The Great American Beer Festival presents the largest American commercial beer competition in the nation. Judging takes place over the course of 2-1/2 days prior to the opening of the festival itself. When one considers that there were only about 50 breweries in the United States in 1980, it hardly seems possible that this competition could have taken on such a life of its own.
The 2012 Great American Beer Festival celebrated its 31st year, but the original commercial beer competition did not ramp-up until two years after the festival was founded, currently placing the competition segment in its 29th year. In 1983, the GABF gave out three "Consumer Preference" awards, so the face of the competition differed dramatically from the rivalry we know today. In fact, the competition continued with just a popular vote for four years before taking a dramatic turn.
In 1987, one hundred beers were judged by 7 judges in 12 categories, while still retaining the popular "Consumer Preference" awards. The "Consumer Preference" award disappeared in 1990, when the commercial competition developed its own legs. Style Guidelines were developed, separating beers into about 31 categories. This delineation of style added a layer of complexity to the competition, requiring judges to have a much clearer understanding of the complex nature that governed each style.
As the number of breweries in the United States continued to grow, so did the competition. In 2012, 185 judges from around the world judged 4,345 beers from 675 breweries in 84 categories, plus the Pro-Am. This required a volunteer staff of 135 to serve as stewards and record-keepers during the course of the competition. Forty-eight states, Guam and Washington, DC competed.
One might think that the states with the largest populations would win the most medals, but it has become clear over the years that a beer culture needs to develop before the medals flow. In 2012, California did win the most medals, with a total of 49. “Aha!” you might exclaim. But Colorado came in second with 35 total medals, Oregon with 24 and Pennsylvania with 17. Virginia earned 12, Wisconsin and Illinois each were awarded 10, Texas won 9 and both Wyoming and Utah came home with 8.
In fact, Pennsylvania brewers brought home two big awards:
Mid-Size Brewing Company and Mid-size Brewer of the Year were awarded to John Trogner and Troegs Brewing Company of Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Large Brewpub and Large Brewpub Brewer of the Year were awarded to Steve Sloan of The Church Brew Works, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
One of the most striking changes was that of Pennsylvania, which only earned 7 medals in 2011, and 17 only a year later. Has Philly Beer Week made Pennsylvania more aware of its strengths? Has it given its brewers a level of confidence previously lacking?
In looking back over past records, Pennsylvania brewers won 18 medals in 1999, but those wins encompassed much different beer styles than the styles winning today. Philly brewers cannot claim that the success of The Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh has been influenced by their activism. In fact, the Church Brew Works was already crafting fine beers in 1999 when it won medals for Bock and Oatmeal Stout, while the majority of PA brewers were winning in categories of American Style Lager, Light Lager and American-Style Specialty Lager. But the parched wasteland that once existed has now become rich with a variety of styles ranging from Baltic Porter and South German-Style Hefeweisen to Rye Beer, Belgian-Style Abbey Beer and Wood-and-Barrel-Aged Sour Beers. As our culture has become richer with beer, our beers have become richer with flavor.
Perhaps the most significant change over those years has been the attitude of the judges. Dave Logsdon of Logsdson Farmhouse Ales in Hood River, Oregon summed it up when he said, “This is a journey, not a race. We [as judges] are writing the story for the brewers … Take the time to paint the picture … It’ll make the brewers appreciative and will keep the beer flowing.”
And flow, it does. In the great hall at the Colorado Convention Center, the 2012 Great American Beer Festival greeted 49,000 people, including volunteers. These beer patrons were greeted with 2,700 beers from 580 breweries – 110 more breweries than the previous year. It took 132 tons of ice to keep all that beer cold. That’s 264,000 pounds of ice!
Beer is no longer the simple beverage it was in 1980. It has gained such significance that it is strengthening the economy in states that have developed a healthy beer culture. Colorado’s Governor John Hickenlooper pointed out that craft brewers make only about 5% of the beer in Colorado, but the craft brewing community is responsible for 64% of the jobs created in Colorado. This is significant.
So significant, in fact, that the 2012 Great American Beer Festival attracted the attendance of a member of the President's Cabinet, the 30th U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. In case you hadn’t noticed, craft beer is no longer “chump change.”