20 September 2010

Does the GABF and its medals matter?

So another Great American Beer Festival has come and gone. And with it all the breathless anxiety as beer geeks awaited the pronouncements of the esteemed judges of the winners of gold, silver, and bronze medals in eighty categories.  Many even watched the awards ceremony via live web feed.

I was off enjoying my wife's company on a beach--with some 16 Mile Brewery and New Glarus beers in attendance.

The GABF is always a pack of mixed emotions for me.  On the one hand, the publicity and promotional value of the Festival to both the individual breweries and the craft beer industry as a whole cannot possibly be discounted.  On the other hand, most of the "best" American beers I have had the blessed fortune to run across in our country simply either don't make it to the GABF in the first place or get pushed aside by other competitors.

I've spoken with local and regional brewers across the nation about the GABF, and I almost always get a mix of resignation and delight.  If they go, they like the concept, and they like what results.  As more than one brewer has told me while sweeping their arms towards the display case or wall full of medals from the GABF and other competitions, "You can't tell me that there's no promotional value in those medals.  Of course it's worth the trouble of getting it into the GABF!"

On the other hand, other excellent brewers and breweries are simply hamstrung by the logistics and the expense of getting their beer to Denver.  Think about it:  If you were entering a brewing competition, would you just hand off your kegs or growler to some no-name UPS agent or freight shipper?  Heck, no--you'd personally escort those kegs or growlers to Denver if you could, with a list of dry-ice vendors between here and Denver to replenish your car's cooler.

According to the official statistics, 516 breweries from 48 states and the District competed for medals in 79 categories (plus a "Pro-Amateur" category) with 3,448 actual beer entered (plus 75 additional "Pro-Am" entries).  The Brewers Association itself claims that "Over 1,500 breweries are responsible for the beer brands made in the US with more than 90% of these fitting the small and independent craft brewer definition."  This page puts the number of potential entrants at 1,640.  Even if we cast aside the rare (but no doubt extant) brewery doing nothing but brewing, say, Guinness or Bass for North American consumption, or duplicate Miller or Budweiser or Coors plants, we'd still have way over 1,000 brewpubs and breweries.  So, right off the bat, a good half or more of American brweweries aren't participating in the GABF.

By my rough count, 52 of the medals went to California breweries, and 40 to Colorado breweries, with an additional 26 to breweries in Oregon and Washington.  And even these are wide open to flexible interpretation--for example, Shmaltz Brewing, started in New York City by Jeremy Cowan, is listed as being from San Francisco, California, where some of the beers are now contract-brewed..  I would certainly love to see the GABF rotated to various cities (Baltimore again, Atlanta, Chicago, Boston, etc.) if only to level the playing field for competitors.

Then there's the issue of the categories or styles selected.  Fellow bloggers Tom Cizauskas and Martyn Cornell have already addressed the subject recently.  To which I will add a quote from Clipper City/Heavy Seas founder Hugh Sisson, repeated by fellow "brewer" Volker Stewart: "Are you really going to tell me that there are a couple of hundred IPAs submitted and only three of them deserve medals?"  (For the record, there were 142 entries in Category 47, "American-Style India Pale Ale," which is in and of itself, of course, an oxymoron, considering they don't offer an "English-Style India Pale Ale" category correction noted--see comments......)

Stewart follows with these observations:
[The three-medals-per-category is] a huge drawback to the GABF judging IMHO. I find the World Beer Cup multiple-medal system much more "fair" (although I understand that some folks feel that this "cheapens" the medals...)
I only submitted to GABF once, sending growlers across the country in 1998.  What was enlightening to me was how incredibly subjective the judging was - the wide range of reactions from the same growler was surprising. My favorite line included that I mis-submitted what was clearly a spiced wheat beer (even though there was not a hint of wheat or spice in the beer I sent).
 Another comment from Oliver Breweries/Pratt Street Ale House Head Hunchback Stephen Jones: 

We at Oliver’s haven’t submitted anything to the GABF during my tenure here. I must admit I’m not a big fan of the BJCP style guidelines but I guess at some point we may look to send some beer out there.

