BRAVING THE BIG US BEER BARNSTORM
Once the mind has come to terms with the first rule of the Great American Beer Festival then the patron can truly enjoy the world’s biggest brew drinking exercise.
The golden rule is that no matter the determination, inspiration, indigestion and perspiration, a visitor to the annual Denver event will not get through all the breweries, let alone the beers, on show.
There were just shy of 800 brew makers squeezed together in the Colorado Convention Centre for the 2016 series earlier this month. That meant around 3800 beers. For 14,000 punters per five-hour session.
They’re big numbers. But they’re appropriate because GABF is big! Mammoth. Huge. Uber-large and any other descriptor to suggest far from small.
The size of the festival was clearly evident before a drink had been poured or an attendee come in sight. The Sip had the good fortune of being permitted inside the giant barn that covers 54,000 square metres half an hour before the starting gun fired.
What seemed like a gentle stroll around the different sections and plethora of decorated trestle tables took a staggering 10 minutes – and that was without the burden of another person on the floor. At least a thirst had been earned by the walking workout.
So when the masses lobbed, well, it was very easy to get lost, especially if you didn’t have great geographical knowledge of the 50 States of the Union. Looking up for help and seeing MidWest didn’t always inspire confidence about climbing from the crowds alive.
The second rule of GABF is that it isn’t GABS. To spell that out in greater detail the American festival and our own Great Australasian Beer Spectapular shouldn’t be compared as they approach their ideals from different directions and with incomparable resources.
The GABF is more like a trade expo for beer. Hundreds of minor breweries are sandwiched together with adjoining two metre wide tables. It often required close scrutiny to identify the brand and which part of the country it was from.
For the patrons the compartmentalisation was a joy. A drinker could walk down any aisle and point the finger at a random operation and decide “that’s where the next drink is coming from”. They then had a choice from each company's stable.
Some of the bigger operators in the craft game – they play by different rules in the States – have their own break-out stalls. Fair to say a lot of work had gone into some of the brand representation.
However, those more profitable breweries were brought back to the field with the egalitarian ethos of GABF.
The layout means Nobel Rey Brewing Company’s Baracus BA Brown Ale can be showcased on the main stage alongside Rabbit Hole’s Rude Jester IPA across from Firestone Walker’s Easy Jack Session IPA, which is just down from Oskar Blues’ catchy stand.
In the crowd-drawing crap shoot everyone has as good a chance as everyone to lure a new drinker.
There were 7270 beers entered into the GABF competitions. Some of the big winners were Georgetown Brewing Company in Seattle, Überbrew from Montana and Highland Park Brewery, Los Angeles, highlighting the diversity of the participants.
Homebrewers were represented, there was a book store across from a games area, brewers offered meet and greet sessions, Denver radio stations moved their programs to the festival hall and then there was PAIRED .....
The US Brewers Association held a ballot for breweries wanting to take part in a beer-food matching seminar and tasting. There were 23 far more ornate stations serving superbly complemented drinks and delights. PAIRED was all part of the BA’s attempts to get beer back on the dinner table.
So what did an Aussie beer drinker learn from the experience?
The Yanks still love an India Pale Ale. In fact, the fondness for an IIPA is still strong. But it was the IPA that was again the most popular style of show. But sours are big. And the availability of equipment and the sheer number of breweries capable of experimentation have allowed the US to come up to and surpass the European standards.
Most breweries are very happy to be branded by region.
The US does great beef jerky, just perfect for festivals. Our beef strips need a lift.
Americans don’t find drunks very funny. The culture at GABF is different. Now, this isn’t dismissing problem areas with alcohol in the US but the annoying space cadet isn’t a personality a GABF crowd tolerates.
Your plastic sampler glass makes a funny noise when it bounces off the concrete, just loud enough for a chorus of hoots and stares to generate embarrassment. It is a traditional GABF penalty.
Craft beer isn’t small fry. Yes, the US has a larger marker but the industry, now nearing 5000 breweries, is big business.
Cup holders, particularly those that hang around the neck, are necessities at festivals.
Americans love Pliny. Ten minutes before opening there was a queue of lucky early arrivals waiting to try the Russian River enigma.
Rock stars are into craft beer. The Hanson Brothers Brewing Company was one of the GABF stalls.
The Brewers Association has been concerned about the availability of barley from Australia.
There are a lot of breweries with the word dog in them.
Aussie breweries need to sell more merchandise. Everyone was wearing something to do with a beer company at GABF.
You can wake up one day and dream of a Blueberry Maple Stout. And then find Saugatuck Brewing in Michigan have done it perfectly.
Over two sessions The Sip was able to ingest 55 of the 30ml (one ounce) samples from the stalls. One of the let downs of GABF is the inability to get anything more than a taster. While the entry fee gave unlimited small pours it would have been nice to have been able to get the lips around a larger offering.
It would be crazy to go overboard in personal judging but the favourite from GABF was a 10 per cent Rye IPA called Bittersweet Lenny’s from Shmaltz Brewing in Clifton, New York. This attracted a second and third visit.
Another great aspect to GABF is the vibe that it creates in Downtown Denver. Although the sessions finish at 10.30pm the beer experience carries on via the many brewpubs and bars around the convention centre.
And while the beers are exciting, the beer talk is just as interesting.