I well remember the first Great American Beer Festival. It took place at the Hilton Harvest House in Boulder, CO. The time: 4:30 to 9:30 pm, on Friday, June 4, 1982. (I still have the T-shirt, although it no longer fits.) There were 20 breweries in attendance and between them they served 34 different beers, but there was no competition for awards of any kind. The beer list was short by today’s standards, but a revolutionary step forward for that bygone era.
The beers: Anchor Steam and Porter (CA); August Schell’s Deer, Export and Ulmer Lagers (MN); Blitz-Weinhard Henry’s; Boulder Extra Pale, Porter and Stout (CO); Coors Killian’s Irish Red (CO); Falstaff Ballantine India Pale Ale and Porter (IN); F.X. Matt’s Premium and Maximus Super (NY); Fred Koch Black Horse Ale and Beer (NY); Geyer’s Frankenmuth Bavarian Light and Dark (MI); Heilman’s Special Export (WI); Huber Augsburger Light and Dark (WI); Hudepohl Christian Moerlein (OH); Latrobe Rolling Rock (PA); Leinenkugel Beer (WI); Rainier Ale (WA); River City Dark and Gold (CA); Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Stout and Porter (CA); Stevens Point Special Beer (WI); Yuengling Premium, Porter and Lord Chesterfield Ale (PA). (By the way, on this list, the word “light” in the name indicates pale beer only.)
At that time, there were 78 brewing plants owned by the 40 U.S. brewing companies. Of those, 15 were considered “small,” producing fewer than 100,000 barrels annually. Five of these outfits were what we would call “craft” or “micro,” four of which were entered into competition. That year I was able to sample all of the brews that I had not previously evaluated in my travels. My favorite was then-microbrewed Sierra Nevada Porter. The next year (’83), 24 breweries―four of them micros―were present with 44 beers and an expanded program (Saturday afternoon and evening). At that time, predictions in the brewing industry held that by 1990, only 10 actual brewing companies would remain in business.
By 1985, the fourth GABF was in its second year in Denver. Forty-seven brewers offered 86 of their best beers in the Grand Ballroom of Denver’s Regency Hotel. Attendees voted Bert Grant’s Yakima-brewed Russian Imperial Stout as the best beer. In those two days, I actually sampled all 53 (!) of the beers I had never tried, although many of my tasting notes were garbled. (Hey―I was working! OK?) I rated Sierra Nevada Big Foot Barleywine tops at that time, although the crowd voted Sam Adams Boston Lager as its favorite.
Taking It Up a Notch
The professional tasting panel began in 1988. By then, the list had grown to include 144 beers from 69 brewers. For the first time, medals were awarded, in the style of the Olympic games, with gold, silver and bronze winners recognized in each of the 23 styles judged.
At that time, it was customary for most wine and beer medals to be awarded very freely, as were those of the 1989 Brussels Institute International pour le Selections de la Qualite. The Institute’s “Monde Selection” (world choice) committee considered 213 beers from 97 breweries around the world. The committee then awarded 22 gold medals with palms (10.3 percent), 168 gold medals (78.9 percent) and 19 silver medals (8.9 percent). Only four beers were awarded bronze. In total, 89 percent of the awards given were gold. Almost every entry was a winner―and I’m sure that the entry fee for each was a hefty one.
I continued sampling every beer I had not already tasted through the ninth GABF (’90), but I skipped the next two festivals. When I came back to the 1993 GABF, tasting every single beer was an impossibility, even for an inebriate such as I. The judging was more complicated, too; we 43 judges evaluated 32 different styles to award medals.
That year there were 630 beers from 136 brewers, and it was during this festival that I switched from careful evaluation to “surfing.” Surfing is a lot more fun, and one needn’t keep careful notes. Sometimes now I just wander around leaping at this or that beer―whatever tickles my fancy. At other times, I surf a particular geographic area of the country, or a particular style (such as IPAs or Imperial Stouts).