More comments from Lew Bryson here.

So whadaya think?  Does the GABF guide you to good stuff or simply give you reason for kvetching? 

A personal aside:  I see that a second location opened by a pre-existing brewpub in Arizona, Lumberyard Brewing in Flagstaff ( a sister to Beaver Street Brewery), has won a gold and a bronze, the former for Imperial Red and the latter for the American-Style IPA........  and they just opened weeks ago............


Thomas said...

Lumberyard opened at the beginning of the Summer but they have brewing for more than a few weeks, they won three awards at this year's World Beer Cup. It is a separate company from Beaver Street though the ownership is from the same people. The look-feel and menu is completely different from Beaver Street as friends and family who have visited have explained.

The awards matter for marketing and getting the word out to beergeeks as potential good breweries to check out when traveling. Beyond that it is hard to say.

JohnM. said...

"considering they don't offer an "English-Style India Pale Ale" category"

Take a look at category 44 Alex.

Personally, I've been following the GABF for many years and even attended in 91, 94 and 96. I still think it's a pretty prestigioius event, and of course great PR for the winners, but I confess I no longer so advidly try to sample every medal winner I can get my hands on (a hopeless endeavor now, but back in the early 90's, while living in California, I could generally try most of them).

Now a days, I mostly take a look at the medal winners with no more than passing interest. I like to see how different areas of the country do in terms of medals (frankly, I really can't remember any year when California and Colorado weren't the top two states in the medal count race), and if local breweries score some medals at the fest, I'll try to see if I can sample them if I ever have the opportunity (i.e., I'm at the brewery/brewpub or happen to see the beer on tap somewhere). In the past, Maryland and Pa. haven't done all that badly in the medal count, but for some reason both states didn't do too well this year. Have no idea why (looks like it wasn't such a great year for Deleware or NJ either).

Ultimately, I completely agree with the last statement made by Thomas:

"The awards matter for marketing and getting the word out to beergeeks as potential good breweries to check out when traveling. Beyond that it is hard to say."

Alexander D. Mitchell IV said...

True, that. And good catch on Category 44--I know I've been gazing at a screen too long when I missed that during FOUR reviews of the list.....

But part of my point is that all the focus on the GABF (and, to a lesser extent, World Beer Cup) marketing and winners happens to sidestep some true stunners. For every brewpub that has stunned me with a terrific beer or selection of beers that has also won GABF metal, there have been at least two that were equally excellent that are just too small to bother entering--three prime examples in this region being The Brewer's Art, Oliver's, and Selin's Grove Brewing. I've also found brewpubs in my travels that were good enough to win at GABF and eventually did--this year's example being Bullfrog Brewery in Williamsport, Pa. Should they be ignored because they can't or won't pony up to do a peacock-style strut in that big hall? (I've had at least three brewers vehemently denigrate the GABF on several grounds, largely because they didn't feel the exposure and "marketing" value of participation/medals was worth the expense of travel/shipment to Denver and the fees charged by the GABF. I'm sure I'd hear the same thing in California or Oregon if the GABF were held annually in, say, Atlanta, Charlotte, or Indianapolis.)

Yet another issue: What does the GABF do for a place like Dogfish Head, where probably half (or more) the beers they create defy GABF style categorization, even with 79 putative styles (and one or more basically being "Other")?

JohnM. said...

I used to pay closer attention to the GABF, but not so much any more. Still, I'll try to answer some of your questions based on previous experience. Please feel free to correct any of my more blatant (and even not so blatant) misunderstandings or misinterpretations.

One thing for sure, is that it's VERY expensive to attend the GABF. My understanding is that there's a hefty fee to participate/attend, you have to arrange all your own transportation, and then you have to promise to donate a certain amount of beer (in the past attendees at the festival would often avoid the final day, just because so many breweries were out of beer)... and of course there's no guarantee of winning a medal.

