For the first time since it was founded in 1991, Breckenridge Brewery won't have a table at the Great American Beer Festival — at least not according to current plans. Neither will Elysian Brewing, Wicked Weed, 10 Barrel or Goose Island, which are all missing from the GABF list of participating breweries that was published on August 18 by the Brewers Association.
All of these breweries are well-known names in the beer industry, and all of them are owned or have recently been purchased by Anheuser-Busch InBev — which means they are no longer considered “craft” breweries by the BA, the Boulder-based craft-brewing trade group that hosts GABF every year in Denver. In fact, only two of AB InBev’s many brands and subsidiary breweries are currently slated to be at the fest this October.
Over the past three years, AB InBev has aggressively sought out craft breweries to buy while its most well-known brand, Budweiser, bashed the craft industry at the same time (most famously in a 2015 Super Bowl ad that included the line, “Let them drink their pumpkin peach ale. We'll be brewing us some golden suds.”)
In response, the BA has continued to distance itself and its members from corporate-owned breweries with a series of new initiatives, including a logo that member breweries can use to identify themselves as independent.
It’s hard to know for sure why AB InBev’s breweries won’t be at GABF this year, since the company declined to comment and the BA wouldn’t discuss “brewery-specific information.” But any animosity between the two sides doesn’t appear to be the primary reason. Rather, AB InBev's absence seems to be a result of rules changes that the BA started putting into place several years ago in order to make room for an ever-expanding list of participants.
In 2014, the BA limited the number of beers that a “brand family” or single corporate entity could enter into the competition to twenty; it has since tightened those rules even further. So, for instance, Rock Bottom, a nationwide chain of breweries and restaurants that used to be able to enter each of its locations, had to pick and choose. So did Anheuser Busch InBev, MillerCoors and breweries with multiple locations.
The change was made after a surging number of craft breweries nationwide resulted in an intense demand to participate in the fest. In 2013, that demand caught the BA off guard when the fest quickly ran out of room and many breweries were left out in the cold, angry and frustrated.
That same year, the BA created a lottery system by region for booths, since there isn’t enough space for all of those breweries on the festival floor, where the public tastes the beer. A single company can only have one booth to start with, and that booth is awarded via the lottery. More spaces typically open up, however, as some breweries decline to participate or move on to take larger sponsored booths. When that happens, the BA will go back over its list of interested breweries and award a few more booths as they become available.
Under this system, AB InBev, for example, was entered into the lottery a single time, just like every other brewery, even though it has multiple subsidiaries and owns eleven formerly independent breweries. As it stands now, only Virginia’s Devil’s Backbone Brewing and New York’s Blue Point, both AB InBev companies, will have booths at the GABF. It's possible that they'll offer beers from some of their sister companies, but it’s too early to know.
Coors has also had to cut back significantly on its presence. There will be a single Coors booth and another for AC Golden, a subsidiary that produces Colorado Native, according to the published list. But Blue Moon, the Sandlot and Leinenkugel won’t be represented. Neither will Coors’s recent craft acquisitions, including Revolver Brewing, Hop Valley Brewing, Terrapin Brewing and Saint Archer Brewing.
Other non-craft breweries that don't appear on the list: Lagunitas (now owned by Heineken), Kona Brewing, Pyramid and Red Hook. Ballast Point and Funky Buddha, meanwhile, will be on hand; both are owned by Constellation Brands, which also owns Corona and other big beer names.
BA spokesman Barbara Fusco says that the final list of participating breweries may change from what is listed on its website at the moment. That means that AB InBev could still have a bigger presence, even though earlier this year the BA made several aggressive moves designed to distance itself from non-craft companies. One of those was to reserve the large sponsored booths that sit at the end cap of each aisle for independent breweries that are members of the BA.
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“With the growth of the industry, we continue to see more demand for featured brewery sponsorships and we have limited inventory,” Fusco recently told Westword.
“Additionally and more importantly, the purpose of the Brewers Association is to promote and protect craft brewers. The GABF serves as a wonderful platform to promote all BA brewery members. Limiting brewery sponsorship to members that meet the BA definition of craft brewer allows us to better serve our independent members and focus on our purpose,” she said.
Although AB InBev itself won't have a major presence at GABF, Adam Warrington, a spokesman for the company's High End group of formerly independent breweries, says that "many of us will be out in Denver the week of GABF, including most of the founders from our craft partners."
GABF takes place October 5 through October 7 this year at the Colorado Convention Center; nearly 900 breweries are expected to pour thousands of beers from booths on the convention-center floor.