The Brewers Association will change the way it processes Great American Beer Festival applications in 2017 after the group made a critical error that forced festival organizers to revoke one popular Ohio brewery’s “Mid-Size Brewing Company of the Year” award and give it to another brewery.
Late Saturday evening — hours after the BA handed out 286 medals to 254 different breweries — festival organizers discovered their mistake and informed Fat Head’s Brewery that it had been stripped of its coveted “Mid-Size Brewing Company of the Year” trophy, with the award going to Karl Strauss Brewing Company instead.
The reason? Karl Strauss, based in San Diego, had incorrectly submitted its entries as part of the “Mid-Size Brewpub” category, rather than Mid-Size Brewing Company. Strauss produced more than 75,000 barrels in 2015; the Mid-Size Brewpub category has a production range of between 750 and 1,500 barrels.
Festival organizers didn’t catch the error until after winners were announced, according to BA chief economist Bart Watson.
One Fat Head’s executive cried foul, complaining that GABF organizers “don’t want to see multiple locations winning these big prizes,” brewmaster and owner Matt Cole told Cleveland.com.
“To me, it’s not fair because it doesn’t represent our operation,” he told the outlet. “We should enter by the size of our operation. It doesn’t even look right. If you have 10 locations it defers to the largest. They are trying to eliminate various breweries winning at various sizes. If you can go out and win large brewpub, small brewing company, mid-size brewing company, more power to you.”
A total of seven GABF “Brewery of the Year” awards are given to breweries and brewpubs that earn the most medals in the various style-based product categories of the GABF competition. Those breweries submit their entries to different brewery of the year categories based on annual production figures, and the GABF point system awards six points for a gold medal, five points for silver medal and four points for bronze medal.
Mid-size brewing companies, according to the GABF website, produce between 15,000 and 6,000,000 barrels annually.
“Unfortunately, this was a mistake by the Brewers Association,” Watson wrote to Brewbound in an email. “The BA does review all entries, but regrettably we missed making the needed re-categorization of the Karl Strauss entry prior to announcing the awards. As soon as we realized the error, in the hours immediately following the awards ceremony, we worked to correct it.”
As a result, Watson said the BA would “implement changes to our processes for brewery category verification before competition judging and awards take place” in 2017, but he didn’t outline what those changes would look like.
Meanwhile, the Strauss/Fat Head’s controversy wasn’t the only source of confusion about the awards this year.
At the crux of this year’s mixup is a confusing set of competition criteria aimed at categorizing beer companies by size, brewery type, location and ownership. A 72-page guidebook, posted to the GABF website, and multiple website pages, are intended to help both festival and competition participants better understand eligibility requirements and submission guidelines.
“There is a lot of information for entering brewers to take in regarding the competition,” admitted Watson. “This is to be expected when you’re talking about the world’s largest commercial beer competition.”
For a brewery that operates out of just one location and doesn’t own any other brewing entities, the application process is far less complex. But for brewpub chains and brewing conglomerates that own multiple brands and produce at multiple facilities, strict location-based competition criteria makes it more difficult to walk away with top honors.
In an effort to judge as many beers from as many breweries as possible, the BA has capped how many products multi-layered brewing groups or corporate entities such as Anheuser-Busch or MillerCoors can submit, even as those conglomerates have started to scoop up craft breweries. Multiple brewery owners are limited to a total of 20 combined beers from their holdings, according to the GABF website, and the BA also limits the number of beers a single brewery location can submit to five.
But those rules apply to both multinationals with more than one beer brand and also to chains of breweries and brewpubs — so a Karl Strauss or Fat Head’s, which owns and operates multiple brewery or brewpub locations, cannot exceed 20 total submissions.
Products from each brewing location are also scored individually. Fat Head’s submitted beers produced at its North Olmstead and Middleburg Heights breweries, and even though the company’s products won more total medals and scored more total points overall than Karl Strauss, it didn’t earn the distinction of “Mid Size Brewing Company of the Year” because of how those beers were submitted.
Three of Fat Head’s winning beers were produced at its North Olmsted facility and two were made at its Middleburg Heights. Three of the four winning Karl Strauss beers, however, were made at its San Diego facility. Karl Strauss actually scored 16 points for its two gold medals and one bronze medal. Fat Head’s North Olmsted location, meanwhile, scored just 15 points for its gold, silver and bronze medals. Factoring in other locations, Fat Head’s would have scored 24 points and Karl Strauss just 20.
Submission caps have forced many brewing groups — including large beer companies like Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors, which, combined, have purchased 12 U.S. craft breweries over the last five years — to get creative with submissions.
This year, MillerCoors was forced to adjust its submissions prior to the Aug. 5 deadline after the company purchased three craft breweries in the span of three weeks earlier this summer.
Lisa Zimmer, a MillerCoors representative who manages that company’s GABF entries, said she got the call from festival organizers who alerted her of a need to update submissions one week before they were due.
According to Zimmer, 20 different beers from Hop Valley Brewing, which operates out of two brewery locations, as well as Revolver Brewing and Terrapin Brewing, were slated for judging prior to their respective acquisitions. And, she said, MillerCoors had also initially planned on submitting 20 beers from the Coors Brewing, Miller Brewing, Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing, Sandlot Brewery, Saint Archer Brewing Company and AC Golden Brewing Company brands.
But once the acquisitions were announced, MillerCoors was forced to cut those submissions in half, and instead of selecting four breweries with five beers each, the company opted to submit a total of 20 beers from 11 different brewery locations.
Zimmer said the company has considered rotating which of its brands submit beers each year, so that individual breweries could, in theory, be more competitive.
Anheuser-Busch InBev, which earlier this year purchased Virginia’s Devils Backbone Brewing, also missed out on an opportunity to have one of its companies crowned “Large Brewing Company of the Year” because of the way it filled out its application.
Although Devils Backbone scored two gold medals in the Vienna-Style Lager and Baltic-Style Porter categories, A-B InBev noted two different brewery locations on the application. Since each brewery location is scored separately, Devils Backbone lost to Pabst Brewing Company, which notched a gold medal in the American-Style Lager category and a silver medal in the American-Style Cream Ale category.
Editor’s note: All of the above-mentioned craft brands owned by A-B and MillerCoors compete in the “Large Brewing Company” category. According to GABF rules, a “Large Brewing Company” is defined as producing more than six million barrels of beer. Brands like Devils Backbone, owned by A-B, and Sandlot Brewery, owned by MillerCoors, do not produce six million barrels of beer individually, but GABF rules stipulate that a packaging brewery’s size is “defined by total U.S. volume of the company which has majority ownership of the brewery.”
Prior to its acquisition, Devils Backbone, via its “Basecamp” brewpub, was awarded “Small Brewing Company of the Year” in 2013. That same year, Sandlot Brewery was awarded “Large Brewing Company of the Year.” Devils Backbone produced about 25,000 barrels of beer in 2013, and roughly 500 barrels of beer were made at its Basecamp location. The Sandlot Brewery, meanwhile, produces less than 2,400 barrels annually. Going forward, both companies will be judged in the “Large Brewing Company” category. It’s also worth noting that the Sandlot Brewery was named “Small Brewing Company of the Year” in 2005.
A press release with additional details about this year’s GABF and competition winners is available on the Brewers Association website.