GABF 2014 in Retrospect

The Great American Beer Festival may be over, but the memories are still fresh. It is time to look back and think about what was good and what could have gone better.

One thing that was good was that 234 different breweries won medals. Some won more than one. In fact, Barley Brown’s Brewing in Baker City, Oregon, took home four medals;

  • Gold       Hand Truck Pale Ale
  • Gold       Fresh Hop Pallet Jack IPA
  • Silver      Disorder
  • Bronze   Turmoil

barley brown pubWhere is Baker City, OR? Think eastern Oregon, almost Idaho, out on Hwy 84. Big beers can come from small towns. What I like about the festival is that it gives you a chance to try beers from literally every state in the country. You can discover for yourself why there is all this noise about how good Dogfish Head is, or Sam Adams, or New Glarus, or Belles. You can try out beers from smaller breweries like Devil’s Backbone, Marble, and Chuckanut and discover for yourself why they win so many awards. Five years ago Texas was not even on the craft beer map. Now they have some very formidable craft beers in several cities. There are great beers being brewed in Florida, Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan, Vermont. The old guard in Washington and Oregon are still growing and making better beer than ever before but now they have a lot of company at the top of the heap.

On the other hand, some of the winning brews were not poured at the festival, and their winners celebrated the victory in the cozy confines of their home brewnest. Many of the pouring stations only had volunteers who were VERY nice, but didn’t know much about the brewery or the beers. If you go to all the effort to get a booth – and you want your brewery to be more than a 10-second memory – get someone from the brewery there.

julia_colorThank God for the Beer Bloggers!!!! , the BA and the individual brewers who have a social media sense, or you would have no idea this festival was taking place or who the winners were. If we are truly going to live up to the challenge that BA media honcho Julia Herz and AHA, GABF godfather Charlie Papazian have given all of us, the brewers guilds across the nation MUST do a better job in promoting their products and being far more verbal in the media.

In fact, neither the Oregon, Central Oregon nor Washington brewers guilds have a discoverable mention of GABF or congratulations to their winning members. In fact (sic) – the “news” on the front page of the Washington Brewers Guild is about the cask festival THAT WAS HELD IN MARCH 2014.

$_35One other disappointment is that the winning beers are not announced until after the first two major sessions have concluded. A large number of winning beers were already gone. It would have been nice to try them.

One last rant – the app that the BA contracted for the festival is very cool for pre-event discovery and strategizing. How else are you going to navigate the 700 pouring stations and 3,500+ beers at the festival? However, once on the floor, marking the beer you just tasted and entering notes is way too clunky. It is possible but it reduces your potential brewery visits by 25% to 30%

money-box-beer-money-8102-pWhen considering the economics of going to the GABF, you need to be able to maximize consumption opportunities for good beers. At $80 or more for a ticket for roughly 4 hours of tasting, you really want to aim for a $5/pint average cost of a quality craft beer. So – math geeks, zoom on ahead please – you want to try for 16oz x 4 per hour. With 1 oz tastes, that is 48  breweries per hour, or 198 beers during the session. Even the most outwardly bold braggots claimed less than 70 total tastes. Still 70 tastes is 70 oz of beer or 4.4 pints of beer over four hours, or roughly $18.30 per pint. Oh, you are not from Denver? Add in your airfare, meals, hotel and other miscellaneous purchases during your visit.

Just saying.

Maybe a different approach would be to have the competition ahead of the event. The floor would be limited to the 270 medaling beers. Brewers would already know they won and could have a rep at the booth to answer questions about how the beer was made and maybe share some tasting notes from the judges. They could do a better job of estimating how much beer to bring along based on medal rank; gold, silver or bronze.

Still, the BA, AHA and public manage to find a way to get 49,000 people into a four-session event over three days and sell all the tickets in less than an hour. Why mess with success? I didn’t hear a single person on the floor, or leaving the event, saying, “This festival sucks. I’m never coming back! 🙁 “

Bob Shoemaker

Grew up in Renton, WA. Writer. Photographer. Homebrewer. Woodworker. Beer lover. UW grad. - 14 years in Marketing and Advertising communications - 16 years in technical product support, quality, loyalty, support analyst - 12 years as communications business owner