In the past, that drama could include not just which breweries won what awards, but who got cheered, who got booed, who got down on one knee for a marriage proposal and who would open their shirt to reveal a political message of some sort.This year, the awards won't be in person, as the festival portion of the event was canceled — so there will be no Charlie Papazian doling out fist bumps — but there will still be an awards ceremony, and it will still be interesting to watch; the live stream is available on the Brewing Network.
Here are ten reasons to watch the awards ceremony, and if you need a little a little socialization, there are at least a half-dozen local breweries that will be showing the broadcast on their taproom TVs beginning at 5 p.m. See the list in this week's Beer Calendar.
Let's just start off big. When the medals are announced, the most bated breath will be held by the breweries that entered a beer into one of the four Juicy or Hazy categories: Pale Ale, Strong Pale Ale, IPA and Imperial IPA. That’s because the style continues to be the hottest one in the country, and because the Juicy or Hazy IPA category once again claimed the largest field of entries, with about 400. When these categories debuted in 2018, Fiction Beer took home an award in the Pale Ale subsection, while WeldWerks Brewing garnered two awards in 2019, for Imperial IPA and Pale Ale.
2. Can WeldWerks repeat?
WeldWerks, which defined the hazy and juicy style in Colorado (literally) earned its due in 2019, winning gold for Extra Extra Juicy Bits and silver for Itsy Bits. But can the Greeley brewery repeat its success? I'd probably put $18 dollars on it (the cost of a four-pack these days), but for WeldWerks, the awards could always come in a different category: The brewery won gold for a barrel-aged stout in 2017 and for a hefeweizen in 2015.
Okay, so hazies aren't the only kind of hoppy beers out there. American-style Pales, IPAs and Imperial IPAs — all of which have the classic bitterness IPAs were born with — held the top spot for many years, and they are still an overwhelming force across the country. As for GABF, the Brewers Association reports that American-Style IPA was the second-most-entered category again in 2020. And that vaunted category was claimed by Comrade Brewing last year, which won gold for More Dodge Less Ram. Comrade is at the top of its hoppy game, but it shares the field with other breweries that turn out killer West Coast IPAs, including Cannonball Creek, which won two awards in 2019, and Westbound & Down, which earned one for its double IPA.
4. Which breweries can keep their streaks alive?
And speaking of repeat winners, Dry Dock Brewing and the Sandlot (the Coors-owned small-batch brewery inside Coors Field) have been Colorado's models of consistency and quality over the past two decades when it comes to GABF medals: Dry Dock has taken home an astounding 25 awards in twelve years, missing only one year, while the Sandlot has raked in a jaw-dropping 45 medals since its inception in 2005. But two younger breweries, Denver Beer Co. and Cannonball Creek Brewing, have quietly begun a pair of streaks of their own. DBC has captured that bling for five years in a row now, while Cannonball has won ten awards in just seven years without missing a year, including two medals for its Trump Hands session IPA.
Brewers are nothing if not opinionated, and one of the styles that attracts the most discussion is the old-world standard bearer: the pilsner. There are German pilsners (the third-most-entered category), Bohemian pilsners, American pilsners and even International pilsners, not to mention various subcategories. This year saw a huge rise in popularity for a style that many brewers call an Italian-style pilsner. The basic premise is that is a German pilsner that has been dry-hopped — often with hop varieties not typically associated with the Old World. At the moment, this beer falls into the newly broken-out Contemporary American-Style Pilsener category. (The style description reads: While traditional versions exhibit attributes typical of noble-type hops, contemporary versions will exhibit attributes typical of a wide range of American hop varieties.) But the wide variety of pilsner categories leaves open the question of what beers will win what awards in what is an infinitesimally subtle style to begin with.
6. Can the big boys return to glory?
A (temporary?) rules change this year will allow beer behemoths like Anheuser-Busch, Coors and now Kirin to enter beers from multiple subsidiaries and divisions. That means that the Sandlot, Blue Moon and AC Golden can all compete if they choose to. So can AB InBev's many breweries, which include Littleton's Breckenridge and 10 Barrel Brewing in RiNo. Will they enter? Will they win? These breweries typically do very well.
Every year, a very young or brand-new brewery wins a medal (see Primitive Beer from 2019), and while some people might consider this to be a lucky draw for that brewery, others certainly take notice, especially when that brewery is doing something new or different, or when it is simply nailing a classic style.
8. Can Colorado keep its medal count at forty or above?
In 2019, Colorado breweries took home forty shiny medals (including in some high-profile categories), a bounce-back year from 2018, when the state only won thirty. Before that, though, Colorado grabbed 38 awards in each of the prior two years. Then again, this is 2020, so anything could happen. Want to know what it's like to be a brewer watching the ceremony and waiting to see if you won? Head to Launch Pad Brewery in Aurora, where brewer Paul Mahoney will be broadcasting his heart rate on the taproom's six TV screens. Thump, thump.
Yes, there are! This year's competition has 91 categories, down from 107 in 2019; some of that has to do with streamlining, and some has to do with the pandemic forcing the BA to use fewer judges, says the BA's Ann Obenchain. Some of my favorites to watch include those related to barrel-aged stouts, Baltic porters, marzens, pumpkin spice and fresh hops. But Colorado usually shows up in some of the wild and/or sour ale categories as well — something our state's brewers do particularly well. Here's a quick rundown from Obenchain on some of this year's adjustments: formerly known as Emerging IPA, the new Experimental IPA category has been moved to the Hybrid/Mixed Beer Styles group of categories; Contemporary American-Style Lager and Light Lager have been added; British, German and Belgian ale categories and subcategories have been realigned.
10. What will the future hold for GABF?
Although the GABF medal competition isn't the best indicator of greater socio-economic conditions, the future of the festival and of its organizer, the Brewers Association, seems like it is at a crossroads. For starters, a continuing pandemic could threaten the 2021 festival (currently scheduled for October 7 to 9), but so could a significant reduction in participation if a large number of breweries across the country were to close by then or decide that membership isn't worth their money during tough times. Furthermore, the BA has already had to lay off a significant portion of its staff (including its most high-profile ambassador, Julia Herz) because of disappearing revenues created by coronavirus-related canceled events. And now there may be a changing of the guard among its board, which has a big say in who leads the organization and how money is spent. After harsh criticism concerning sensitivity to diversity issues, the BA announced that it would open up the board race this year to a much wider variety of candidates. What will all of this mean for craft beer and for the festival? It's hard to say, but it's unlikely that things will return to the way they were — at least not in the next few years.