By Eric Gorski, for Denverite
Just like the community of independent craft brewing it celebrates, the Great American Beer Festival has evolved and changed over its 38 years of existence.
When the latest edition of GABF opens Thursday, plenty will be familiar: the procession of bagpipes as the doors crack open, an abundance of pretzel necklaces, long lines at the booth of Greeley-based WeldWerks Brewing. (OK, that last thing is a recent phenomenon.)
Over the years, though, organizers at the Boulder-based Brewers Association have sought to make the event about more than drinking, with live music, educational chats and a lot more.
Make no mistake about it: the beer remains, and always will be, the main attraction. This year’s event will feature more than 4,000 beers from 800-plus U.S. breweries pouring 1-ounce samples. (Public service announcement: You don’t have to drink every ounce! Don’t love something? Pour it out, rinse with water — and drink plenty of water while you’re at it).
To get a feel for how the GABF has adapted to evolving consumer tastes and shifting industry winds — the theme of our pre-festival story this week on Denver’s beer scene — we chatted with Ann Obenchain, the marketing director for the Brewers Association.
Eric Gorski: Craft breweries like all businesses evolve and change — always have. It’s even more critical now, with greater competition, slower growth, and the growing popularity of other beverages. What are the most notable ways GABF has changed in recent years to adapt to the times?
Ann Obenchain: It’s important for us to remain relevant to our attendees as beer lovers’ preferences and choices evolve. In the last few years, we’ve added more experiential opportunities, from our educational opportunities where can sit down in the Brewers’ Studio or the Sit & Sip area to learn from the brewers or brewing professionals. You can hear about everything from what goes into making certain types of beer to beer and food pairings. There are also just ways to hang out with your friends. The Jameson Caskmates Barrel-Aged Beer Garden, live music and games … We have had live music in the past, and this year we have paired with WinterWonderGrass to bring some of the best bluegrass acts in the country to the festival. There’s karaoke, the silent disco — all these ways you can spend a great evening with your friends discovering beer and making memories.
EG: Last year breweries on the floor were arranged alphabetically. This year you’re back to regions and beers being grouped alphabetically within them. What did you learn from last year that prompted the return to the regional approach?
AO: That goes back to being relevant and responsive to our attendees. We had some suggestions, tried it, but when we surveyed attendees and brewers, they said they liked the regions better.
EG: What other changes loom this year? Things you’ve either done away with or added?
AO: All sessions will have glassware this year. That was a green decision. We were informed by the (Colorado Convention Center) they are no longer able to recycle the No. 6 hard plastic cups, so we talked through a lot of scenarios. We know beer tastes better in glass so we’re pleased to bring that to everybody this year. We’ve had glass in PAIRED and the (Saturday afternoon) member session before.
EG: As of this moment, you’ve got tickets available still for a couple of sessions: Thursday and Saturday night. The festival had a run there for a while of selling out in the blink of an eye. What do you think this says about the festival’s standing, its popularity? What do you make of it?
AO: Well, we are right where we expected we would be with ticket sales. We know that with a history of many years of selling out, sometimes the public is presuming it is sold out, which can be a disincentive to buy tickets. We also know beer events have evolved, and fans have more choice and variety of events than ever before. I think it’s a return to normalcy. We still know that 60,000 attendees is still the largest beer festival in the country.
EG: In a similar vein, so much has sprung up around the festival — separate special tappings, tap takeovers, beer dinners, events. We get plenty of breweries pouring around town only during GABF week, and they’re not pouring at the festival. Do you think that has cut at all into the festival’s popularity and sales? Or has it prompted you to think differently at all?
AO: Denver Beer Week and all the accompanying events, with Denver Beer Week culminating in the Great American Beer Festival, it’s all part of building Denver as a craft beer capital. So I think it only helps build the excitement of Denver and Colorado as craft beer epicenters.
EG: What are you seeing in terms of any shifting demographics of ticket-buyers?
AO: We won’t draw on this year’s sales until it closes. Last year, we were seeing more women, and younger demographics attending. We are creating those next generations of beer lovers. We are still seeing about half of our attendees from outside of Colorado.
EG: The festival added some beer style categories in the competition this year. This is always interesting to watch, to get a sense of trends and shifts and where things are headed. This year “non-alcoholic” is a style category. What are the factors behind that?
AO: Non-alcoholic was a category in the past. Beer style categories kind of come and go. (The BA committee overseeing the competition) takes changing them very seriously and doesn’t do it on a whim, but they do follow trends as they become available. The non-alcohol category was a category up until 2006, then disappeared for a while because of lack of entries. Now we are seeing trends in what we like to call lifestyle beers — non-alcoholic or low-calorie or session beers — so it was time for the committee to put that back in.
EG: Hard seltzer is not a category, but a ton of small independent brewers have started making them. Will it it be? Will seltzers be poured — or allowed to be poured — in the festival hall?
AO: Going back to being relevant, we are always looking for ways to keep the festival relevant. Some of our members are making other alcoholic beverages including hard seltzers and kombuchas. It is something we’ll continue to discuss and look at, but this year there is no hard seltzer permitted on the floor or in the competition. We had a brewery ask the other day, “Do you mind if we bring a seltzer?” I said yeah, we do.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Correction: The spelling of Ann Obenchain’s name has been corrected.
Eric Gorski is a Denver-based journalist. He co-founded The Denver Post’s First Drafts blog and has written about beer for BeerAdvocate, Draft Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler and PorchDrinking.com.