Thursday, 18 October 2012

GABF versus GBBF



*TICK*

That’s my pencil scratching off a beer-thing that I’ve wanted to do for years: the Great American Beer Festival.

Held in Denver, Colorado, every year, it’s an outrageously big celebration of American brewing. In 2012 the festival numbers were record-breaking: 578breweries pouring 2,700 beers to 49,000 attendees. I was there judging the competition which was also record-breaking: 4,338 beers submitted by 666 breweries and tasted by 185 judges across 84 style categories.

But what’s GABF like compared to GBBF?

GABF runs four four-hour-ish sessions. GBBF runs for five days, 12-10pm.

GABF tickets are $65 a session (there’s a members only session at $55) while GBBF are £10; GABF’s cost includes all the beer you’ll drink whereas you pay for each beer at GBBF.

Measures at GBBF are one-third-pint, half-pint and pint. GABF is a 1oz pour. This is an interesting one as I thought that a 1oz pour would suck, but it doesn’t. Sure, there’s no time to sit back and relax by sipping on a half, but it gives the opportunity to taste a lot of beer and 1oz isn’t really that small when you’re there and doing it. Plus, if you like the beer you can just order another one and another until satisfied. And if you don’t like it then there’s only a mouthful to drink or dump – at GBBF I’ve had many beers which I’ve bought and then dumped because they aren’t what I wanted.

It’s worth lingering on this point because it’s important. I liked being able to taste 50, 70, 100 beers, or whatever it was, in four hours. And it is about tasting, not drinking (though it’s very possible to get very drunk if you go hard). With so many beers being poured, most of which I’d never had or even heard of, I wanted to drink as many as possible, jumping from IPA to pilsner to saison to stout to sour beer to whatever was on the next table. But there is a downside to this: the whole thing feels frantic as if there’s a rush to get the next beer and the next – there’s a casual, sit-down-and-enjoy-it feel to GBBF while GABF feels like a race.


I like the layout of GABF: it’s broken down geographically but then each brewery has their own space, compared to the large regional bars at GBBF (which require cartography lessons to navigate). Brewers can pour their own beers at GABF, which is great, though Andy Crouch would like to see more brewers there and I’d agree. This also means that breweries can put things out on their bars – beer info, POS stuff, whatever. I think brewers pouring their own beer at GBBF would be a great thing, as would more information about the beers we’re drinking, though this would involve a complete change in how things are done (similar to what was achieved at the awesome Independent Manchester Beer Convention).

This layout also creates a situation where drinkers line-up for specific breweries. Over the four sessions, a handful of breweries consistently had lines of people waiting to try their beer – Dogfish Head, Cigar City, Russian River, Crooked Stave. I have never seen a line at GBBF waiting to try the beer from one brewery, instead it becomes a big bundle at the bar as drinkers gun for the Champion Beer of Britain or some geek treat on the foreign bar. The queuing was actually a good thing, I reckon – there’s a buzz that comes with that.

The size of GABF kept on surprising me: it’s huge (just look at the map). Overwhelmingly big, in fact. But at the same time that’s good – it shows the sheer, exciting scale of American craft beer.

Olympia is a nicer place to drink than the Denver Convention Centre.


The beers: 2,700 beers at GABF and around 500 beers at GBBF. When I go to GBBF I spend most of my time at the foreign beer bar. Imagine that multiplied by about 300 and that’s what GABF was like for me. It’s not fair to compare the volume (500 is, after all, more than I could manage over five days anyway), but the range is more relevant to compare: there was simply more variety at GABF – you name it and it was there.

Like at GBBF, at GABF some breweries can choose to take up bigger bars. This gives them more presence, means they can pour more beer and can put more personality into it. At GBBF we get regional breweries and sometimes they excite and surprise with what they pour – this year at GBBF Twaites had a couple of crackers, Fuller’s had the superlative Fuller’s Reserve, Greene King poured 5X. At GABF it was bigger breweries who took these corner plots but still ones which most drinkers want to get to: Odell, Oskar Blues, Dogfish Head, New Belgium, Bear Republic, Anchor, Sierra Nevada...

Food at GBBF is normal stomach-fillers like pies, pasties and burgers, plus the wonderful pork scratchings. I expected good food at GABF but I didn’t see it: pizza was pretty much all you got.

Pretzel necklaces. These are a curiosity. For three days I saw people walking around with a necklace of pretzels hanging on their chest. I’d seen photos of these before and assumed there’d be a stall inside selling them. There isn’t. This surely means that all those thousands of pretzel chains were homemade. How the hell did that craze start?!

