Chewing the Grist Post-GABF

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It’s the week after GABF. The geeks who pay attention to that sort of thing (read: most of the U.S. beer world) are busy rethinking their IPA recipe, planning a recap article on the best-of-the-fest, and/or considering maybe slowing down with the drinking, next week. If I had to recount and recall every brewery I went to during my week in Denver and every 1oz sip I took from the cup-tainted plastic tube at each session, you’d be bored to tears and I’d get hate mail from the several brewers whose beers smelled like fish. So this isn’t that.

It wasn’t until the exact moment my plane flew past the western ‘burbs of Denver and into the aspen-splashed Rockies that it dawned on me: there are a lot of people who drink beer. Really. The 60,000 or so humanoids who attended the biggest beer festival in the world are a fraction of the beer drinkers out there. Duh! But looking down at the pre-fab neighborhoods and dutifully organized traffic, a mote of correlation soaked into my besotted mind; from above, the Fest would have looked remarkably similar (but with more traffic). And, using Denver’s sprawl as a synecdoche for the U.S. beer scene, growth provides opportunity and dilutes the solution; medals were awarded to more breweries from more places (only 12% of the winning breweries medaled more than once); beers I expected to win (not just because my friends brewed them) did not; Oregon came home with fewer medals than last year; and I had not heard of many of the winning breweries.

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Last year or two years ago or both, Brewers Association director Paul Gatza made some remarks about the need to maintain high beer quality that, I assume, brewers heeded. 2012 and 2013 were huge years for brewery openings; all of the breweries on the southern Oregon coast opened then, for example. And with any new brewery, we like to say there are “kinks” to work out. Now, with 4,011 breweries as of last Thursday, that’s a lot of kinks. But the information is out there. For a mere $190, Enthusiastic Joe Schmo with a carboy can (and should) buy The Brewers Association’s Guide to Starting Your Own Brewery by Dick Cantwell and Quality Management by Mary Pellettieri. That’s way less than an MBA and UC Davis, but way more than some new brewers know.

Okay, I lied. Maybe a hint of recap.

Denver, like Portland, is home to a pantsload of breweries, many within walking distance of each other. I was lucky enough to be in the company of this website’s founder; Ezra had sketched out a fairly busy itinerary to avoid wasting time not tasting beer. We wound up hitting 18 breweries together, sampling at least a handful at each. Quality was, to our discerning palates, variable. I won’t name names, but there was a Tripel-style beer that had a bunch of diacetyl, which is a fancy word that does not belong in a Tripel according to anybody. Finances aside, a brewery not located on a desert island should not be serving beer like that. And even then. Yet more breweries seemed to have great beer in their sights and were just missing the target; the casual drinker in me would go back for pints if the atmosphere was right, and it was right in most places.

Former Future Brewing

Former Future Brewing

Then there were real winners, who I will name, like Prost Brewing, Former Future, Lost Highway, and Crooked Stave (Duh!) whose beers were as advertised and not simply a nod in the direction of. Is it too much to ask that a beer taste like its given name? And if it don’t fit, don’t force it. Just give it a new name (right, Style Guidelines?).

Between the breweries, sessions at the Fest (which offers the most diverse selection of beer to the least diverse selection of humans), excellent fringe events like Beers Made by Walking and What the Funk?, and media events like the Brewers Association media luncheon, it is clear that We thrive. We are thriving in our neighborhoods even more. Finding a brewery from a sinkhole of a town a few minutes from my old stomping grounds serving beer at the Fest made me rethink my attitude towards that place. Maybe it’s not so bad if there’s a brewery making decent beer.

Imagine how it is for DNS Brewing & Distilling in Santee, CA, this year’s American IPA gold medal-winning brewery at just 3 years old. While another win for Oregon would have been great (for Oregon, for me and my friends), that’s beside the point. The growing number of breweries and competition entries means there will be a wider spread of winners. Or so we hope; more breweries winning multiple medals would indicate an overall lower quality of entries.

With the Fest over, I look forward to sitting down with a full pint of great beer from one of my many locals. Isn’t that what this is really all about?

Aaron Brussat
Aaron Brussat

Aaron Brussat is a complex living organism with an interest in all things fermented. He started writing about and working in the beer industry in 2010. His experience stems primarily from spending six years at The Bier Stein as a beer steward, homebrewing since 2005, and passing the BJCP and Certified Cicerone exams. Highlights along the way include numerous collaborations with local brewers, curating beer dinners at The Bier Stein, and traveling to Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, Peru, and New Zealand (as well as many parts of the U.S.) for a chance to drink beer at the source.

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