It’s been a few weeks since GABF wrapped and I’ve been thinking back on what I picked up from my trip this year (besides a few out-of-market bottles and a couple pounds). Here is my attempt to briefly distill a few lessons from my time in the Mile High City.
- GABF shows no signs of slowing down. In 2013, 732 breweries entered over 4,800 beers, including 200 in the American IPA category. That’s 12% more beers judged in 2013 than in 2012 and 5% more than anticipated.
- The Brewers Association is “scrambling to accommodate” increased interest in GABF. This year, over 400 breweries were waitlisted; next year, there will be an “all-comers” approach to brewery registration. In 2015, they’re hoping to secure additional hall space.
- The pool of people covering craft beer is also growing by leaps and bounds. This year, 460 journalists registered as media for GABF, compared to 368 in 2012 and 210 in 2011.
- Presentation matters. While all of the beers were tasty – Logsdon Seizoen Bretta was a personal favorite – the crowd definitely swooned a bit at the Jeroboam (Nebuchadnezzar?) of Elysian that wrapped the night. On such special occasions, a little panache goes a long way.
BUS TOUR OF BREWERIES
- Local regulations help determine the feasibility business models. Denver breweries can have full adjoining taprooms – unlike DC, where it’s tasting only – so smaller outfits can start out pouring the majority of their output until they’re ready to expand. Our first stop, the year old Our Mutual Friend, is brewing just 4 barrel batches, yet seems to be doing well meeting its in-house demand. With lower rent and the pressure to brew at volume diminished, it’s easier to start small.
- In a marketplace as crowded as Denver, specialization is paramount. Stop two, Black Shirt Brewing, has carved out a very specific niche: all of its beers are red. Its saison, IPA, even its porter range from brick to crimson. With a customer base as educated as Denver’s, breweries can target particular audiences and become known as the [blank] experts.
- Last but not least was Crooked Stave. The cultish following for the sour expert is well-deserved, but I was still amazed at the extent to which American palates have shifted toward funk. Admittedly, Denver was even more overrun with beer nerds than usual, but still, the energy surrounding CS was unlike anything I saw all week. Perhaps the US could use more critter experts.
- With so many beers available in most markets, the selling power of a GABF medal is growing. Brewers seem to view a win both as aesthetic validation of their work and economic boon. In no way did it diminish the camaraderie in the hall, but there was definitely a sense of nervous anticipation as each category was announced.
- I haven’t fully crunched the numbers, but while in the hall, I was intrigued by the distribution of medals among the states. Three dominated the medal count: OR (25), CO (46), and CA (52). It’s not surprising that these states ranked near the top, but they pulled in nearly half (48.8%) of all the medals awarded. That’s bonkers. Other states with beer-y pedigree didn’t pull down quite as many as I’d anticipated: MI (4), WI (5), WA (4), MN (4), IL (4), IN (4), MA (2), ME (0), NH (0), VT (0). Meanwhile, a number of states newer to the craft elite fared well; NM (8), TX (10), and VA (14). I’m hesitant to read too much into these numbers – it is, after all, just one year – but I do find the information heartening. States with more breweries stand a better chance of bringing home big hauls, but the broadening of the elite craft boundaries means that you can find a great beer in most corners of the US (including our own).
- The entire hall experience is crowded and insane, but certain lines stretched out between the aisles while others were only one or two people long. Yes, some beer is better than others, but I saw a number of small, locally-minded breweries from around the country that I personally know to be great with only sparse interest. It made me question what a small to mid-sized craft brewery can do to attract interest at such festivals. If you’re not a cult favorite or a name brand, it’s difficult to signal to drinkers from outside your distribution area that you’re for real. Maybe the answer is not to worry about it. If you make a good product, those people who do try your product will spread the word. And besides, if most festival-goers can’t reliably buy your beer (e.g., 50% of GABF attendees are from Colorado), you shouldn’t despair if and when you don’t have the longest line. Worry about your locals first and leave the festival popularity race until you go national.
- What a difference a year makes. During GABF 2012, the media bus tour took us to River North, a modest-sized brewery in the neighborhood of the same name. A few barrels were stacked against the wall, but much of the year-old brewery was sparse. I remember enjoying three of the four beers I’d tried, but the lasting impression was how young and shoestring it was. This year, I saw that the brewery was packed to the gills with barrels and new tanks. Its White was now getting the mobile canning treatment. And their barrel-aged stuff, given another year on wood, was verging on the transcendent. People must say the same of DC’s own breweries – “They’re so much bigger now”, “Really growing into themselves” – but it’s hard to notice when you live with them every day.
- Epic Brewing of Utah recently opened up a brewery just a few blocks from River North, Our Mutual Friend, and Black Shirt. It’s a few minutes’ walk from one to the next, but it doesn’t feel at all crowded. Instead, it’s a pleasant reminder that the demand for craft beer is elastic and that breweries, while in competition, are ultimately on the same side. Craft drinkers are drawn to this little innovation cluster. They bring their friends, begetting more customers. It’s a lesson our region should take to heart: there’s a strength in numbers.
- Sometimes, it’s worth sticking it out. After so many days of so many beers, I was reaching my breaking point, both in terms of taste buds and belt notches. But my wife, always looking out for my best interest, supported me in checking out “just one more place”. And it’s that willingness to seek out something new that often yields the best rewards. Like the circuitous route we drove to dinner so we could hit Renegade, where I had one of the best coffee beers I’ve ever tasted. Like the cold walk to Denver Beer Company, which poured a stellar, limited-edition grape must saison. Like the dinner at Hops N Pie instead of Greek, just so I could try Odell’s Fernet-aged Porter, possibly my favorite beer of the weekend. There’s no end to craft beer and GABF is perhaps the best evidence of that. Can’t wait until next year.