Beer Man

Will There Be Hard Seltzer at GABF? We Clawed for Answers

Denver Beer Co. is one of a few Colorado breweries packaging hard seltzer.
Denver Beer Co. is one of a few Colorado breweries packaging hard seltzer. Denver Beer Co.
Although the Great American Beer Festival has suffered some miscues, slow reactions and drama, it is still largely the final word when it comes to defining beer styles in the United States. The 38th iteration of the annual event, which returns to town October 3 through 5, boasts more than 100 categories this time around — a number that changes every year as organizers refine and tweak their inclusions and exclusions.

But as any boozer who's been awake in 2019 knows, hard seltzer has risen from the sea like a terrifying, gluten-free Kraken, throwing its dark, lower-calorie shadow across craft-beer's hazy fleet of ships. Hard-seltzer sales, led by White Claw, have grown by more than 200 percent over the past year, according to Nielsen data, and the $550 million category could grow to $2.5 billion by 2021, according to MarketInsider.

In Colorado, most hard seltzers are classified as "malt beverages," a definition that allows breweries to make them. And many have. In fact, it's hard to find a mainstream brewery these days that doesn't offer at least one seltzer on tap. A few, including Oskar Blues, Denver Beer Co. and Upslope, package them in cans as well.

But will the beverage make an appearance at GABF? After all, the Boulder-based Brewers Association, which organizes the festival, changed its own definition of craft breweries last year to allow for companies that produce hard seltzer, cider, mead, alcoholic kombucha and THC- or CBD-infused beverages.

click to enlarge Upslope's Spiked Snow Melt is made by a brewery but isn't really a beer. - UPSLOPE BREWING
Upslope's Spiked Snow Melt is made by a brewery but isn't really a beer.
Upslope Brewing
The answer: definitely not in competition, and probably not at the festival, either.

"Since the purpose of GABF is to shine a spotlight on the wonderful world of beer, festival brewers are asked to pour beer," BA spokeswoman Ann Obenchain says. "It must possess the characteristics generally attributed to and conforming to the consumer understanding of 'beer'" — meaning "at least 51 percent of the fermentables must be derived from grain. Beverages made with malt substitutes, honey, fruit or fruit juices, or anything other than grain as the majority of fermentables are not eligible to participate."

In addition, competition beer entries must contain hops, she says. Exceptions to this include "gruit" or other historical beer styles that traditionally contain herbs or spices. "Mead, cider, spirits, hard soda, hard water and flavored malt beverages including kombucha and most shandies and radlers are not eligible to be entered in the GABF."

But the message may not get out to everyone. In its initial pour list, posted in July, the GABF website showed that at least one brewery, Two Roads Brewing in Stratford, Connecticut, planned to pour its H2Roads Raspberry Craft Hard Seltzer at the festival. That entry has since been removed, however, and no other hard seltzers appear to be listed.

Will everyone else listen to instructions? It's difficult to know for sure. After all, there are no laws when you're drinking Claws.
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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes