GABF 2013: The big beer run

Why there are no quick fixes for the GABF registration boom

Beer enthusiasts at the 2012 GABF.
Photo by Josh Minor

The annual Great American Beer Fest is without question the biggest craft beer event in the U.S. And like the industry itself, the event has exploded in popularity in recent years.

This year, the Boulder-based Brewers Association, a trade association that spends most of the year providing brewers with resources like assistance finding distributors and explaining taps maintenance, faced a gargantuan task. It will hold four sessions of four-and-a-half hours where roughly 49,000 total attendees sample beers from more than 600 breweries. Then there’s the judged competition, where the BA will award medals in 84 categories. Attendee tickets sold out in about 40 minutes.

An event that size rarely goes off without a hitch. While the speed of ticket sales surprised some, it was the brewery registration process that created frustration and led to complaints in print and online — complaints that have the typically genial craft beer world more terse and accusatory than usual. Brewers have accused the BA of being unprepared, ignoring its member organizations and failing to accommodate the growing industry it serves.

Give or take a few last-minute dropouts, the festival will host 714 breweries in the judged competition and 628 pouring beer on the festival floor, says Barbara Fusco, sales and marketing director at the BA.

Asked if the rush to register surprised the BA, Fusco says, “We weren’t surprised. The demand for participation in the festival has been high year over year, and I think what was a little different and perhaps caught people off-guard this year was how quickly that demand was expressed.”

But in that initial rush, the number of registrants quickly passed the BA’s plans or the amount of space it had reserved in the Colorado Convention Center.

That meant a waitlist for breweries popped up within just a few hours. Chris Asher, the owner of Asher Brewing in Gunbarrel, is no stranger to the GABF, having been to the festival as a brewer several times since he started brewing in 1996.

“Last year, it took six days for them to fill it up,” he says. “This year it was an hour and a half.”

At least one rumor raised by smaller brewers is true: Breweries that sponsored the festival were given the opportunity to register ahead of time. Fusco says that Featured Brewery Sponsors could register before the registration formally opened. Brewery sponsors Left Hand and Avery confirm the arrangement. The Boulder County breweries sponsoring GABF are Avery, BJ’s, Boulder Beer, Left Hand and Oskar Blues.

“I do find it strange that some people weren’t sitting there with their finger on the button,” says Eric Huber, head brewer at Kettle & Stone Brewing. But Darin McGregor, Avery’s national marketing director, says that the BA still imposed a deadline on sponsors. He says Avery’s sponsorship reserved an endcap spot along one of the rows of tables on the festival floor.

He also says he’d like to see greater empathy for the position the BA is in.

“It’s like, ‘How do we fix the GABF?’” he asks. “This entity that’s been in business for decades and has done a great job, somehow suddenly it’s their fault there’s a problem? As opposed to looking at it in terms of, just as every brewery is coping with unprecedented growth, so are they.”

McGregor says some media coverage has appeared critical of the BA without providing context.

Darin McGregor of Avery | Photo by Steve Weishampel

“I hope you also mention, OK, this is the percentage of growth of new breweries. This is the growing demand for how many tickets and how fast they went on sale. [I hope] that there’s context brought to this,” McGregor says.

Justin Tilotta, head of logistics, linguistics and statistics for Twisted Pine, says the BA faces unwarranted criticism.

“On the one hand, I can understand why people feel a little bit cheated if they don’t get into this hallowed event that everyone wants to be in,” he says. “But they do a lot more. …They’re here to protect this industry and shepherd it.”

McGregor says Avery’s day-long SourFest faces a comparable rush to buy tickets — and a comparable backlash when they run out.

“In the end I think a lot of people really appreciated what we had done,” he says, “but there were a lot of other people who were mad about it.”

McGregor also notes that the GABF has sold out for years, but not long ago, the BA was promoting ticket sales, not trying to tame the GABF’s popularity.

“But of course,” he adds, “I have friends that didn’t get in. None of us like that either.”

Every brewery on the waitlist was eventually offered a spot in the GABF, Fusco says, but in cases like Asher’s, some were offered a floor spot only, not a place in the judged competition.

“I see how space is an issue in the convention center,” he says, “but I don’t see how judging has a ceiling on it.”

