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On Brewing: Is the bigger GABF better?

By Eric Peterson October 17, 2018, 10:37 am MDT

Another Great American Beer Festival is in the books.

It was tangibly larger than the 2017 festival. Attendance was up to an all-time high of 62,000 over four sessions (over 60,000 in 2017), and the 4,000 beers was another high-water mark. The square footage was up 17 percent to 584,000 square feet at the Colorado Convention Center.

The number of breweries at the festival -- 800 -- stayed static from 2017 as the number of breweries in the U.S. approaches 7,000. So now roughly one of every eight or nine breweries has beer pouring at GABF; in 2010, the 455 breweries at the festival represented about a quarter of the national total.

I've gone to GABF as a beer lover, a beer writer, and volunteer every year since 2007. I don't know what I was thinking before that. It's become a yearly ritual marking the transition from summer to fall.

At times, I felt a little lost in the new layout. After 10 years of navigating region-by-region organization, the switch to an A-to-Z setup was a bit of a curveball to this creature of habit. It didn't help that I was as usual sampling beer with abandon.

This was compounded by some trouble with the iPhone app. Certain searches seemed incomplete -- only one brewery appeared on a search for Iowa. Other searches were more fruitful, but it didn't seem 100 percent functional all of the time, and I heard the same from other attendees.

For the last 10 festivals, I've volunteered for Sunday morning cleanup, which nets me tickets for the following year for a few hours of dumping barrels of ice melt and rolling tap lines. The cleanup operation is running smoother than ever, even with the larger footprint. It's a dirty job that's all about delayed gratification; you're set for the next GABF long before tickets go on sale.

But there didn't seem to be the usual red-hot demand for tickets this year. Thursday didn't sell out until the final push onsite, and nobody took me up on a spare free ticket for Saturday afternoon.

Increased security has required space for pre-screened lines beyond the metal detectors before the pouring starts. After the gates are thrown open, the lines leaving a cavernous void in the convention center that accentuated the indoors-ness of the festival.

After going the Grandoozy music festival at Overland Golf Course the week before, it made me think about how a session could be moved to this amazing festival venue in the heart of the city. A logistical nightmare, sure, but the green and serene space was the best thing about Grandoozy besides Stevie Wonder.

Paul Webster, proprietor of The Brew On Broadway (a.k.a. The BoB) in Englewood, has gone to GABF for 29 straight years and the last four as a brewer.

Flashback: The 1989 GABF was the first event with an IPA category, and featured 23 judged styles in all. In 2018, there were 167 styles, including six IPAs.

"I like being a drinker more than a brewer," says Webster. "You don't have to worry about your booth."

This year, The BoB's booth was shunted off to the side near the entry, and it got less traffic than its locations in previous years. "We got tossed in the corner," he says. Nearby was the BrewDog USA booth from the Scottish craft brewery's Columbus, Ohio facility (with the newly opened DogHouse Hotel). "They were shocked at how few people were there," says Webster. "They left half their beer there."

"I came up with an analogy," says Webster. "Beer drinkers are just like lemmings. They get to the back wall and they don't know where to go from there."
But Webster nonetheless appreciates organizers "always being willing to upsize it and keep up with the popularity of craft beer." His main issue is the beer style not always being listed on the boards behind the booths. "That's my biggest gripe," he says.

Webster likes the new alphabetic order. "It forced me to try breweries I didn't know existed," he says. "Breweries enjoyed it more because they weren't lost in the mix." The Eastern breweries were often neglected in years past, and the new system helped spread out the crowds.

"I miss the full pour," laments Webster, recalling when your ticket included a single full glass, rather than exclusively one-ounce samples. He recalls savoring a full pour at Currigan Hall.

"I still love the fest," adds Webster. "It's still a blast. It's a big-ass party."

Me, too. There are growing pains, sure, but it's still the one, the only GABF. I'll be back next year.

Eric Peterson is editor of BreweryWeek and CompanyWeek. Contact him at rambleusa@gmail.com.

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