Once again, the Brewers Association delivered a spectacular, sold-out, three-day festival, this time thrilling 60,000 people, who got a chance to sample 3,500 beers from approximately 800 breweries from across the country. The time and effort that goes into planning a festival of this magnitude is almost incomprehensible, but the results were worth it. For the second year in a row, extra space and attention to detail created an amazing show both inside and outside the Colorado Convention Center.
And while there were a few hiccups and a few losers this year, there were mostly wins. Here's a rundown and a few takeaways from this year's Christmas for beer drinkers.
Denver. The Brewers Association revealed Friday that Visit Denver estimated that the Great American Beer Festival had a $28.6 million economic effect on the city last year, as thousands of people journeyed here for the largest commercial beer festival in the world. In future years, the BA hopes to study how those benefits ripple out through the town during the rest of the week.
Anyone who visited the state guild tables in the back of this year's festival — Vermont's boasted a giddy Sean Lawson, owner of Lawson's Finest Liquids, pouring his brewery's highly sought after Sip of Sunshine — or the Heavy Medal tables, featuring many winners from last year's festival. These tables had virtually no lines and boasted some of the best beers around, including San Francisco's 21st Amendment Brewery's Toaster Pastry and San Diego's Rip Current Brewing's Black Lagoon Scottish Strong.
Colorado's Black Project, Dad & Dudes Breweria and Weldwerks Brewing. These three rising stars consistently had long, long lines throughout the three-day fest. Weldwerks has made a huge name for itself over the past year with Juicy Bits, a New England-style IPA, and its various iterations, like double-dry-hopped Juicy Bits, which it was pouring at the fest. Black Project has done something similar with its spontaneously fermented ales. Dad & Dudes, of course, was pouring several beers made with cannabis oil.
The media. There were at least 500 people at the festival this year, covering it for newspapers, websites, magazines, podcasts, blogs, TV stations and other media outfits. That's up from 250 just five years ago. And many of those media members got to attend a special session of Paired, which has to be one of the best food-and-beer-pairing events in the nation. (It's available to the public with a separate ticket but is physically connected to the festival.) It featured 21 chefs paired with 21 breweries from around the nation; shell-shocked with rapture is perhaps the best way to describe the faces of most of the media members in attendance. Examples of bliss included: Joyride Brewing Abbey Road Belgian Dubbel paired with duck pipian from Carlo Lamagna's Clyde Common in Portland, and the Bruery's Terreux Confession matched with Olathe corn budino from Alex Seidel's Mercantile Dining in Denver.
Colorado's medal count. For the first time in a few years, Colorado's medal count didn't go down. The state's brewers took home 38 medals this year, the same as in 2015. Before that, Colorado had won 40 in 2014 and 46 in 2013. And this year's awards ran the gamut of styles, which was nice to see, showing off the wide array of beers available here, from brown ales (Upslope and Telluride continued their dominance) and stouts to German lagers and Belgian saisons (The Post and Baere Brewing each won) to barrel-aged selections and Brett beers. There was also quite a solid mix of newbies and stalwarts in the group.
Freedom. While we were all made safer when metal detectors showed up at the festival for the first time, it comes with a sense of melancholy that one more thing is held hostage by the need for such measures. Even in the midst of a beer festival, there are always safety concerns. "This year," the Brewers Association said, "ticketholders will be asked to go through a walk-through metal detector, similar to the units used at all major U.S. airports and professional stadiums and arenas. Backpacks are prohibited for this event, and all items are subject to screening. The added security precaution represents GABF’s ongoing approach to balancing safety and fun."
Pumpkin beers. Although they are oft-maligned and frequently mocked, pumpkin beers continue to be a favorite among drinkers who anxiously await their arrival every year. Which is why the Brewers Association split the category in two this time around, creating a pumpkin/squash beer category and a pumpkin-spice beer category. But for the second year in the row, the judges chose not to give all of the awards. Last year, they gave no gold in the pumpkin category. This year, they awarded only a bronze medal in the pumpkin/squash group (to BTU Brasserie in Portland, Oregon). On the other hand, Broomfield's 4 Noses Brewing impressed the judges, winning gold in pumpkin spice.
Anheuser Busch InBev. The High End division, which runs the eight formerly independent breweries that AB InBev has purchased, took home just three medals between them, one for 10 Barrel Brewing and two for Devil's Backbone, which AB acquired just six months ago. All eight breweries, including Breckenridge Brewery, Elysian and Goose Island, were pouring beer at the festival.
Fat Head's Brewery and Saloon, a brewery in Cleveland, thought it won the prestigious Mid-Size Brewpub of the Year award, only to have it mercilessly taken away because of an error by another brewery and an oversight by festival organizers. Here is the statement from the BA.
During competition registration, Karl Strauss Brewing Co. self-identified their San Diego location as a Mid-Size Brewpub. After the award ceremony, GABF competition staff realized that this was inaccurate: this location is, in fact, a Mid-Size Brewing Company. Karl Strauss, while it operates brewpubs, is classified as a production facility by GABF competition guidelines.
After reassigning Karl Strauss to the Mid-Size Brewing Company category, and recalculating the Brewery of the Year results, it resulted that Karl Strauss was the winner of the Mid-Size Brewing Company of the Year category. In addition, Boxing Bear Brewing Co. is the resulting winner of the Mid-Size Brewpub of the Year category.
All of us with the Great American Beer Festival and the Brewers Association deeply regret this error. Fat Head’s Brewery & Saloon, which had originally been identified as the Mid-Size Brewing Company of the Year, had a very strong performance in the competition, winning a gold medal in the German-Style Wheat Ale category, a silver medal in Other Strong Beer, and a bronze medal in Fresh or Wet Hop Ale. They were among the top medal-winning breweries in the 2016 competition.
Keep reading for the list of Colorado's winners: