate the large number of breweries and record number of beers. Looking at the numbers, this year’s event eclipsed all past GABF, with more than 580 breweries sharing more than 2,700 beer products with the public and entering more than 4,300 (!) beers entered into the competition. Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals were awarded in 84 different malt beverage categories, also a new record.
The Times They are a-Changin’:
Bob Dylan wrote a memorable song about change that became the anthem of young people everywhere back in the mid sixties. It was a song about the importance and inevitability of change, and change has certainly been evident at the Great American Beer festival. The event traces its roots back to Boulder, Colorado and the year 1982- a time when very few craft breweries existed and the bulk of American breweries produced similar- looking and similar- tasting suds brewed in the tradition of a light American lager. The first Great American Beer Festival included just 22 breweries serving up only 40 different beer products. Variety was minimal and award categories were few since there was a very little industry diversity.
According to official statistics from the Brewer’s Association, there were just 800 attendees at that first event. The numbers were small, to be certain, but the seed was planted and the interest was growing. Craft breweries were a rarity, with California and Massachusetts claiming several of the most influential in the business, but it would only be a matter of time until the craft beer boom would take the nation by storm and small breweries would open in every U.S. state and in cities large and small.
Due to continued growth, the Great American Beer Festival was moved to Denver, Colorado in 1984. It has remained in Denver ever since, but in 2000 was moved from the Currigan Exhibition Hall to its present home, the Colorado Convention Center. The move was necessary to accommodate the growing number of breweries and the explosion in interest and in attendance.
Observations From This Year:
Here at Great Beer Now headquarters, I have taken time to reflect on this year’s Great American Beer Festival and compare/contrast it with the past. I attended the GABF this year and back in the 1990’s when it was held at the Currigan Exhibition Center and as I rubbed elbows with attendees at this year’s festival, I couldn’t help but think back to the 1990’s GABF and compare it with the one I just attended a few days ago.
First, the obvious: The event is BIG! It was a nice size event back in the 1990’s, but now it is even larger and more competitive. The attendance this year approached 50,000 over the course of three days and could have been even higher if space restrictions didn’t require the need to cut off ticket sales at a specific point. The number of breweries and the beers offered were also the largest in history and many attendees created their own game plan as they flipped through the pages of the event guide and decided where to go and what to sample. Others simple walked around and tried whatever caught their attention. Regardless of one’s methodology, there was plenty of great beer to try and only the limits of time- or a full stomach- stood in the way of sampling progress.
Another area of change is with the beer itself. The craft beer industry was certainly growing in the 1990’s and there were many local and regional breweries serving some finely crafted brew. But as the industry has grown and matured, it continues to push forward in new directions and this was apparent as one walked from booth to booth and sampled the often interesting and sometimes surprising products. Beer continues to get bolder and more experimental as breweries constantly push the envelope and concoct new and unusual products. Sure, you still have the basic American Pale Ales, Blonde Ales, etc., but they have been joined by beers made with added spices, fruits, and other ingredients as well as preparation methods not heard of in the recent past.
Beer has traditionally been a man’s beverage made by men and brewed for men. Again, I can see an obvious departure from old, outdated traditions at this year’s Great American Beer Festival. There were noticeably more females in attendance than I have seen before and the age of the crowd seemed younger. Maybe I am just getting up there in age and everyone looks younger, but I do believe that there are more women joining the leagues of craft beer devotees and more young people abandoning the old, boring American lager in favor of more adventurous drinking pursuits.
Just Wait Until Next Year:
This year’s Great American Beer Festival was the largest on record, shattering previous festivals in terms of attendance, breweries represented, and products offered. The beer was excellent, the diversity of products was impressive, and the mood was upbeat with thousands of hearty smiles on the faces of attendees and thousands of determined proclamations to visit the event again next year and in future years.
The brewing landscape is changing and tastes are maturing nationwide. The industry is presently in the midst of a growth spurt and breweries continue to open at a record clip. With more than 2,000 craft breweries and brewpubs now in existence and more waiting in the wings to open up in 2013, there is no limit to the creative energy and competitive force these breweries and their personnel will bring to the forefront. Consumers will continue to demand diverse product selections and brewers will continue to answer to call, brewing bigger, bolder, and more unusual products than ever before.
Change is inevitable and the American brewing industry is in a constant state of positive transformation that will continue to move products into new and innovative ways. Ok, Bob Dylan probably didn’t have the brewing industry in mind when he released his classic tune of activism and change back in 1964, but the American beer business is definitely an industry in the midst of a metamorphosis and consumers and others look forward to a great future, in 2013 and beyond.