When Julia Herz attended her first Great American Beer Festival in the 1990s, a pour of beer measured 6 ounces.
Six ounces. Half an entire standard bottle of beer. That sheer volume would be unthinkable today—unimaginable at a festival that last weekend hosted more than 800 breweries and brought more than 3,900 beers onto the floor of the Colorado Convention Center. Today, the standard size for a sample at GABF is 1 oz—and many of those ounces aren’t even finished. Attendees who are watching their alcohol consumption, or attempting to try as many different beers as possible—myself included—can often be seen pouring out half-ounces of beer in between each sample. There’s simply no other way, if you plan to remain vertical through multiple GABF sessions, or take something akin to legible notes. It’s how we’re able to try enough beers to eventually choose a list of 20 stand-out beers from GABF 2017.
Those festivals of the ‘90s, though, were in many ways a simpler time. The GABF of yore was hosted in a smaller building, Denver’s historic, now demolished Currigan Hall, before moving to the Convention Center in 2000. And although tickets sell out almost immediately now, this wasn’t always the case. In fact, as recently as 2007, there were still tickets for GABF available during the week of the event. These days, in the wake of the second great craft beer boom, you’re lucky if you can get them a few hours after they initially go on sale, even though they’re accommodating more visitors than ever.
But at least in the memory of Herz, the craft beer program director for the Brewers Association, there’s one thing that has still remained the same at GABF over the years: a general atmosphere of positivity and madcap discovery.
“In my memory, the atmosphere still feels the exact same, just much larger,” said Herz, who first began working for the BA in 1999, before leaving and returning in her current role from 2007 onward. “The conversations are all still the same, just with different brewery names. People are still saying ‘What really great beer have you discovered today? Have you heard about this brewery? You should really go try Brewery X.’ I mean, you and I just walked around a minute ago with Matt Cole from Fat Heads Brewery; the guy’s got two medals around his neck, and you saw all the people coming up to him to geek out about his beers. That excitement has always been part of GABF.”
A crowd coalesces on the Avery booth as a special barrel is tapped.
I’m having this conversation with Herz on the floor of GABF, in a tiny, partitioned “media lounge” that simply consists of a few leather chairs recessed a few dozen feet away from where thousands of attendees are roving up and down the aisles, sampling close to 4,000 beers. The background din of GABF is thunderous, but you get used to it after a few hours—it’s like being inside a giant beehive, except all the bees are intoxicated and far less industrious than they would be otherwise. It makes the conversation on my recorder a bit harder to hear, but the enthusiasm in Herz’ voice is still obvious.
“Actually, the way I got involved after first volunteering at GABF was because I won a contest at a beer festival,” she says, getting a little nostalgic. “Charlie Papazian, the founder of the American Homebrewers Association, was giving away an AHA membership, and they picked my name out of a hat, just one name out of hundreds. And as a result, I started to pay attention to what the Brewers Association was doing in the industry.”
It’s a funny, fitting way to have first gotten involved—Herz’s own little “Papazian fist bump,” of the sort that is received by every winning brewery during the annual competition that makes up the core of GABF. Close to 20 years later, she can be seen during each GABF presenting on various topics, from beer and food pairing (about which she’s also written a book), to the industry’s economic outlook. She’s also borne witness to what has become an increasingly ridiculous feat of yearly engineering—the setup and assembly of GABF itself, which is overseen by events director Nancy Johnson. It’s a logistical nightmare most attendees to the festival aren’t likely to even consider for more than a minute.
“It’s pretty nuts to actually witness,” Herz says. “Made only more complicated by the fact that our events team is setting up for two things at once—the festival, with its 800 brewers and 3,900 beers in 2017, but also the competition, which is attempting to process 8,000-plus beers from 2,000-some odd breweries. Those two main events are simultaneously going on the weekend before GABF—all of the construction and judging at once.”
Naturally, such a feat would be impossible without what is essentially an army of volunteers, making up the heart and soul of the festival. More than 4,000 human beings are counted among the GABF volunteers, and even with those numbers there’s still a list of people waiting for a chance to join them. The volunteers even have their own hierarchy, with almost 200 “captains” among them who are TIPS certified and battle-tested. They function like the non-commissioned officers of the volunteer army, organizing and deploying manpower to set up the grounds of a festival so large, it’s essentially impossible to experience it all over the course of a weekend.
A sea of happy faces at the Melvin Brewing Co. party bus.
Of course, operation of the festival isn’t without its yearly challenges. In recent years, the size of the festival has become onerous in some arenas, with major changes being made to the process of brewery registration after the BA’s website couldn’t handle the load of simultaneous registrations. Even the physical building can’t quite keep up, as this year, numerous brewers and badge-holders weren’t able to enter the auditorium during part of the awards ceremony due the building’s maximum occupancy being surpassed. And finally, the festival received some criticism leading up to this year’s event for turning away several breweries that had been acquired in recent years by multinational brewing entities such as AB-InBev and MillerCoors, citing a new rule that prohibits more than one (or two, or three, depending on subsequent lotteries) breweries owned by the same company from exhibiting on the floor. As a result, breweries such as Chicago’s Goose Island missed the festival in 2017 for the first time in 29 years.
Herz acknowledges these criticisms, while pointing out that the new rules are meant to encourage the widest possible sphere of participation in a field that now totals more than 6,000 breweries nationwide—regardless of whether the ownership qualifies under the BA’s definition of “craft” or not. That means if say, the venture capitalists at Fireman Capital are to continue acquiring craft breweries such as Oskar Blues and Cigar City, they too will be subject to the same rules as far as spots on the floor of GABF are concerned. And indeed, several breweries owned by Fireman Capital via its United Craft Brews LLC holding company (Wasatch Brewery, Squatters Pub Brewery) were not present at GABF this year. To quote Brewers Association CEO Bob Pease from the Chicago Tribune story linked above:
“There’s a desire to be inclusive when we can—within reason,” Pease said. “Ultimately, the Great American Beer Festival is a Brewers Association property, and the Brewers Association’s purpose is to promote and protect small and independent breweries.”
So clearly, the BA does see the festival as an important avenue for continuing to “promote and protect” those small and independent brewers, even if some attendees would prefer the festival to simply encompass ALL of the beer world, regardless of ownership. But Herz argues that with more time and effort, the craft beer consumers are coming to agree:
“On a higher level beyond the festival, you’re seeing that parent company ownership is really coming into play,” she says. “You’re seeing state craft beer guilds make decisions on membership based on company ownership. You’re seeing legislation based on ownership. You’re seeing consumers voice passionate opinions about parent company ownership on social media, especially after acquisitions happen. We have data implying that ownership matters to many—certainly not all, but many. Over time, we hope that all consumers will factor in who they’re supporting into their priorities when buying craft beer.”
One thing is certain: 36 years into its run, GABF has reached rarefied heights and record-breaking levels of attention. Running such an unwieldy machine is no easy task, but Herz and co. will continue to do their best in operating what is by far the country’s largest single beer event. Will the festival floor somehow accommodate 1,000 breweries, one of these days? We’ll just have to wait and see.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink coverage, including Paste’s series of blind beer style tastings.