Photo from here
The dropped-glass cheer. I figured this was a unique British element of GBBF: the chime of broken glass which sends a wave of cheers through the huge hall. This is not unique to GBBF and it also happens at GABF. Both are funny in their own ways: at GBBF a glass costs £3 so the butter-fingered drinker has to go and buy another one at the expense of three more pounds and the laughter of their mates; at GABF three of the four sessions use plastic glasses which, when dropped, bump around like a rugby ball and bounce in all sorts of different directions as their owner scrambles to catch it while everyone around them cheers. 

Award-winning beers. At GBBF there’s always a hush as the Champion Beer of Britain is announced, this is often followed by some ‘what the fucks’ which is then followed by people casually, but at great speed, heading to find that beer and drink it. After the awards are announced at GABF (which this year happened on Saturday morning before the final two sessions), lines increase to try and find medal-winning beers while brewers walk around with medals hanging proudly from their necks. One interesting distinction is that it feels like the medal winners at GABF are celebrated whereas GBBF winners are denigrated (unless you know the brewery and love the beer). I definitely think there’s a lot of work needed on the competition side of things in Britain with more transparency and information about how these things are decided, perhaps creating a bigger GABF-style competition.


Atmospheres at both are similar. Huge halls of drinkers create their own backing track of humming conversation. At GABF there’s also karaoke and a silent disco sponsored by Oskar Blues – can you imagine if GBBF had a silent disco? I’d love to see that!

There was a much younger demographic at GABF.

And then there’s one final thing: the stuff which happens outside of the festival. Things start on the Monday of GABF and lead around until the Saturday it finishes. Every day there are breakfasts, lunches, evening events and after-parties; there’s beer launches and rare beer tastings; paired beer dinners; you name it, it happens. Plus, all of the many bars and breweries in town are open and packed with drinkers. What’s impressive is that the 49,000 attendees pump $7 million dollars into Denver over the duration of GABF and that’s outside of seven-figure ticket sales. At GBBF there’s so much focus on the festival itself that nothing happens outside of it. Perhaps it’s the fact that drinkers at GBBF can stay all day, I don’t know, but it’d be brilliant if London could embrace the festival and turn it into a city-wide event that can bring in visitors for an extended stay.

I love both festivals and if you love beer and haven’t been to GABF then you must try and go sometime; if you haven’t been to GBBF then you should go to that.

31 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. How many beer? I struggle to choose at GBBF so it must be hard but 1oz pours sound an interesting idea. I agree about the cynicism at GBBF, I think we should definitely celebrate a bit more.

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    2. The good thing is that you almost don't even need to choose or worry about that because you can have almost everything that you want! That's what's great about the 1oz pour.

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  2. As you say I found the 1oz pour (at Vermont brewing fest) good for throwing away crap but when I found something I loved, an Imperial Pilsner from Academy, i spent an hour queuing just to get several samples. Very contrasts though.

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    1. Yep, I get that. I went back for the same beer a few times, luckily the best ones I had were the ones with no lines (when I was there, anyway). A fresh-hopped IPA from Town Hall was damn good! I guess I'd like to run around for a few days doing samples and then spend a final day with a bigger glass for going back to favourites...

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  3. "it’d be brilliant if London could embrace the festival and turn it into a city-wide event that can bring in visitors for an extended stay"

    But surely the difference comes from the fact that most visitors to GABF will have travelled some distance to Denver and stayed for a night or two, whereas I'd guess that well over 95% of GBBF visitors will just make a day trip.

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    1. A lot of local people go to GABF. And 95% of people at GBBF are from London? That seems a high number. And isn't there a chicken and egg issue: if there was more stuff on then wouldn't more people travel to GBBF?

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  4. Well put Mark. I much prefer the GABF having been lucky enough to attend 3 times between 2003-05. Strangely in the 'old days' 03 & 04 (but not 05) you got a voucher for a single 6oz draw which was excellent. My last 6oz draw was a Racer 5! Also in 05 as we were leaving Sam was pouring multiples of Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA through a Randel & we managed to get well over 1/2 pint each there !!! Haven't been to the GBBF since & the only thing that would get me there is the Foreign bar. Cheers.
    Roy McNeill aka @BeerBiker

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    1. Hi Roy, I like both GABF and GBBF for very different reasons. Both could learn from the other, for sure. I love how different they are in many ways. I also really like the idea of a single 6oz pour!

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  5. The beer circus that sourrounds GABF is incredible and actually begins at least two weeks before the event. Every night you'll find Meet the Brewer and food matching events, and the whole city becomes a beer-drinker's paradise.

