Back in 1982, the craft beer revolution was becoming something exciting, marked by something new—a premier, national festival and competition. 24 breweries, 50 beers, and 800 attendees seemed like small potatoes, but it was grand on a different type of scale. It was the first Great American Beer Festival, after all.
Now it’s 2018. Over 800 breweries, 4,000 beers, and 60,000 attendees over three days of craft madness reflects a different kind of picture, if not the same revolution. If you’ve been drinking craft beer these past few years, you know what the market looks like—unlimited options of craft from all over America. Craft beer is a good thing, so there can’t be too much, right? Right.
GABF, annually organized and put on by the Brewers Association, marks the still-growing and ever-changing craft industry across the world. The all-encompassing nature of the experience is overwhelming (in a positive way), but here’s what we took away as enthusiastic representatives of Michigan and our own craft mitten lifestyle.
Navigating the Colorado Convention Center is like navigating a small city. Countless rows of breweries from A-Z are stacked end to end with large endcap booths marking the beginning and end of another section. In the heart of it all is a meet-the-brewer neighborhood with extra industry folk, extra beer, and hey, it’s extra crowded. Outlying spaces are filled by seminar space, local food trucks, stages for music, walls of merchandise, and casual seating.
Every step and every direction there is something to catch the eye, the interest, and the taste buds. One brewery brought its own break-dancers. One seminar highlighted a bug and beer pairing featuring traditional bug dishes from Mexico. Jameson, as in the whiskey distillers from Ireland, had the biggest festival setup—at a beer festival!
Michigan represented well. We saw pioneers like Bell’s Brewery, New Holland Brewing Co., and Short’s Brewing Co. boldly stake their claim on the floor with eye-catching endcap booths and, as always, delicious beer. Short’s setup screamed northern Michigan, with a booth decorated in waterskis and bright colors. New Holland brought aspects of their original Holland location with them and created a mini, brick-layed pub that created just the right ambiance to highlight their most popular brew, Dragon’s Milk.
Michigan also had some great newbies there, like Eastern Market Brewing Co. and Grand Armory Brewing Co. representing from Detroit and Grand Haven respectively. As first-timers, these breweries were excited to get fresh feedback on their beers and brands from national consumers.
How does all of this come together? How does it connect? Craft beer has always been about fun, but beneath that are attributes that have defined the industry since the beginning—aspects like quality, independence, local, community, collaboration, creativity, hard work, and innovation. This universal language of craft strives to bridge gaps everywhere. Local to global. Professional to amateur. Community to community. Brewer to retailer. Brewery to consumer. Craft to other craft.
Some new offerings at GABF this year definitely fell under the above characteristics and practices. New this year was both a Pro-Am Brewer Competition as well as a Collaboration Competition.
The Pro-Am united professional breweries with homebrewers to collaborate on recipes to compete for top, national honors. This exchange of skill sets, opinions, and experimentation reflects the creativity and transparency of the craft industry. Craft workers always strive for better quality, new ideas, and further education. Most professionals and commercial breweries now are marked by homebrewing pasts. It’s a cycle that keeps craft as dynamic as ever and challenges the industry to go down new pathways.
Also new this year was the Collaboration Competition, which connected multiple breweries in the creation of one great recipe to win national honors. In the spirit of community, this brings two brands, two missions, and two businesses into a new practice with each other. Open communication has always marked workers in craft beer—there is no information hoarding here. This competition just ups the ante on the creativity and collaboration that already defines the craft beer community.
GABF’s evolution reflects craft communities across the nation—how they grow, adapt, and change. What stays the same is the enthusiasm. Brewers create because they love the craft of beer. Consumers drink because they love the liquid and the experience. It all begins and ends with actual beer. Everything in between can change and evolve at anytime. This mystery and guessing and experimentation are how we all get our next steps.
This is how the craft industry boomed with New England IPAs this past year. The demand and craze was so big nationally that GABF added it as a beer style category for the first time ever; and as it turns out, it broke the record for the most submissions in a category. The style that originated on the east coast picked up traction nationally—uniting brewery communities, cultures, and practices. New things created from old. New spins on traditional styles. This was just this year’s example.
What comes next? Breweries always have their ears to their consumers and to fellow brewers elsewhere for inspiration. Whatever it is, it will surely taste great and will represent something bigger than just beer in a glass.
Photography © Brewers Association