Having never been to Denver, I was fairly certain of two things as my plane touched down at DIA last Thursday. First, I’d likely need some time to acclimate to the altitude. And second, I had no idea what in the hell I was getting into spending three straight days at the country’s largest beer gathering, the  28th annual Great American Beer Festival (GABF). 

DSC03127Taking up the  bulk of the downtown convention center, the GABF is an experience like nothing else. Four hundred fifty breweries from across the nation in attendance, 2,100 beers being poured, and 49,000 fellow craft beer lovers gleefully jostling their way around what I can only describe as the world’s largest beer garden. The festival floor, which was apparently 46 percent larger than last year’s event, was organized by region, with eight different sections making up what was essentially a virtual tour of the country’s breweries. You could neatly park a dozen aircraft carriers in the space taken up by the entire convocation, likely with some room left over.

DSC02992The event is not for the faint of heart, nor the weak of tolerance. But the time spent there gave me a wonderful perspective and appreciation for the more than 1,500 small, independent craft brewers putting their blood, sweat, and in Dogfish Head’s case saliva into what they’re doing every day. The passion in the hall was palpable, made even more exciting with the creative geniuses behind these beers actually pouring their wares to the throngs of craft beer lovers jamming the place, including Sam Calagione at Dogfish, Garrett Oliver at Brooklyn Brewery, Patrick Rue at The Bruery, and Tomme Arthur at Lost Abbey, to name a few. 

With more than 100 breweries and brewpubs in the state, Colorado can easily be called the Napa Valley of the beer industry. And the city of Denver’s support and enthusiasm for the festival (and the industry as a whole) was abundantly clear in the literally hundreds of ancillary brewery parties, charitable events and general beer gatherings at craft beer bars around town like Falling Rock Taphouse and The Cheeky Monk. The people were kind to a fault, extremely knowledgeable about their beer, and eager to show off what was really a very beautiful and welcoming place. It was truly a thing to behold. 

DSC03222The craft beer industry’s growth has been impressive, with a nine percent increase in sales in the first half of this year. But despite the craft segment’s success it still only represents 4 percent of volume across the entire beer category, with the rest largely made up by offerings from macro brewers like Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors. That’s an incredibly amazing statistic in my mind, considering the thousands of phenomenal beers out there being made by breweries and brewpubs putting out as little as a few hundred barrels a year, or as much as a hundred thousand. I guess when Jim Koch at Boston Beer Co. jokingly says Anheuser-Busch spills more beer than he makes every year, he isn’t kidding.

But these smaller guys, in particular, are facing not only stiff competition, but rising costs in operating their businesses. In fact, from November 2007 to 2008, the cost of operating a small brewery increased by 39 percent according to the Brewers Association, thanks in part to escalating material prices and energy costs associated with brewing, shipping and other business operations. Despite these issues, and in the face of financial uncertainty we’ve all contended with the past 18 months, the segment has managed to maintain its market share, largely a result of consumer shifts from on-premises beer purchases to in-home enjoyment. In today’s economy, flat can be considered the new up. 

Similar to the craft beer industry’s continued success introducing more and more people to the segment, the GABF also continued its record setting ways, crushing last year’s entries into the beer judging competition by 16 percent. Some statistics of note:

  • 457 breweries in the festival hall (of which 51 were there for the first time)
  • 2,100 beers served at the festival (1,967 poured last year)
  • 49,000 attendees (up by several thousand compared to last year)
  • 495 breweries in the competition
  • 3,308 beers judged in the competition (2,961 judged last year)
  • 78 categories judged + Pro-Am category
  • 132 judges from ten countries
  • Average number of competition beers entered in each category: 42
  • Category with highest number of entries: 134, American Style India Pale Ale

DSC03224Minnesota (and Wisconsin) brewers were well represented, with the likes of August Schell, The Herkimer, Minneapolis Town Hall, Rock Bottom Minneapolis, Summit, and Surly pouring a number of their beers.

Surly was the lone medal winner from the state, taking home a bronze medal for its Coffee Bender in the Coffee Flavored Beer category, getting beaten out by offerings from Oakshire Brewing in Oregon (silver) and Rock Bottom Brewing in Arlington, Virginia (gold). New Glarus in Wisconsin also took home two bronze medals for its Raspberry Tart (Fruit Beer or Field Beer category) and Totally Naked (American-Style Lager category). One of the coolest stats from the competition, in my mind, is the fact that brewers from 38 different states walked away with medals this year…the most geographic diversity in the history of the event, and a great sign that craft is gaining a foothold in more and more places across the country. 

In addition to reveling in much of the fantastic stuff offered by our local brewers, over the course of the three day event I sampled some other unbelievable beers, most notably Black Tuesday from The Bruery, an incredibly good (and incredibly rare) imperial stout that easily took best of show in my book. I was also interested to see that, while most breweries have not subsided in their liberal use of hops, a clear trend seemed to be emerging with the rise and popularity in sour beers, with numerous offerings from a significant number of breweries including this year’s medal winners in the category Captain Lawrence in New York, Iron Hill Brewery in Delaware, and Brugge Brasserie in Indiana.

The rest of the weekend’s beers (at least on the festival floor, Falling Rock is another story), in order of enjoyment:

  • The Bruery Orchard White
  • Brooklyn Brewery Schneider Hopfen Weisse
  • Captain Lawrence Smoke from the Oak Red Wine Barrel
  • Captain Lawrence Cuvee de Castleton
  • Dogfish Head Chicha
  • August Schell Oktoberfest
  • Summit Oktoberfest
  • Surly Coffee Bender
  • Herkimer Gose
  • Stone Vertical Epic Ale 09.09.09
  • Oskar Blues Ten Fidy
  • Deschutes Inversion IPA
  • Mount Emily Ale House The Big
  • Bell’s Wild one
  • Uinta Pale Ale
  • Allagash Confluence
  • Southampton Cuvee de Fleurs
  • Great Divide Hercules Double IPA
  • Dogfish Head Jiahu
  • The Bruery Berliner-Weisse
  • Bear Republic Double Rocket
  • Ballast Point Imperial Porter
  • Alesmith Speedway Stout
  • Stone 13th Anniversary Ale
  • Tommyknocker Imperial Brown Ale
  • Tommyknocker Cocoa Porter
  • The Bruery Black Tuesday
  • Odell Woodcut No. 2
  • Bear Republic Big Bear
  • Deschutes Black IPA
  • Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan Brown Ale
  • Russian River Pliny the Elder
  • Minneapolis Town Hall Three Hour Tour
  • Elysian Brewing Great Pumpkin
  • Deschutes The Abyss
  • Surly Furious
  • New Glarus Raspberry Tart
  • Cigar City Jai Alai IPA
  • Sierra Nevada Estate Ale
  • Short’s Strawberry Short’s Cake
  • Flossmoor Station Collaborative Evil
  • Kuhnhenn 4th Dementia Old Ale