"I've had at least three brewers vehemently denigrate the GABF on several grounds, largely because they didn't feel the exposure and "marketing" value of participation/medals was worth the expense of travel/shipment to Denver and the fees charged by the GABF"

Of course that always the big question. My understanding is that everyone has a fun time and it's a great way to meet and greet some of the "movers and shakers" in the beer industry, but at the end of the day, cost is always going to be a factor. Even if you're fortunate enough to win a medal, it's debatable whether the PR benefit derived from medaling at the GABF is worth the hassle and expense.

I can't speak for every brewery obviously, but I think the GABF is the sort of event that many breweries want to try once or twice, just to see what it's like. I'm sure there's the allure of competing against your fellow brewer to see who's better (despite the patently subjective nature of the judging), and then there's the experience itself. I guess if I was a brewer that's how I would approach the GABF.

As for your last question, I don't know how the GABF handles that these days. In the past it was up to the brewer to determine what category he wanted to enter a beer, and in the past it was not unusual to see a beer entered into a different category from year to year (sometimes I think this was a strategic decision, as obviously some style categories have many more entrants than others). On the other hand, my understanding is that one of the first things GABF judges do is reject out of hand any beer that is not perceived as within the style parameters. I kid you not Alex, I remember reading an article from Fred Eckhardt years ago, where he was judging the American swill... er, ah, I mean the American light lager category. He said that one of the first things the group of judges did for that category was to dismiss out of hand any beer that was perceived as having too much flavor.

So yeah... figuring out what style to enter your barrel aged, lavendar flavored imperial Kvass can be a real problem. :-)

In any event, of course you're right... the number of great breweries making great beer who have never won a GABF medal I'm sure vastly out number those that have. Still, despite all that and despite all the completely justified denigration of the GABF, I still always find it kind of interesting to look at the list of winners each year.

Thomas said...

Some people Alex will find something to complain about it.

Brewpubs have the ability to be nimble because they aren't necessarily brewing the same beers over and over again like the production guys, that is their strength. The weakness like you note is they can't afford to give out beer in such amounts. I have known Arizona brewpubs who could not justify the cost. They play a niche and I don't see how any competition or festival can level that unless it was a brewpub only competition which I suspect would be expensive to organize. What do you accept as serving form? Bottling? Not everyone does bottle. Growlers? What if your state has weird rules like Florida? Besides shipping growlers could easily get messy. I think GABF and WBC are fair for what they are, breweries don't have to enter them. The results of any brewing competition is a crap shoot. Ask someone like Gordon Strong or Jamiel Zainasheff and they will say properly making and send the beer only gets you 40% of the way the rest is flight order, luck of the draw, and other random factors.

As for style it's only useful as establishing a common ground for discussion, otherwise over emphasized. Working in a homebrew shop I am careful when a beer goes beyond category telling the person "If you are entering it into a competition it will not fit the categories and you will get points off. If you like the beer then go for it, enjoy" Stone only won an award at GABF a year or two ago and I don't think it ever bothered them. *shrug*

Unknown said...

Well I think you need to approach the GABF for what it is - a celebration of the diversity of American craft beer. We go every year more for the networking with both our peers and distributors than for the medals. If you win something, that's a bonus. But you can't put too much weight on winning.

The competition is a bit of a subjective crap shoot. We have had a beer win a medal, then miss for 8 years (with notes that it is not brewed to "style" in its category) and then win again. The beer never changed, the category it was entered in never changed, so why does it win one year and then have an 8 year hiatus? Who knows - it's a mystery!

I would love to see the competition switch to a system where beers are given some sort of score and if you are within x point range you get a bronze, within y point range a silver, etc.

That would give you a much better range of winning beers and would show just how far this industry has come in terms of quality. How cool would it be if out of 140 or so beers entered in the American IPA category, that 50 of them merited medals! That is a powerful message to the American consumer!