It’s quite likely that the hashtag “#beer” saw an astronomical spike on Twitter in mid-October, as the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) and the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA) 75th annual convention ran back to back in Denver and Las Vegas, respectively.
The energy level at the Brewers Association-organized GABF certainly wasn’t in short supply, which wasn’t surprising given the speed at which public tickets sold out this year. The annual event—which draws some 49,000 beer aficionados and industry folks each year—is no stranger to sellout crowds, but the fact that all four sessions from Thursday, Oct. 11 through Saturday Oct. 13 sold out within minutes, versus the usual weeks, speaks to consumers’ increasing embrace of all things craft beer.
The 31st annual GABF showcased about 2,700 beers from 580 breweries in the festival hall, up from 2,375 beers from 466 breweries at last year’s event. It once again featured the Farm to Table Pavilion, which paired beers from select brewers with freshly prepared artisanal delicacies. The Colorado Convention had already been bursting at the seams with the annual increase in breweries pouring in the festival hall. But there was a bit more room as the annual awards ceremony was moved out of the hall and into the convention center’s Wells Fargo theater. The competition awarded 254 medals—gold, silver and bronze—across 84 beer categories and 134 different styles (when subcategories are taken into account). There were 4,3338 total entries from 666 breweries.
Known for their passion, quirkiness and innovation, breweries within the hall did their best to differentiate themselves and make an impression on attendees. Oskar Blues Brewing Co. (Longmont, Colo.) once again sponsored the annual silent disco complete with retro-style DJ and Sierra Nevada showcased its pedal-powered bar on wheels, which invited attendees to pedal as they would a bike as they sat at the bar, which stores energy generated by the pedalers and uses it to power the mobile bar.
The moment the doors opened on the initial session Thursday night, many made a bee line for Russian River Brewing Co.’s booth. It was no surprise that the Sonoma, Calif. Brewery was pouring its Pliny the Elder Imperial IPA, a favorite among beer geeks that often tops the list of most sought-after brews. The crowd swelled at Bellaire, Mich.-based Shorts Brewing Co.’s booth as well, as the brewery is known for such unique concoctions as Bloody Beer (fermented with Roma tomatoes and enhanced with dill, horseradish and other herbs and spices for a bloody-mary like flavor) and Peaches & Créme.
Boston By Way of Denver
The largest craft brewer of them all celebrated a couple of milestones during the GABF. Immediately prior to its annual beer brunch at Marlowe’s bar and restaurant in Denver, Boston Beer founder Jim Koch led an exclusive tasting of the 10th anniversary edition of its high-ABV Samuel Adams Utopias. For the anniversary release, the brewery tweaked the brew-kettle-shaped bottle a bit. Normally copper-colored, this year’s was packaged in a stunning black kettle, with a series of roots and leaves designed into it, which, Koch said, highlight the genealogy of the beer. “Its roots are back to a very seminal moment in craft brewing in 1992 when two things that have become signature elements of craft brewing were first done,” Koch said.
The first was the creation of Sam Adams Triple Bock—a sort of ancestor to Utopias—which ushered in the era of aging beer in used spirits and wine barrels. “The second element: When I first started making Triple Bock, nobody in the history of the world, nobody in 12,000 years had ever fermented grain over about 14 percent alcohol. That was considered the sound barrier for beer,” Koch said.
That was the beginning of what’s become known as extreme brewing.
In addition to announcing the winners of Boston Beer’s annual Longshot home brewing competition at the morning event, Koch officially unveiled the 2013 version of New Albion Ale, which hasn’t been produced in 30 years. Jack McAuliffe, who opened New Albion Brewing Co. in 1976, is credited as a craft brewing pioneer. The brewery closed in 1982 in a business environment that had yet to become friendly to small brewers. Some say he was ahead of his time.
In July McAuliffe joined Koch and the Sam Adams’ brewing team to brew the first batch, which will be available starting in January. It’s brewed with the original New Albion recipe and yeast strain, which has been preserved since the ’70s. All profits from the beer will go to McAuliffe, who was in attendance at the Oct. 12 unveiling.
Battle for the Sexes
Possibly the most telling comment about how GABF has evolved since its heyday came not at the festival itself, but a couple of days and nearly 1,000 miles later at the NBWA convention.
Speaking on an NBWA panel of the U.S. brewing industry’s elite, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery founder Sam Calagione noticed that the event has become a lot more demographically inclusive since he first started showcasing his then-startup brewery’s wares there in the mid to late ’90s. It’s no longer, he said, full of just “scruffy 30-year-olds who looked like they wandered in from a ‘Star Trek’ convention.” He observed that at least one-third of the attendees now are women. “Everyone’s palate is significant,” Calagione said, adding that it’s not about gender.
The issue of women and beer has long been a sticking point for those on the panel from the macro-side of the industry—Luiz Edmond, president, North America Anheuser-Busch; Crown Imports president Bill Hackett; MillerCoors president Tom Long and Heineken USA president and CEO Dolf van den Brink—as the companies they represented often had been criticized for decades of male-centric (and what some have called sexist) marketing. Many expressed a desire to get away from that.
“Quite simply, women are consumers,” said Hackett. “Don’t treat them any differently. Our approach is to
Long asserted that MillerCoors has made significant progress on the gender front, pointing to the demographics of one of its fastest growing brands. “Blue Moon has the greatest female franchise in America,” Long said. “One of the reasons for that is we got rid of that dogma of thinking of key beer drinkers, heavy beer drinkers…the portrait of a male 21 to 27, drinking 21-plus [beers] a week. That is generally not the average female drinker.”
Van den Brink conceded that the industry still has a long way to go in being more gender-inclusive, as only about 20 percent of beer drinkers are women. He noted that wine and spirits have made greater progress on that front. “We still have a lot of progress to make there,” van den Brink added. “I’m happy to say we are now 50-50 male-female in our management team and it makes a difference.”
Edmond summed up the gender challenge facing beer marketers: “We have a gap to close; it’s a big opportunity.”