7 Takeaways From The 2011 GABF

If you were looking for the next big trend in craft beer at the Great American Beer Festival, you had a lot of choices.

With so many styles being poured and more breweries than ever participating, drawing a single conclusion isn’t in the cards.

So let’s start with what we know, instead.

2011 has been the year of cans. More and more breweries have adopted the package as a legitimate way to get product to the consumer. Take a quick look at the brewery that took home the most awards at this year’s GABF competition – Sun King Brewing – and it’s apparent that the trend is here to stay.

But let’s face it — consumers are looking for more than just a pretty package. So what else should you pay attention to? Here are 7 things to look for before next year’s fest.

The beers gone sour

While so called sour beers may not be the new IPA, they are increasingly becoming an important part of the market. 80 sour offerings were available for tasting at this year’s GABF, and there are now five categories brewers can choose to enter their sour beers for judging.

If you need more proof that sour beers are catching on, look no further than Avery Brewing, whose barrel room has swelled to over 250 barrels, 100 more than last year. The brewery also shipped 620 cases of sour beer in 2011, up from the 97 they shipped in 2010.

Joe Osborne, Marketing Director for Avery, attributes much of the interest in the category to the style’s ability to pair with food.

“It’s such a unique offering and its finding this presence with foodies,” he said. “I think you are going to see more brewers get into sours.”

Beer and Food Pairings are ‘trendy’

Foodies, chefs and craft beer experts already agree that beer pairs with food better than most wines. Now, it is becoming even more obvious that the consumer is actually seeking out beers that they can take home to pair with their meals.

The Brewer’s Association already puts on SAVOR — an American craft beer and food experience – once a year, after recognizing consumer demand for more pairings. The association added two similar programs at GABF. Nine different pairing options were available at the Beer and Food Pavilion while over in the Farm to Table area, 11 gourmet chefs from around the country prepared dishes to pair with 12 different breweries beers.

More recently, at the NBWA conference in Las Vegas, beer industry retailing consultant Bump Williams discussed the growing trend with a room full of distributors. In the discussion, Williams advocated for more secondary beer placements in the cheese departments of high-end grocers.

Leading the “I.P.wAy”

It wasn’t long ago that your average craft beer drinker chose a pale ale as their ‘go-to’ choice for off-premise consumption.

The industry has since trended towards higher ABV’s and the demand for hoppier styles has grown. The IPA category is on fire, with 253 IPA craft brands now selling in Supermarkets compared to 177 in 2010. This trend was remarkably evident at the GABF: nearly every brewery at the fest was pouring at least one IPA.

The consumer demand for IPA’s is at an all-time high and retailers should be dedicating significant shelf space to the category.

The big names can still bring it

If you thought historic and well-known brands like Boston Beer or Dogfish Head had lost their ‘snob appeal,’ think again. The Samuel Adams brand took home four medals, including a gold in the English-style IPA category. Dogfish Head took home just two medals, but for beers it originally released in 1999 and 2006. Deschutes, the country’s fifith-largest craft brewer, took home three medals while the nation’s third-largest brewer – New Belgium Brewing – won gold in the popular American-Style Sour Ale category for Le Terroir.

Anchor Brewing is an old dog, with no new tricks.

While Anchor is an iconic brand and has built a business on being reliable, it’s clear that the company clearly needs some resuscitating. The last time Anchor took home a medal was 1997, and although they stopped submitting entries to the GABF in the early 2000’s, the Brewer’s Association did confirm that they entered this year’s contest.

They weren’t pouring anything new or terribly exciting and nearly every time we walked by their beautifully constructed wood booth, there wasn’t much of a line. After its sale last year, the brand has done little to re-image a tired look that is losing favor amongst the youth.

The youth of the nation

While it’s hard to tell if the overwhelming amount of 20-somethings in the crowd attended to re-live their college kegger days (with better beer), or if they actually appreciate the artistry of the craft, it’s clear that the younger generation is certainly driving the recent success of craft beer.

“My first experience with the younger attendees was that they didn’t come there to learn about beer as much as they were to have a good time,” said MateVeza founder Jim Woods. “I am seeing a change in that and a lot of the younger generation is as educated as people who have been around the industry for a while. That is very refreshing to see.”

Pay Attention to Sun King Brewing

If you win eight medals at the GABF, you are doing something right. The boys at Sun King Brewing had a coming out party this year, taking home four gold medals, three silvers and a bronze. The victories alone should help an emerging brand that only started brewing in 2009 gain some serious recognition in the coming years.

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the October issue of Beverage Spectrum Magazine

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