    What I was not so sure about were the four-hour sessions. One thing you probably managed to avoid Mark were the enormous queues to enter each session. If you found yourself at the back of the queue, you could easily lose an hour of that session. But the worst part was that, having paid for the beer in advance, you now had an incentive to drink as much and as fast you could. The intention may be only to taste as much as possible, but the end result is that most people get incredibly drunk in a very short period time. That is the only downside in what is otherwise an incredible event.

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    1. Yep, I avoided the queues thanks to my judge pass. I guess if you arrive early you cut off some queuing into the pour time? I didn't hear anyone complain about that so I'm not sure. Slamming shots of beer does descend into drunkenness for some people, but not all as a lot plan events after so want to keep some level of sobriety. Each to their own though: some people are happy to wander around sipping some new beers and chatting to friends, others want to get wasted. It's the same at any festival.

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  6. Great blog post and has actually saved me writing the one that I was about to write and I can now concentrate on the esoteric stuff - marvellous!

    I agree with nearly all the points you make, although I think you missed out on a few things like the cheese theatre, which was a cornucopia of all things dairy!

    The point you make about food is valid, but I think with the fact that the sessions are just four hours long there's no real need as you can walk out the door and find food trucks and loads of eateries.

    This also means that it's great there aren't a load of food stalls a)taking up beer space and b) making the place smell of food and potentially interfering with your beer enjoyment.

    Also, I love the fact that the theatres for talks are in the middle of the hall, and that there's a brewpub pavilion, which is a really nice touch.

    Overall, I agree that I prefer the ounce pours as it absolutely forces you to keep trying different beers.

    My other tactic that I've now adopted is to save a session just for myself, love my mates though I do, it can be like herding cats at GABF and I find wandering around by yourself for a couple of hours is a real pleasure - but maybe that's because I get to indulge my inner-geek with abandon!

    What I 100% agree with is that there's such a shame there isn't more hoopla going on around GBBF, it's such an opportunity to be grasped but I think the problem is that people don't want to be seen in the UK to be cynically trading on the GBBF and perhaps because it's such an 'all-day' thing it's simply not worth people's while putting on events as they'd either a)get hammered people in the evening or b)get no one there at all!

    However, it is something I'd like to see more of but perhaps we have a way to go yet, I hope not!

    Great post babe and it was a pleasure to see you in Denver x

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    1. That cheese theatre looked great and I started queuing up for it but didn't move in about 20 minutes so gave up in the end. As for other food I also agree: if you're hungry then a slice of pizza is fine but there's way better food outside and four hours isn't so long to last!

      The brewpub pavilion and some of the other areas are very good and I liked those a lot.

      And I adopted the same tactic of just being alone and walking around and trying to take it all in and try loads of different things,

      Let's make London a place to visit for GBBF. There's more than just Olympia! (Though I'll obviously be there as well!)

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  7. Interesting comparisons Mark - I agree with Paul's comment above, having that four-hour klaxon in your head would compel you to try and get through as much as possible. Knowing me, that would mostly involved the stronger end of the spectrum and make it feel like a race.

    I guess you could always buy tickets for multiple sessions, I'm sure that's what people do - would you get a discount, or will it be $65 a pop?

    Anyway, GABF is one festival I'd love to get to...

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    1. The sessions go so fast that I only got a bit crazy in the last five minutes, otherwise I was quite relaxed (but then I knew I'd be at 3 sessions). You could try and just slam the strong stuff but you'll also be craving lighter things too. I found a good balance between the two. I don't think there's a discount on tickets either... They sold out 49,000 in 45 minutes this year so they don't really need to incentivise!

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    2. You're right Mark, no discounts, so if you want to take things easy (or even try to get around to more than a small number of stalls) it can get quite expensive. But still well worth going even if you only make one session.

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  8. In the rules of beer ticking I thought it had to be a minimum half pint for a tick. A swig wasn't enough? So you have to panda pop bottle some of the beers up. Are American ticking rules different?

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    1. tickers? those entertained by peculiar sub cultures?

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  9. And people were moaning that IndyManBeerCon would only serve beer in third-pint measures!

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  10. "And 95% of people at GBBF are from London? That seems a high number. "

    No, but many more people can do it in a day trip. Perfectly doable from Manchester, 200 miles away. Actually, I'd lay money that 98% of GBBF punters are day-trippers.

    "if there was more stuff on then wouldn't more people travel to GBBF?"

    If you have to contemplate an overnight stay, then you're into a whole different league of affordability and consumption of time.

    Probably a better comparison is the CAMRA AGM where many pubs in the host town (which is probably a lot smaller than London) will put on special events.

