Note: This article was published on BeersInParadise.com, thanks to the great folks there for letting me share my experiences through there website. It is re-posted here because, well screw it I wrote the damn thing. All photos copyright Nicholas Gingold, © 2014. Don’t steal photos, it’s bad karma. - – – - The Great American Beer Festival, the nation’s largest and most illustrious festival celebrating all things craft beer, is now a week in my rear view. Admittedly it took some time, but with my clarity fully restored I’ve had the chance to think about my time in Denver and reflect on my first GABF. I’ve been thinking a lot of about what this festival meant both to me as a beer drinker and to the ever-expanding industry of craft beer. As a photographer I like these conversations to be started with images. I want to share GABF with you through my lens. The festival is in short, awe inducing. It’s huge, bigger than my wildest expectations. 710 breweries from every corner of the country poured a staggering 3,500+ beers. 49,000 fellow attendees would be my subjects while trudging through this beer-Mecca. And as one might guess, there was no shortage of flavor – from crazy costumes to a bevvy of pretzel-necklaces; it was enough to keep you smiling at every turn; the unlimited one-ounce pours helped keep the crowd smiling as well. I set a few ground rules for myself during the festival. Rule 1: Whenever possible do not try a beer you’ve already had. Rule 2: Stick to a particular style of beer, at least for a couple hours, before moving onto the next. Rule 3: Always try a beer with a hilarious name. These rules would at least narrow the field, providing a loose path for me to wonder my way down the rabbit hole. And in case you’re curious (and I know you are), the winner of “best name” goes to Lickinghole Brewing, located in Goochland, VA, pouring Magic Beaver. I couldn’t make this up if I tried. It may be the nation’s largest beer festival, but it can still be an extremely intimate experience. At the heart of this are individuals – people like Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione or Ballast Point’s Jack White. You might just run into these guys on the festival floor, perfectly willing to chat it up with beer fans, take pictures, and talk all things beer. Hell, you might even see Charlie Papazian, founder of the Great American Beer Festival and the Brewers Association, at lunch. What you begin to realize is that while this industry is growing at an alarming rate (1.5 breweries are now opening up per day, according to Bart Watson, staff economist at the Brewers Association told me), it’s still a small enough world filled with friendly faces to make it appealing. And these faces are accessible, which to me is what craft beer was all about in the first place. The minute we lose that accessibility, we might as well be wine.
I’ll use Three Weavers as an example, a new Los Angeles brewery in Inglewood whose grand opening is this Saturday, October 18th. That’s right – it wasn’t even open during GABF. With their first batch of beer in tow, they had a huge buzz about them. Maybe it’s because I’m hyper-aware of my local breweries, but it seemed that everywhere I looked I saw a Three Weavers temp-tattoo on necks and arms. I would hear them brought up in conversations between people unfamiliar with California breweries. It’s the type of hype that you can’t generate without a festival like this – making it one of many invaluable resources for brand new breweries.
Outside EventsThere are plenty of events outside the festival that make Denver come alive. Sometimes that rare beer you’re after might just be found at one of the many great beer bars located downtown. Falling Rock, Fresh Craft, and Star Bar were among some of the spots I visited after hours. And yes, things had the potential to get a little weird.
Beer Judging and AwardsAt the heart of the Great American Beer Festival is the judging of beers leading up to the awards ceremony. 222 judges from 10 countries judged 5,507 beers this year (not including 89 Pro-Am competition entries), a 16 percent increase over 2013. There were 90 categories. It’s the one thing putting brewers on edge during this festival, and you can see just the smallest amount of anxiousness in their eyes leading up to Saturday morning’s awards ceremony. Many of these brewers are judges themselves, and I can recall running into more than a few departing the Marriott hotel where the judging was being held with glazed over eyes, having just come out of what can only be described as beer-battle. “They gave us over 20 Belgian Strong Ales to try at 10am,” remarked one brewer. Come Saturday morning the results are in. Again – I need to emphasize how massive, yet intimate this all seemed to me. There was beer flowing, of course, but what made it so interesting to me was how accessible everyone was. You could be sitting next to a tiny brewery from Texas or the Firestone Walker crew, probably both. Whenever anyone would win one of the numerous awards presented, there was always applause, high-fives, and warm hugs between competitors and neighboring breweries. If there were any loyalties, it seemed to be at a regional level to cheer on breweries from your home state.
Some state’s performed much better than I expected, New Mexico and Texas had surprising amounts of medals. While California (47 medals), Colorado (40), and Oregon (22), still rounded out the top three, states like Texas (16), Pennsylvania (10) and New Mexico (8), had surprising victories. This was eye opening to me, a native Californian with a proud emphasis on West Coast beers. I of course, rooted on my home state, and need to give special recognition to places like Beachwood BBQ, taking home the award for winning best Large Brewpub and Large Brewpub Brewer of the Year, as well as to San Diego for sweeping the Session Beer category. So to wrap this up, the Great American Beer Festival brought me eye to eye with the vastness that is American craft beer. It showed me just how quickly things are moving in this industry, and I had to come to terms that no matter how hard I try to keep my ear to the ground, there’s just too much happening in too many places to get a handle on it all. In contrast, it also showed this industry to be as personal and warm as I’ve always found it to be from the get-go. It’s what got me into craft in the first place. The circle of friends is only expanding, and as far as I’m concerned, there’s plenty of room for more. All are welcome in American beer.