Fusco says finding judges isn’t as easy as finding people who like craft beer.

“We scrambled to add some judges to the competition, which is not easy because it’s such a particular area of expertise,” she says.

But the offer of serving the masses without getting a shot at an award did steer some breweries away.

“I would love to be part of the festival,” Huber says, “but if it was just for half the event, I don’t see the financial value, myself.”

The BA also offered the opposite to some breweries, a judge-only group. Fusco says more than 100 breweries are in that category. And Tilotta and McGregor argue that a fixation on judging is missing the point of the festival.

“For Avery, we appreciate the fact that beers are judged and medals are awarded and hey, man, when we win a medal, it’s awesome,” McGregor says. “But we don’t judge who we are by the medals we win. The biggest reason to participate in the GABF for us is to go hang out with fellow brewers and fans, and it’s fun. And I hope that that’s always the motivating factor for everybody. I hope that that sense of community is always there, and I hope that these struggles that we have now as we really grow as an industry don’t make us lose sight of that.”

For some breweries, any kind of entry to the GABF is simply too much time and money. Jamie Wells, owner and brewer of Boulder nanobrewery J Wells Brewing, says he didn’t really consider entering the GABF because affording the entry fees, paying an employee to pour and setting aside enough beer are beyond his means.

Jamie Wells, with the J Wells Lig ts Out Stout in the foreground | Photo by Steve Weishampel

“I think, ultimately, that is a decision each brewery owner has to make for himself or herself,” Fusco says. “Does it make sense for them as a marketing opportunity?”

Brewers say that pouring beer on the festival floor doesn’t have a lot of appeal for breweries that don’t distribute widely.

“If we were in Boston or something and had to come out here, I don’t know if I’d do it unless we were a certain size,” Asher says. “Because I don’t know what the benefits would be other than winning a medal.”

Tilotta has an answer to that.

“If there was no judging portion, I would still enter our beers in a heartbeat and go down there because it’s a good time to be had,” Tilotta says.

But most ideas for changing the GABF just wouldn’t work, says Tilotta. More sessions beyond the current schedule of Thursday evening, Friday evening, Saturday afternoon and Saturday evening, for example, wouldn’t help much.

“That’s only going to alleviate a very small part of the customer base,” he says. “It’s still not going to help out the breweries at all as far as getting extra breweries in there.”

Renting out more halls in the Colorado Convention Center is also hard to imagine, Fusco says.

“How big is too big, is the relevant question there,” she says. “We want folks to have a good time and we want it to feel just right as an experience.”

Tilotta says getting around is hard enough now at the GABF.

“It’s so large right now, you already can’t sample more than 15 percent of the beers there, and if you make it bigger you’re gonna get to try even less,” he says. “You’re gonna need a golf cart to get to places or you just have to focus on a region.”

Another suggestion was to institute a regional qualification system.

“I think that would help a lot of the small breweries out in different areas of the country,” Asher says, “because if they went to the regional one, it would be a lot cheaper, and if they win that, they would know they had a shot.”

The primary drawback to that idea, Tilotta says, is the same one that the BA encountered in this year’s GABF: a lack of qualified judges to judge the beers.

In fact, the only idea for next year that Tilotta didn’t shoot down is the one the BA is intending to implement in 2014: a limit on entries per brewery.

In an email, BA Event Director Nancy Johnson outlines the new structure, which would guarantee every brewery an equal spot. The BA would determine how many beers could be judged. Then staff would see how many breweries signed up, then divide the two numbers to determine how many beers each brewery could enter. Festival booth space would be handled separately.

Because the BA can’t reserve the Colorado Convention Center any more days — it’s often booked years in advance — tickets will be equally difficult to purchase, and there’s no reason to think they won’t sell just as quickly.

As the BA continues working on the GABF, McGregor urges breweries and beer fans to have patience.

“They have done so much to help us and help our friends and to help this industry,” McGregor says. “I’d hate to see this one year, these growing pains that they’re facing along with the rest of us, somehow turn the tables and have suddenly everyone mad. … It’s not my place to cast judgment about who’s mad. I don’t know, if the tables were turned, it could feel a lot different. I’m just trying to bring some perspective to it.”