The Great American Beer Festival® of course!  September 22 – 26 I had the honor and pleasure of attending (my 21st) and judging (15th yr) at the GABF. Every year it never ceases to amaze me – not only the incredible growth of this event, but the diversity of beer styles, festival attendees and their attire. This year’s festival awarded 275 medals and had 423 first time participants…and tickets sold out in just over one hour!

Fashion statements? Photo courtesy of the Brewers Association. ©2015 Brewers Association.
Photo courtesy of the Brewers Association. ©2015 Brewers Association.

The sheer enormity of the event is difficult to fathom – even after participating in many of them. It has gotten so large that the area is measured in acres, not square feet. The scheduling, timing, logistics, media, coordination, external events, etc. is unbelievable. The economic impact ($21.9 million on Denver in 2014) on local businesses – even those outside of the beer world is truly amazing. Between sessions, I stopped by a small pizza joint miles from the event and the staff was abuzz about GABF and several other brewers and craft beer fans made up the majority of customers there. Later in the week, I walked by a Patagonia outdoor clothing retailer that had a GABF logo’d sign “Welcome GABF, free shipping on all orders this week!”

The registration process for the festival and competition nearly requires a degree in math and statistics. True story – I actually met with a brewer who has built an excel workbook laden with various pivot tables detailing all competition winners for the past decade broken out by brewery, beers and style category. Each year he updates it, calculates his odds and enters/brews beer styles based on categories with fewer anticipated entrants…Wow, that is some serious effort, but considering only approximately 4% of beers entered win medals, I guess any advantage one can get is worth it! Although most brewers I know are so busy keeping up with making beer, they don’t have the luxury of that much free time to calculate their odds!

Beer samples getting prepped for judging
Beer samples getting prepped for judging. Photo courtesy of the Brewers Association. ©2015 Brewers Association.

The nearly 7,000 competition beers need to get packed and shipped to local drop off points around the U.S. and transported to Denver where they are stored cold until the competition. They are sorted by style, randomly numerically coded, and expertly delivered to the judge tables where they are evaluated over multiple rounds. Kegs for the festival also need to be shipped to various drop off points, delivered to Denver, stored cold and then skillfully delivered to each brewers booth on the festival floor. It would not surprise me if the volunteers use the latest GPS technology to locate the booths! My rough assumption of an average of 8 kegs per brewery equates to about 6,000 kegs that need to be handled and delivered to the right place at the right time during the crowded festival and tapped up to create the ultimate “tap house”! That is A LOT of beer (and a lot of dedication and muscle to get it there)!

Beer logistics aside, how do you then coordinate getting 60,000 people into and out of the event and ensuring they all enjoy themselves safely? I had the pleasure of chatting about this with Julia Herz (BA Craft Beer Program Director). She informed me that they use the same security companies that also handle security for the Denver Broncos and have done the Olympics – wow!

Thirsty craft beer fans anxious to get in!
Thirsty craft beer fans anxious to get in! Photo courtesy of the Brewers Association. ©2015 Brewers Association.

Then add to all of that Paired/Farm to Table Pavilion, Meet the Brewer areas, Sustainability Pavilion, Bookstore, You Be the Judge, Silent Disco, beer dinners, specialty tappings, etc….I could go on and on, but you get the idea. The GABF and other beer events that occur around Colorado during that time are simply HUGE, GINORMOUS, MASSIVE! And this tremendous showing of American Craft Beer would not be possible without the incredible expertise of the passionate and dedicated Brewers Association team! Thank you BA – AWESOME JOB!

Once you get in…choose a style, choose an aisle and enjoy! Photo courtesy of the Brewers Association. ©2015 Brewers Association.

A few more stat’s…This year’s festival saw more records – 3,800 beers served, 750 breweries in the festival hall, nearly 7,000 beers entered were judged by 242 judges (from 15 different countries) assisted by 155 competition volunteers. 423 brewers said it was their first time participating. Total number of volunteers was 3,400 – so at 3,800 beers served, that is nearly 1 beer style served for every volunteer! That is some serious growth, especially when you consider the first GABF was held in 1982 at the Harvest House Hotel in Boulder, CO. It would be interesting to know how many of today’s brewers were even born then!? There were only 22 breweries, 40 beers and 800 attendees which is much smaller than many local beer festivals around the U.S. these days.

Mark your calendars for next year’s GABF October 6-8, 2016!

For more info on competition

For history, fun facts & figures