In June 1984, organizers moved the Great American Beer Festival from its birthplace in Boulder, CO, 35 miles or so south to Denver.
It was the third year of the festival, which was then held in the spring to coincide with the annual convention of the Boulder-based American Homebrewers Association. Now, of course, it’s held in the early autumn, like the 33rd GABF that just wrapped up in Denver.
Throbbing headaches accompanied the move to Denver. Organizers that first year in the Mile High City rented the needlessly gigantic Currigan Exhibition Hall for the approximately 3,000 attendees and around 40 presenting breweries. One attendee remembered that “the cavernous building had all the ambiance of an airplane hangar,” its echoing capacity making the attendance feel small.
More than that, the ticket sales were not enough to cover the rent nor the insurance; and organizers ended up having to borrow money to cover not only the festival, but also the basic operating costs of the American Homebrewers Association for a time. Simply put: The move from Denver very nearly croaked the GABF and the organization behind it, the precursor to today’s Brewers Association.
The move had been necessary, though. The GABF had outgrown Boulder (ambiance notwithstanding, that first Denver GABF drew more than triple the amount of attendees as the first GABF in Boulder in 1982). More importantly, the ambitions behind the GABF had outgrown Boulder.
No one could have known it at the time, though some would later say they saw it coming, but American beer was starting to diversify at a fantastic clip, both stylistically and commercially. There were fewer than 100 breweries in the United States at the start of the 1980s; several had opened in the new decade—and stayed opened—including the first brewpubs since Prohibition. These newer breweries were resurrecting nearly extinct styles such as porter, barleywine and India pale ale.
Such a swelling movement’s primary trade showcase, the GABF, needed a bigger venue in a bigger city. Denver was close by; Denver was it.
The move 30 years ago from Boulder to Denver, fraught as it was with problems, turned out to be a smart decision. Attendance eventually caught up with the larger city’s larger venues, and, as anyone knows who has been at the last few, GABF tickets sell out with Springsteen-like speed and scalpers attempt a brisk trade around the queues outside the Colorado Convention Center. (I was not at this GABF, but attended the ones in 2011 and 2013.)
Everyone who attended also likely confronted a Lord of the Flies scramble for hotel rooms and long, long lines everywhere, from airport security to the restroom to getting on traffic-jammed shuttles from Plan C hotels worlds away from the convention center; never mind the crowding once inside, especially on the final nights as the clock ticks down on ticket validity and the drinking inevitably ticks up. The Brewers Association obviously seems aware of the crowing, or overcrowding; it said at this year’s festival it would add thousands of square feet of exhibition space to next year’s.
Still, a generation ago, the GABF toddled out from its birthplace and then grew up quite a bit into the phenomenon it is today: North America’s, maybe the world’s, biggest beer festival. Time for another move soon?
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.