I just returned from my therapist, and he says I’m fighting a newly discovered discontent known simply as GBA (Grumpy Brewer Affliction). It’s not contagious, but given that I’ve been in the craft brewing business for almost 20 years now, he’s not surprised I caught it. Apparently, I am one of many brewers (young and old) who are increasingly being affected by this malady. It most heavily plagues those of us who have attended thousands of events and particularly demonizes those of us who previously organized beer festivals. In reality, it’s a posttraumatic disorder from all the countless indiscretions we’ve witnessed at beer festivals over the years. Lying on the couch in his office, I recounted some of my most vivid memories, including guys who drank out of the dump bucket, the patron who was dropped like a Mike Tyson opponent for cutting to the front of the restroom line and let’s not forget all the suddenly amorous couples who couldn’t wait until getting back to their hotel before fondling some very private areas. Of course that’s not everything I have seen but merely a quick hall-of-shame summary of many years of participating in beer festivals.
But he thinks my personal trigger may have come three years ago at a chance meeting with a Captain Jack Sparrow look-alike and his busty beer wench who attempted to hijack our Great American Beer Festival (GABF) booth (as costumed volunteer pourers). What? They have pirates at a beer festival? I guess I’m the only brewer who didn’t get the memo that pirates love their craft beer.
This couple arrived at our Lost Abbey booth for their Thursday night shift as our volunteer beer pourers. I was at once equally stunned and appalled. Mind you, their outfits were incredible. But I swore as they grabbed pitchers and started to pour beer in our booth that I was being “Punked.” Clearly, someone had put them up to this and I was being videotaped.
They were a nice enough couple in many ways, but in others they were just so very wrong. Call me a beer purist (I prefer the term brewer), but I reserve costumes for Halloween and an occasional thematic party to celebrate someone “going over the hill.” But as a brewer, I have little patience for costumes and beer. Makes me old I guess, but that’s the nature of this old-school beast. Back in 1994 when I attended my first GABF, it had a far less Hollywood feel to it, with the exception of writer Michael Jackson sipping beers on the festival floor.
Since that day, my understanding of beer festivals came to be that at each event I would meet another bearded fat guy rocking vintage Jerry Garcia-inspired tie-dye comparing notes on a beer with his buddy in white socks and Birkenstocks. Their friend notebook guy was never far behind, scouring the pages of his three-ring binder to determine if he had ever encountered said beverage. (Now there’s an app on our smartphones for that.) Lastly, someone in their party would inevitably be dropping crumbs from his pretzel necklace like Hansel and Gretel seemingly trying to find their way back to their favorite brewery booth.
Fast-forward to just about any beer event today and these old timers are still there, but they are heavily outnumbered by new consumers who better understand that convenience-store offerings also include Slim Jims and cheddar cheese sticks, thereby diversifying their arms-length food options. In doing so, they have ushered in a new era of beer festival necklaces.
Thankfully these newer and more culinarily diverse beer festivals now also include attractive millennial females, albeit many act like nervous pet owners tethered to their ever-present douche bag boyfriends, who were overserved by the bar they left before getting in line for the beer festival. Still, many of them travel in packs of friends who are incredibly passionate about great beer. Their knowledge of beer even outshines three-ring binder guy because they grew up with these beers in their refrigerators and attended beer festivals with their parents. We love these people. At least we love their consumerism.
But I am also aware there is an underbelly of brewers out there pining for the days of old. This past June, brewer’s registration for the GABF opened on a sleepy Tuesday morning. Within two hours, all the slots for the festival floor as well as judge-only beers had been filled. Last year, it took six days for these slots to be gobbled up. Many stalwarts of the festival and some of the most previously decorated brewers were left holding nothing but air and a decidedly bitter inability to participate in this year’s festival. I will miss seeing them and cheering their amazing beers earning medals.
Since its humble beginnings in Boulder some 31 years ago, this now-Denver-based festival has grown into a giant three-day spectacle capturing the imagination of over 50,000 attendees. There is nothing simple about an event of this scale. It requires tons of beer, ice and volunteer labor to make it happen. And that’s where our man Jack Sparrow and his lovely beer wench come into play. Was it wrong for them to show up and support craft beer in a costume? Maybe if like me you claim old school?