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.