The curse of 2020 has claimed another victim, in the form of the beer industry’s biggest and most visible craft beer celebration, the Great American Beer Festival. The Brewers Association, which operates GABF as its signature event, was forced to cancel the in-person festival on Thursday. Although the organization phrases the news as a “pivot,” with the festival still technically taking place online via as-yet-unannounced means, the cancellation of the in-person festival is a devastating blow to both beer fans and the BA, which has operated GABF every year since 1982. It’s yet another way that the COVID-19 outbreak has transformed the beer scene as we know it.
GABF was scheduled to take place Sept. 24-26 at its typical home in Denver, the Colorado Convention Center. However, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order on Wednesday that stated the building would be pressed into service as a field hospital, if necessary, for COVID-19 patients. Even though it’s only a month-long order, that was enough to make GABF unfeasible in the eyes of the BA, which isn’t surprising—who wants to go drink beer with thousands of people, during a pandemic, in a building previously used to treat virus cases? Instead, the new date of the festival will be Oct. 16-17, but it will be taking place entirely on the web as “an immersive online experience,” as the BA seeks to make the best of the situation.
“While we are disappointed to not be gathering in Denver this fall for the craft beer community’s annual big tent event, the health and safety of our attendees, brewers, volunteers, judges, and employees is and always has been our top priority,” said BA president and CEO Bob Pease in the organization’s Thursday statement. “As the world is still greatly affected by the spread of COVID-19 and will continue to be affected for the foreseeable future, we must stay true to our priorities and pursue other ways to host GABF.”
The format that event will now take is unknown, but the BA reportedly plans to announce its plans for the online version of GABF on Aug. 1. The press release seems to suggest that those who purchase tickets could receive curated beer kits at home, to participate in virtual, live-streamed tastings, in addition to various panel discussions. Also still occurring is the beer style competitions at the heart of GABF every year, which are expected to draw more than 7,000 entries.
Make no mistake, though: This is a big loss to the local economy of Denver and the Brewers Association in particular, which had already been forced to lay off 23% of its staff in recent weeks. GABF is the signature event of the organization, but far from its only one, and the events as a whole make up a majority of the trade group’s revenue. The pandemic had already caused the cancellation of the BA’s other biggest events, including SAVOR, HomebrewCon and this year’s Craft Brewers Conference in San Antonio.
Will an online-only version of GABF be able to help the BA’s bottom line in a measurable way? Here’s hoping that craft beer’s most famous annual event is able to return stronger than ever next year.