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Friday, October 13, 2017

Denver's House of Sky: GABF '17

Published in 1978, Ivan Doig's This House of Sky presents a memoir of his life growing up in the Big Sky country of Montana. I was reminded of the book title as I traipsed around Denver last weekend. Denver isn't Montana, obviously, but even in the downtown area, you have the sensation of a very broad horizon.


It took some time for me to fully absorb my experience at the Great American Beer Festival. I was warned upfront that the event is huge and unwieldy, so that part wasn't unexpected. But some aspects of the festival I didn't anticipate.

The Drinking
Having attended the Craft Brewers Conference in Portland a couple of  years ago, I figured GABF to be more of a giant trade show focused on beer than strictly a beer festival. I was correct. Although there was plenty of beer in the Convention Hall, there were also countless vendors showing off a variety of mostly beer-related wares. Trade show.

I attended Friday evening and Saturday afternoon drinking sessions. The Thursday evening session was out because I wasn't arriving in Denver until too late. My initial plan, on the advice of folks "in the know," was to attend only the early Saturday session. I wound up there Friday evening because I had nothing better to do.

In fact, the Friday session was less of a mess than Saturday afternoon. The crush of beer fans after the Saturday morning awards ceremony created near-gridlock conditions. Getting to medal winners or specific beers you wanted to taste often proved difficult due to congestion. There were just too many bodies in too little space, evidently not a new problem for this event.

What could they do to make it a little less of a shit show? It seems to me they either have to reduce the number of tickets sold or increase the amount of floor space. Because the layout isn't the problem. I do think it's unfortunate that there is very little sitting space, but that sort of fits with the GABF being more of a trade show than an actual festival.

The Awards
I wasn't sure what to expect at the Saturday morning awards ceremony. They eventually handed out medals in 99 style categories, plus the awards for breweries the year in several sizes. I'd watched the GABF awards before via streaming and still had no idea how they would handle the girth of the competition in a realistic amount of time.

Things got off to an awkward start when a large contingent of folks couldn't enter the ballroom because there wasn't enough seating. A number of these folks were hungover or still drunk from a night of imbibing. But never mind. Some stayed in the outer concourse, where the awards presentation could be seen on a screen. Others came in and stood or sat on the edges of the room. Not ideal.

The 99 categories have some redundancy. Follow this link and sort by style if you want to get a feel for that. It's over-the-top to me. But I get it. The Brewers Association wants to keep everyone interested even as the brewery count skyrockets. To do that, they spread the love by adding style categories. There were 12 in 1987, 34 in 1994, 70 in 2006. You get the idea.

It reminds me of my tournament racquetball career. In the old days, you played A, B, C, D or Open. Maybe there was a Masters division. Later, tournament directors added A/B, B/C and a hoard of age group divisions. More people got medals, which kept them playing and coming back. But tournaments became unmanageable. Craft beer appears headed down a similar path.


Navigate to the Beervana site if you want more detailed info on entries by state and winning percentages. There's no reason for me to redo or rethink what Jeff has already done. His piece is based on numbers the Brewers Association grudgingly provided and that were incomplete. There's a bizarre aura of secrecy permeating this organization, unfortunately.

Oregon's big winner was Sunriver Brewing, which collected gold medals for Cinder Beast Red and Fuzztail Hefeweizen, as well as Small Brewery of the Year. Breakside, as usual, entered the fray with four bronze medals, including a bigly one in the IPA category, which had 408 entries. Sort the winners list by state if you want the complete story.

The Miscalculations
When I received the invitation to apply for GABF media credentials, I didn't think much of it. Only I after I gave it some thought did I decide to apply. After my application was approved, I had to decide if I would actually go. A credential only gets you into the festival. The main cost is getting and staying there. Is it worth it?

A friend and fellow writer advised me that he had been to GABF twice, which he figured was one time more than required. I laughed. But I hadn't been and always wanted to go, so I started looking at airfares and hotel rates. Shortly, travel arrangements were made; later I altered them so I would have two full days in Denver. That seemed about right.

There were misques. I didn't coordinate schedules with anyone and I wasn't staying close enough to the Convention Center to randomly join in. I hoped to enjoy some events outside the festival and maybe visit some breweries. Didn't happen. When you don't know your way around, you need to hook up with a group or have a specific plan of action. Significant whiffs on my part.

Of course, it likely didn't matter. The GABF crowd, the industry part of it, anyway, is considerably younger than me. Most places were routinely packed with kids. Although I don't have anything against them, I don't really fit in. That's become more and more apparent over the course of the past year for reasons I don't need to get into here. Nothing to do about it.

Would I return to GABF? Unlikely. If I did, it would only be as part of a group of like-minded folks staying in relatively the same area with plans to attend specific events and visit a list of places. The reality is, much of the action at GABF takes place outside the Convention Center. You need to set yourself up to experience at least some of that stuff.

Regardless of my experience, I have no problem recommending GABF to anyone who hasn't gone. Denver is a terrific city and the spectacle that is GABF is worth seeing. Once, if not twice. ­čŹ╗

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