Surfing the 2005 GABF
It was like a zoo; there were almost 30,000 of us surfers looking at 1,672 beers from 377 breweries and brewpubs. I didn’t serve as a judge, but 109 judges evaluated 466 beers in 69 categories to award 206 medals. The largest brewer’s contingent was made up of 38 breweries from California, followed by Colorado’s 29, Texas’ 13, Wisconsin’s 11 and New York’s 10. There were 103 entries in the largest category, American IPA, which was probably the most popular at the festival.
As I see it, American brewing is no longer limited to the ancient Bavarian Reinheitsgebot ingredients: malt, hops, water and yeast. We have a growing number of special categories that employ fruits, berries, vegetables, herbs, coffee, chocolate and various non-yeast type bacteria. It is now the magic age of the Ancient Chinese Reinheitsgebot: earth, fire, air and water!
No name is sacred from some brewer’s use: Larryville Lyte, Dirty Summer Blonde Chocolate Beer, Buttface Amber Ale, Alice B. Brownie, Tres Diablos, Nit Wit, Tripel de Ripple, Calcutta #420 India Pale Ale, All the Way Ale, No Doubt Coffee Stout, Hopsquatch, Bitch Creek ESB, Three Drunk Monks, Old Willy IPA, Menage a Frog Tripel, Blithering Idiot, Arrogant Bastard Ale, Polygamy Porter, Inebriator Doppelbock, Fat Bastard, Thousand Island Pale, Damnation, and Atomic Brunette Imperial Stout. My two favorite beer names are: Most Beer Judges are Bone Heads and The Clueless Beer Writer, both from Denver’s Sandlot Brewery at Coors Field.
An Affordable Luxury
As for the side programs offered, my favorite episode was in the Media Beer and Food Pairing on Sept. 30, where our friend Garrett Oliver was hosting a light dinner and explaining to us clueless beer writers that “beer has different talents.” At that point, he turned to the hotel server, asking her for white wine glasses in which to serve the beers. You should have seen the shocked look on that poor lady’s face! She didn’t say it, but you really could read it in her eyes: white wine glasses―for beer? Surely you jest! She was aghast; it was almost as if he had used the F-word in church! I had a terrible time keeping myself from laughing. Indeed, I stuffed a napkin in my mouth to stay civil. It would have been very unseemly for a clueless beer writer to be rolling on the floor in mirth at such an august time.
Garrett’s menu was beautiful and complicated―a dinner where wine would die at the first sip. My favorite entrée combination was the second course: Thai crabcake from jumbo lump Dungeness crab meat, encrusted in Macadamia nuts and served with lemon grass coconut emulsion garnished with cilantro. This was served with Avery IPA from nearby Boulder. The flavor hook here was, as Garrett explained, “Hops versus cilantro,” and he pointed out that the beer’s bitterness gives cutting power over the spicy entrée.
OK, and how about this for dessert: individual chocolate Macadamia nut tortes from chocolate cookie crust with a chocolate Macadamia mousse filling topped with fresh whipped cream and chocolate shavings, served with his fine Brooklyn Brewery (NY) Black Chocolate Stout.
Most of us “foodies” just dabble because we enjoy it, but Oliver is a true believer. He’s in love. How else would you explain this wonderful statement: “Wine is a fruit sauce―the flavor of Cabernet has absolutely nothing to do with the flavor of steak! His message: “Great beer is affordable every day, compared to great wine occasionally. It’s not a fad but a return to normality.” (Howzatt?)
But I digress, and that’s really Michael Jackson’s job (!). My 2005 surfing efforts were rewarded with several outstanding brews, although I’m not sure any were medal winners. Perhaps my favorite was Duck-Rabbit Porter (NC), or maybe it was New Belgium Tripel (CO), or Goose Island Matilda (IL). In any case, I do know my favorite T-shirt of those I saw. It came from New Glarus Brewing (whose Rye Bock was also impressive). The shirt’s legend said it all: “Real Women Don’t Drink Light Beer.” There are a number of ladies of my acquaintance who’d love that T-shirt, but it wasn’t for sale there.
Fred Eckhardt occasionally surfs the world for his beer, but the annual GABFs are a favored hunting ground.