There is a story, at least partly apocryphal, of Charlie Papazian, co-founder of the American Homebrewers Association, telling the great English beer critic Michael Jackson that he and some other Yanks were thinking of launching something called the Great American Beer Festival.
“That’s a great idea, Charlie,” Jackson said. “Only what will you serve for beer?”
We can forgive Jackson’s drollery. It was the very early 1980s, and America beer-wise was mostly notable for “single breweries … which produce as much beer as entire European countries,” as Jackson wrote in his seminal 1977 work, The World Guide to Beer. Size aside, there just wasn’t much there to celebrate. Most Americans drank the same pilsner interpretation that Budweiser et al embodied; triumphs of engineering, yes, but certainly nothing to hang a beer-tasting festival on.
Papazian and the AHA back in Boulder, CO, pressed on, however. They held organizational meetings in Papazian’s living room with 10 to 15 volunteers, as well as Daniel Bradford, the AHA’s first hire, who would co-found the GABF with Papazian. (Bradford is the publisher of All About Beer Magazine.) The group settled on June 4, 1982, a Friday, as the date of the inaugural GABF, nestling it amid the annual weekend-long homebrewers conference.
In the program for that homebrewers conference, the Friday schedule contained this entry: “4:30 – 9:30 PM. The Great American Beer Festival 1982—see details on page 16.” The details included a glossary of beer terms as well as descriptions of the 47 beers available from 24 different breweries at 22 spots in the 5,000-square-foot ballroom of the Hilton Harvest House on 28th Street in Boulder. Attendees at that first GABF say it took about an hour to visit every spot.
The GABF, of course, has long moved from June to the fall, usually October, and from Boulder to roomier digs in Denver. It has also long been separated from the annual AHA convention and now unfolds over three days rather than five hours. Plus, the crowds: Now the GABF draws 50,000, give or take. At that first one, 32 Junes ago, it drew about 850 people. One of those was Michael Jackson.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.