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    1. I think it should be thought about differently and not just as a half a day out!

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  11. I've been curious about the GBBF for some time now, and you've provided an excellent framework to compare it to something familiar to me. It appears that if you know what you're getting yourself into before attending either and appropriately adjust your expectations, you can have a wonderful experience at both. I looking forward to making that TICK on my list beside GBBF.

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  12. Hi Mark, good to have you back. Good roundup - certainly sets straight in my mind what GABF is actually about - I'd always wondered and it's surprising that no-ones done this kind of comparison before! good work ,as always. See you soon.

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  13. One-ounce pours - blimey. There are some beers I would only ever order in pints - even at a festival - and plenty where I'd choose a half over a third; beer flavours aren't an instant hit, surely, they're something that develops as you get through the glass. I do like to sit with a beer - or stand with it if necessary! - and see how mouthful #4 compares with mouthfuls #2 and 3. I don't get the idea of changing beers for each successive swig (and queuing to do so) - I can't see the appeal at all.

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  14. Mudgie is right its easy to daytrip to GBBF, I did twice this year when it might have made more sense to find somewhere to stay in London overnight, but it was just as cheap to just hop on the train each day instead, and Im best part of 70miles outside of London.

    the queuing thing I disagree with you on that point because both Fullers and Greene King had queues this year, got the photos to prove it too :) , for the Reserve and 5x so special beers for sure but there were queues for particular beers as there always is for reserve.and for the other bars you wont get single file queues because what you find is very few people ever go to stand infront of the beer they want, they just go to find someone to serve them first, and ask them to get the beer of their choice. which the times when Ive served behind the bar is 80% of the time always the beer the opposite end of your bar, 20% of the time is a beer at a different bar altogether. so people spread out or munge into an area around where the servers are instead of the beers, and a good bar manager keeps all the servers well spread out. but pub habits are hard for some people to break, and again Ive often been in that position behind the bar where as I made my trek for the opposite end of the bar beer, suddenly everyone that end of bar tries to accost me to serve them next,

    whether brewers pouring their own beers helps serve their beer better, Im not sure, I like the brewery bars because they do provide that pos,bit extra info, but I also know the commitment to do that is huge and costly and most breweries in the UK, regardless of the benefits to them (and its potentially more limited than you might think) dont have the time or staff to commit to that kind of thing, thats why beer festivals need volunteers to help out and even as a volunteer Ive been dispatched to work on brewery bars so dont always assume people behind the bar work for the brewery anyway. but the beer on normal festival bars is constantly being checked both by consumers, and staff on the bars,Im not going to say it never happens that a bad beer is sold, but its rare that it isnt noticed pretty quickly,and its alot rarer than it was 20 years ago for sure when it was russian roulette whether you got something vaguely drinkable at a beer festival.

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  15. I've toyed with the idea of going to GABF from time to time, but having read your very informative post, Mark I'm not sure I like all that I hear.

    It all sounds rather too frenetic for me. I prefer to sit down, preferably with friends, whilst doing my sampling, and GBBF provides plenty of opportunity to do so. Also 2,700 beers is far too many. There is such a thing as too much choice; a browse along the shelves of the major supermarkets proves this point only too well, and trust the Americans to take it to ridiculous extremes with beer!

    Finally, I have to disagree over the 1 oz thimbles the beer is served in, (I hate the American expression "pour"). Beer is a long drink, and cannot be tasted, let alone enjoyed and appreciated in a sip. "Did you ever taste beer?" "I had a sip of it once," said the small servant. "Here's a state of things!" cried Mr Swiveller, raising his eyes to the ceiling. "She never tasted it — it can't be tasted in a sip!" - Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop (1841).

    Despite your claims to the contrary, it still sounds like glorified "ticking" to me. Still, never say never, and who knows, perhaps one year I will give GABF a try.

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  16. GABF wins hands down. Why on earth anyone would want to drink beer that's extra warm, flat and oxidised is beyond me.

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    1. Anonymous strikes again.
      It's all relative.
      Warm - is 12-14 degC extra warm?
      Flat - is that less than 1.0 CO2 volumes?
      Oxidised - if it's been open to atmosphere for days, but hours? How much oxidation can you detect with your tongue/nose?

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    2. If I actually get round to being bothered to reply or maybe inebriated enough to post a reply just to wind up uneducated plebs such as yourself, I might answer your stupid questions.

      I'm assuming you're a CAMRA member? Please tell me you are...

      ANON

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    3. I have to agree. If you actually wanted to serve a beer in the most unappealing manner possible, you couldn't do better than serving cask ale in a warm beer tent!



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