Size Shifting Structure at GABF

Demand continues to balloon at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Brewers Association (B.A.), which runs the event, will add more breweries or beer drinkers.

“Demand for the festival, demand for the competition was huge this year,” said Paul Gatza, the B.A.’s director.

Just fewer than 1,000 breweries applied to pour in the festival hall and about 125 breweries applied to be a part of the medal competition alone, Gatza said. He added that about 630 breweries can be found in the festival hall this year. All applicants were offered the chance to be featured on the floor, but some turned down the opportunity when they were placed on the waiting list. In July, the GABF’s organizers said that the event sold out in a record 20 minutes.

This steadily rising demand has altered the festival’s makeup, ushering in more new breweries, a less-inebriated crowd and a greater emphasis on the presence of brewers and education.

The demand has also changed the way that the B.A. approaches what is arguably the most well-renowned aspect of the festival: the medal competition.

“It’s forced us to rethink the way we do the competitions in the future,” Gatza said.

Every year, a panel of judges hand out gold, silver and bronze medals for all kinds of beer styles imaginable and to varying sizes of brewpubs and breweries. Winners regularly adorn their bottles and cans with medal decals; badges of honor and esteem.

However, starting last year and continuing this year, the B.A. has removed the medal competition space from the main festival hall to a separate, nearby location. Gatza said that this change has had an extremely positive effect by creating more space for the brewery booths and the wandering beer drinkers. The move also allows brewers to return to their booths early in the afternoon session, rather than stay exclusively at the stage watching the award ceremony.

Paul Gatza, Executive Director, Brewers Association

Gatza said that over the past few years, the event committee has done a much better job of encouraging brewers to stay at their respective booths and talk face-to-face with the festival’s attendees. The B.A. wants not just the volunteer pourers at the booths, but also the brewers, who will be able to better answer any questions about the beer.

“That’s what people are looking to do,” Gatza said. “They’re looking to talk to people with the brewery and touch the brewery in some way.”

This has become increasingly true at the GABF, which has developed more of a beer-savvy crowd, said Ray Daniels, the founder and director of the Cicerone Certification Program and 20-time GABF attendee.

“You really have to be a super beer aficionado, beer geek to get online and get tickets for GABF,” Daniels said.

He added that the exclusivity of the event has elevated the caliber of attendees. Only 10 years ago, the GABF sold tickets on the day of the festival, which led to a rush of locals simply hoping to get their ticket’s worth through drinks on a Friday night. Now, there’s less chaos, less recklessness and more interest in the merits of the beer, Daniels said.

This shift has turned the event into somewhat of an old boys club, if you will. Even though technically anybody can get a spot, you have to know the exact time to get the ticket. It’s the kind of knowledge typically reserved for craft diehards, not curious crossovers.

“It’s tougher for sure and it’s a little bit more of an insider’s thing,” Daniels said. “But if you want to go, you don’t have to have any credentials.”

In recent years, scalpers have served as a loophole through the festival’s rapid sellout. Even before the event goes on sale and tickets are available, scalper websites that hope to eventually acquire tickets claim to have hundreds of tickets, Gatza said. However, he also said that there seems to be less of what the craft community generally loathes.

“This year, there seems to be less of that street activity,” Gatza said.

This hasn’t changed the occasional clogging from lines in the festival’s halls, especially at the booths of the popular breweries. Everybody lines up for Brooklyn Brewery, Firestone Walker, Ninkasi and Russian River, for example. However, this issue could soon be remedied. The GABF currently uses three halls in the Colorado Convention Center. Gatza said that the city of Denver has offered the B.A. a fourth hall starting in 2015. If the festival continues to saturate hotels, the space could continue to grow.

This additional space could give the GABF more flexibility in setting up the hall, Gatza said. The B.A. could add more space between booths to decrease the clogging. To mesh with the more educated attendees, the B.A. would like to add more educational booths and areas, (aside from the food-and-beer pairing “Farm to Table” event), and seminars; environments that could allow the rock star brewers more space to speak and meet with fans. Some of the educational events in the future could further delve into food and beer pairings, beer presentation and the culture of craft beer.

“I think the educational part is really what our events committee and our board and our staff are really thinking about it,” Gatza said.