Beer Man

Is It Time for GABF to Get Smaller and Go Regional?

The 2018 Great American Beer Festival got under way last night.
The 2018 Great American Beer Festival got under way last night. Danielle Lirette
I love the Great American Beer Festival. I love the cachet and influence that it brings to my hometown. I love the annual spectacle, the visitors and the beers that come with it. But as they say, when you love something, set it free — and, walking around Denver this week, I'm wondering if its time to set GABF free.

How? By breaking it up into smaller, regional events that would attract more breweries and then sending the winners of those events to a final annual or biennial event.

As it is, the 36-year-old extravaganza is bloated, unwieldy and increasingly irrelevant for many beer drinkers and, more importantly, many breweries — especially in other parts of the country. Beer-famous New England brought a grand total of just sixteen breweries: Maine (2), Vermont (1), New Hampshire (2), Massachusetts (8), Rhode Island (1), and Connecticut (2). Alabama, Alaska and Arkansas are each represented by two breweries a piece. Hawaii, Iowa, North Dakota, Oklahoma and West Virginia have 1 each. Mississippi has none.

click to enlarge Colorado is home, but maybe it's time to send GABF on the road. - DANIELLE LIRETTE
Colorado is home, but maybe it's time to send GABF on the road.
Danielle Lirette
Of course, many of those states have breweries that send beers to the competition to be judged; more than 2,500 breweries enter a total of 8,648 beers, while only 850 have festival booths. But it's not much fun for attendees when a beer wins an award but isn't around to pour it at festival afterward.

Equally as sad, though, is that locals don't seem to appreciate the festival as much as they used to, from the Denver breweries that eschew participation or even make fun of it, to the beer fans who complain about the year-after-year ennui. And, for the first time in a long time, GABF didn't entirely sell out.

This idea of breaking up the festival into regional qualifiers is nothing new. The Boulder-based Brewers Association, which hosts GABF, reconsiders it every year, says spokeswoman Ann Obenchain. But here's the problem: every year, staffers come to the same conclusion: doing so just isn't feasible. Here's why:

The competition beers arrive in all sizes and shapes of cans and bottles. A few years ago, they were still coming in growlers and even a party pig. Each one has to be labeled, boxed and sorted by style. Gathering and organizing these beers, along with the festival kegs, is an almost unfathomably complex process that takes four weeks, more than 67,000 volunteer-hours and plenty of staff overtime. When it comes time for the 280 judges to set about the task of evaluated those beers, the volunteers use an immensely intricate system of opening the beers and presenting them to the judges in a double-blind operation of numbers and color coding. They even follow brewery instructions — serving some colder than others or rousing some of them.

The judges themselves aren't easy to find, either. Although there's no shortage of applicants (GABF organizers have a three-year waiting list), the requirements for acceptance are very strict. Judges have to prove that they are trained, that they are continually practicing and even produce three references. Once the judges — who come from thirteen different countries this year — do pass the test, they are required to sit through six beer drinking sessions per day, three in the morning and three in the afternoon. Each session includes up to sixteen beers. It comes out to about four bottles of beer per day per judge. Nap time.
click to enlarge More than 60,000 people will attend GABF this year, but it didn't sell out. - DANIELL LIRETTE
More than 60,000 people will attend GABF this year, but it didn't sell out.
Daniell Lirette

If the BA wanted to hold regional qualifiers — say, in the Northeast, the South, the Midwest, the West and the West Coast — it would have to repeat this process each time. After all, there are more than 6,000 breweries in the country, with dozens more each month. Only 2,500 enter GABF now, but that would increase with regional festivals and competitions, says BA competition manager Chris Swersey.

It would also drive up costs. The BA would need to find many more sponsors, many more staffers, volunteers and even hire festival planners to help out since most of its staff is in Colorado.

So, is it time to break up the festival into regional qualifiers? Yes. Is it possible? Not yet.

But hopefully it will be at some point in the next few years. I would imagine that there would be a lot more buy-in from breweries in other parts of the country if they were competing regionally for the right to go to the big game. The BA could host smaller fests and competitions in: the Northeast, including New England, New York and the surrounding states; the south; the Midwest; the West, including Texas, Arizona, the plains and mountains states; and the West Coast, featuring the many, many breweries in California, Oregon and Washington.

Maybe GABF could take place every two years in that case, making the awards that much more valuable. The location would be Denver, of course, and locals would be more anxious to go because the fest would be held less often. It would then truly feature the best of the best pouring beer at the convention center.
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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes