Dust off your beer stein hat and affix those pretzel necklaces, because the nation’s biggest beer event is about to take over the Colorado Convention Center from Thursday through Saturday.
“The Great American Beer Festival is the biggest party in the United States every year,” said Dan Weitz, sales director for Boulder Beer, the state’s oldest craft brewery and the only Colorado brewery that’s participated in GABF every year since its inception in 1982. “It is the American Oktoberfest.”
It’s easy to forget how significant GABF is, drawing 800 breweries from around the country, bringing in an estimated 62,000 attendees over three days and featuring more than 4,000 different beers. For Denver, the event is expected to generate an estimated $35.3 million economic boost in the form of hotel stays, meals and all manner of consumer spending, according to Visit Denver.
Yet the event has lost some of its dazzle in recent years. Not long ago, GABF — with four separate sessions over three days — would sell out within minutes. This year, the Brewers Association made it clear that the days of difficult-to-snag tickets were over. “In the past …tickets would sell out within hours or within 24 hours,” Ann Obenchain, marketing director for the Brewers Association, which puts on the event every year, said when ticket sales began in July. “But I’m here to tell you to buy tickets! I would encourage anyone who wants to go to try to get those tickets next week.”
By Tuesday, two days before the 2019 event, only two sessions had sold out.
The reality is that consumers have many more choices these days, from a livelier downtown Denver to myriad other beer events occurring simultaneously.
“Today, attendees and fans enjoy more choice and variety in events than ever before, and ticket sales — especially for events that are months out — are slower because of that,” Obenchain said.
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GABF also is contending with an overall slump in beer sales across the nation, as the volume of beer sales in the U.S. dropped 1% in 2018. While the overall rate slowed, the volume of craft beer sold grew at about 3.9%, according to the Brewers Association, and craft beer now makes up about 13% of the overall beer market — a continuing upward trend. That said, craft beer’s 3.9% growth is the lowest in a decade — especially since, not long ago, the market was seeing growth rates of up to 18% a year.
Analysts say the slowing beer market is an example of changes in what consumers want.
“The beer landscape is facing new realities with category competition, societal shifts and other variables in play,” said Bart Watson, chief economist with the Brewers Association. Ask any brewer what is happening in the beer market today and they will quickly point to “The Claw.” This summer, hard seltzer drinks like White Claw have surged in popularity, cutting heavily into craft beer sales.
Nevertheless, even if consumers go elsewhere for their adult drinks, there is no question that GABF is still a huge draw.
Attendees vote for their favorite beers at the first Great American Beer Festival in Boulder in 1982. The first Great American Beer Festival had about 800 attendees. (Provided by the Brewers Association)
Great American Beer Festival’s humble beginnings
“GABF is a sight to behold and continues to keep Colorado at the forefront of the craft beer industry in this country,” said Dennis Stack, director of sales and marketing at Lone Tree Brewing Co. “It brings people together from across the country and helps fuel the craft beer industry each year.”
The festival, which celebrates its 37th anniversary this year, came to fruition thanks to an idea from Boulder’s Charlie Papazian, the former nuclear-engineer-turned-homebrewer who founded the Brewers Association and literally wrote the book on brewing your own beer, called “The Complete Joy of Homebrewing.”
The plan was to convene like-minded brewers together to try each other’s brews, celebrate the power of beer and, frankly, get a little drunk with friends. Papazian, who recently retired from the Brewers Association, got the idea from attending the Great British Beer Festival.
“We wanted to educate this country about what we have been brewing or could be brewing,” he said. “There was nothing like it in this country. The closest thing was a kegger out in the woods.”
In the early 1980s, the beer industry was pretty homogenous, producing mostly mass-produced light lagers, as uninspiring a beer as possible. But Papazian and others convinced the nation’s handful of breweries to send their more inventive beers to this little festival in Boulder.
A total of 24 breweries, including Colorado’s Boulder Beer Co. and Coors, contributed 47 beers. Roughly 800 people came to the Harvest House Hotel in Boulder for the first festival in 1982.
“There are more breweries at this year’s festival than there were attendees at the first one,” Papazian said. “But we had a lot of fun. It was a really inspiring event for not only the beer drinkers but the brewers themselves. They went home inspired. People were so encouraged to discover what beer was all about and that different flavors were possible.”
Only one Colorado brewery has been a mainstay at GABF since the beginning: Boulder Beer Co.
The company celebrates its 40th year in operation this year. Boulder Beer, along with Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., are the only two independent craft breweries that have been at every GABF.
Started in 1979 from a small farm in north Boulder with their brewhouse in a goat shed, Boulder Beer was the dream of two homebrewing physics professors and an engineer — Randolph “Stick” Ware, David Hummer and Alvin Nelson.
“I liked making beer, and one day I said, ‘We should start our own brewery,’” Ware said. “Because I shot off my mouth, I had to follow through.”
Shortly after its beginning, Boulder Beer began to gather a following by producing something other than light lagers – a stout, a porter and an extra special bitter. Its stout even won a blue ribbon at the first GABF.
“It has been quite a transformation,” Ware said.
As the state’s craft brewery scene exploded over the past decade, Boulder Beer remained a steady if not inventive force, though their Hazed and Infused IPA, launched in 2002, was more than a decade ahead of the hazy IPA craze that would follow. Earlier this year, in celebration of Pride Month, the brewery released the Gender Fluid Lager, with 10% of the beer’s sales donated to the Human Rights Campaign.
“We make beers that people like,” said Weitz, the sales director and self-proclaimed beer jedi. “We don’t just check off a box.”
Today, Boulder Beer is sold in 34 states. Its Wilderness Place taproom serves both beer and food, and its 50-barrel brewhouse continues to churn out popular beers like Buffalo Gold, Shake Chocolate Porter and Mojo IPA.
Foreshadowing the coming beer boom
Could that first festival in Boulder have been the spark that ignited the craft beer phenomenon that is still growing almost four decades later? Papazian thinks so.
“It really did inspire folks to try different things,” said Papazian, who is so well-known in the beer world that he’s besieged by fans at every GABF. “It was on the cusp of something new … the food culture changed. People began to be accepting to different types of food, coffees and yogurts. The world was opening up to discover new commodities that could be flavorful and different.”
Papazian said the festival continues to be a draw because it knows how to change with the times, adding new events and showcases.
This year, there will be WinterWondergrass, a mini music festival within the hall. The Washington Beer Commission will have fresh-hopped beers, and the Jameson Caskmates Barrel-aged Beer Garden will feature 22 breweries with beers aged in Jameson barrels. Thirty chefs from around the country are pairing gourmet fare with two dozen breweries at the Paired food and beer tasting.
However, as the explosion of Colorado craft breweries has slowed a bit over the years, many breweries that were a part of the big boom in the 2010s have decided to sit out GABF. They will still enter the judging contest but aren’t pouring in the hall. Some are hosting their own events, releasing special beers for the week, hosting tap takeovers in Denver-area bars or participating in other beer festivals outside of GABF.
David Lin, owner of Comrade Brewing Co. from Denver, is skipping the hall for the second straight year. He has a good excuse: He and his wife just had their first child. But he understands that it is difficult for brewers to staff both their taprooms and GABF booths at the same time.
“In Colorado, the unemployment rate is under 3%,” he said. “Everyone is looking for people. There are just not enough labor hours to make it work. It’s also because there are so many other events now. People are going to the other beer events. You can avoid the crowds, skip the $80 admission and try out all of these great beers. ”
On a recent afternoon, Weitz showed off the Boulder Beer’s menagerie of bottles and cans from years ago. One of the bottles was made specifically for the first Great American Beer Festival — a “high-gravity” ale clocking in at 6 percent alcohol by volume, which is fairly tame today.
“The creativity hadn’t been unleashed yet,” said Weitz, who still vividly remembers the first time he was working the Boulder Beer booth and seeing the fans run in to grab their first beers.
“I said, ‘Holy crap. This is like a rock concert and we are the rock stars,’” he said.
A co-worker corrected him: “‘No, we are roadies. The beer is the rock star.’”
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