The last time Jake Gardner entered one of his beers into a major awards competition, it ended up being turned into hand sanitizer — a disappointing fate, especially since his brewery, Westbound & Down, was coming off two gold medals and a Mid-Size Brewpub of the Year award, all earned just six months earlier at the Great American Beer Festival.
“Tough sledding there,” Gardner says. “We submitted what we believed was a world-class representation of a barrel-aged beer. So that was a tough pill to swallow.”
But there was no other choice. The World Beer Cup, a highly respected biennial affair, had to be canceled as its host, the Boulder-based Brewers Association, and the rest of the country faced the terrifying beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March and a shortage of hand sanitizer and other much-needed supplies for front-line responders. As a result, the BA dumped thousands of contest entries so they could be put to communal use.
“I totally respect what the BA did,” Gardner adds. “Being safe is far more important than a beer competition. Sometimes it's hard to remember, when your life is making beer.”
The virus has also forced the organization to cancel the public part of the Great American Beer Festival, which had been slated for late September. In its place, the BA will hold a virtual fest designed to drive people to their local breweries. It will also go forward with the competition and the judging; brewery registration for the festival just closed last week, and submissions will be sent to Colorado in August.
In fact, the competition, now in October, could be the biggest one ever, because the BA is allowing breweries to enter up to ten beers in 2020, more than twice what had been allowed for the past few years. (Side note: In addition to the added beers, the BA has also reversed a previous decision, saying that "groups that own multiple breweries/have multiple locations will not be limited to an entry cap across all locations.")
The organization, which is reeling from a series of recent layoffs related to event cancellations, hasn’t released details about how it plans to handle the judging. Normally, judges fly into Denver from around the world to lend their services. Since that won’t be possible this year, the BA will have to find enough local representatives (322 judges from eighteen countries participated in 2019) — and do their sampling in a socially distanced and sanitized setting. As such, it may take several weeks to finish as opposed to the typical three days.
Westbound & Down plans to take full advantage of that, submitting sours, barrel-aged stouts and at least five IPAs, the style that the brewery is most known for. The brewery’s Westbound Double IPA took gold in 2019 over several hundred competing entries, something Gardner says was both amazing and humbling.
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The Idaho Springs brewery isn’t the only one planning to defend multiple medals, however. WeldWerks Brewing, Comrade Brewing, Cannonball Creek Brewing and Vail Brewing all took home more than one piece of treasure in 2019. All told, Colorado won forty GABF medals in 2019, up ten from the previous year.
“GABF went really well for us, and we...will be competing again this year,” says Comrade Brewing’s David Lin, though he noted that one of the best parts of winning won’t take place. “It will be a completely different experience. Not sure if Charlie Papazian would have been back this year on the stage if the pandemic didn't happen, but it's the highlight for the medal winners and probably won't happen for winners this year,” he says about the founder of the BA, who is well known for fist-bumping all the winners on stage each year.
Unlike Westbound, Comrade was spared the pain of seeing its best beer recycled as hand sanitizer: Lin says the brewery hadn't submitted its entries yet and ended up drinking them with friends.
So, how will Colorado breweries fare this year? "Colorado cleaned up last year with forty," Gardner says. "I’m a homer, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was fifty this time."