When the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) held its inaugural gathering in 1982, 24 brewers came, 47 beers were poured and roughly 800 people attended. It is doubtful that any of them, least of all GABF founder Charlie Papazian, could have predicted that for the 35th GABF more than 1,752 breweries would pour 7,227 beers in a competition spanning 96 unique categories.
“We are living in a golden age of choice,” said Scott Metzger of Freetail Brewing in San Antonio, Texas. And nothing drove that home quite like a stroll down GABF’s main hall at the Denver Convention Center. There are 4,800-plus active breweries in these United States, and according to the Brewers Association, 99 percent of them are independently owned.
With this many independent brewers, diversity was king. Whether it’s the Tobasco Kolsch from River Rat Brewery in Columbia, South Carolina; the Peanut Butter Milk Stout from Belching Beaver Brewery in Vista, California; a Punkuccino from Elysian Brewing in Seattle, Washington; or a plethora of fruit beers from everywhere, GABF is the place for discovery. And not just for craft drinkers, but for brewers as well.
While talking to brewers from Elysian, Wild Woods in Boulder and Great Divide in Denver, a common sentiment emerged: If brewers brew what they like, the drinkers will follow. As a wise man once said, “If you build it, they will come.”
But what will brewers brew next? The dominant style at 2016’s GABF was once again American IPA, but this year saw a slight dip — only 312 entries as opposed to last year’s 336 entries.
“People are starting to turn toward the lighter lager-type beers. Not your American premium lager, but your really nice, crisp clean pilsners in a traditional sense,” Drew Walker of River Rat Brewery said.
Jeremy Walker of Yee-Haw Brewing from Johnson City, Tennessee, described himself as a traditionalist and a “DIY guy” as he poured me a mix of his Blackberry Berlinerweiss and Dunkle.
“I do appreciate the experimental movement and what keeps our industry moving forward,” Walker said.
Though he was only pouring two beers, Walker’s offerings were enough to draw a considerable line of thirsty, pretzel-munching patrons.
“The lines are at all the places that make clean, consistent beer. And that’s what you can tell here,” River Rat’s Walker said. “Fruit beers are doing great, but the majority of people who are looking for beer, they’re looking for nice, good, clean beer.”
They are also looking for a place to call home. Colorado was well represented at this year’s GABF with 152 breweries taking up four full tables — only the Pacific section, at four and half tables, was a larger presence. Erin Evans of Boulder’s own Wild Woods Brewing said he believes that drinking locally is a major part of the craft beer movement.
“Nurturing the taproom is a model you’re starting to actually see more and more people do,” Evans said. “Having people come and feel comfortable at your place. Not only drinking your beer but also enjoying the environment — it just goes so much beyond what’s in that pint glass.”
As Great Divide’s brewing manager Ro Gurnzel asked, “What’s more fun than drinking beer in a brewery?”
Not much, Ro. Not much.