Rocky Mountain High
Austin Brewers at the Great American Beer Festival
Now in its 15th year, the GABF ranks as the largest showcase of American microbreweries. An event that started as a casual assembly of zealous "beer geeks" now attracts crowds of 30,000 eager to sample the best American craft beers during a four-day run in late September. Equal parts sampling festival and national beer competition, the GABF gives the mostly small-scale breweries a chance to jockey for bragging rights and pour their beer for an appreciative public. This year's GABF featured over 1,400 beers from 365 breweries, which translated to a very full weekend of pilsners, bocks, lagers, and stouts. Attendees could sample an unprecedented range of styles from the traditional (English pale ales and German lagers) to the experimental (huckleberry wheat or pumpkin beers).
The crew from Waterloo, including their enthusiastic brewmaster Steve Anderson, formed part of a strong Austin contingent at this year's 15th Anniversary festival. Three of Austin's five brewpubs -- Waterloo, the Bitter End, and Copper Tank -- brought their beers up for the competition, as did Celis Brewery, a perennial favorite in the various Belgian-style categories.
Any local rivalries that exist within the 512 area code seemed to disappear once the local crews hit Denver, where the Texas brewers pulled together as a single team. St. Arnold's Brewing in Houston shipped kegs of the Austin competitor's beers in their big red truck. Impromptu expeditions sprang up to check out the fertile microbrew scene in the Denver/Boulder area. There was a sense of solidarity among the Texas teams, who represented a good cross-section of the state -- from the DFW MetroPlex to Austin, Lubbock and Waco. (Many of the Texas breweries that traveled to the GABF will be represented at this weekend's Texas Brewer's Festival.)
Most of the conversations at the Wednesday night GABF kickoff party could
have easily been held at a small-town high school reunion -- Pilsner Polytech,
Home of the Fighting HopHeads, five-time Quad-A Malt Liquor Champions. After
the usual enthusiastic greetings, conversation would shift to various aspects
of the beer business. Brewmasters -- who spend most of their working life
sloshing around concrete-floored brewhouses, stirring bubbling vats of grain --
finally got a chance to shed their rubber boots and talk shop with their peers.
Brewpub owners discussed the delicate balance of running hybrid
restaurant/breweries while microbrewery representatives worried out loud about
new threats posed by conglomerate mega-breweries that could potentially limit
Brewer's Class Reunion
But for the most part, the talk focused on the Festival, which officially opened the next day. Al Kinchen, brewmaster from Routh Street Brewery in Dallas, would be working the next day, sitting on a jury panel for the beer competition. The public tastings, which ran nightly from Thursday to Saturday, promised to pull in thousands of Denver locals and traveling beer lovers. Susan and Mike Parker, who came with Waterloo, described what it was like to work security at last year's festival ("Gets pretty hairy on Friday and Saturday, but tomorrow should be pretty slow..."). Off-festival hours would be spent roaming the various brewpubs around Denver, one of the country's craft brewing hotspots.
Denver in September also provided a great late-summer escape from the Austin heat, and as the night passed on, the first winter storm of the season rolled into town. From the safety of a thoroughly beered ballroom, we watched five inches of snow roll past the streetlights and collect on the ground.
Thursday's most important events took place behind closed doors. While the
brewers and setup crews prepared for the evening's public tasting, panels of 71
judges ranked the 1,400 entries in the Professional Panel Blind Tasting, the
GABF's official brew competition. Over the course of the competition, different
beers are entered into 37 different style categories, and are judged by taste,
overall quality, and adherence to the Association of Brewers' style guidelines.
The categories range from the popular American Amber Ale (highly-hopped, light copper brews with medium to high maltiness) to the more specialized groups such as Dusseldorf-Style Altbier (a German brown ale) or Belgian-Style Fruit Lambics (intensely tart beers made with various fruits). The top three finishers in each style category would be awarded quasi-Olympian GABF medals in attractive gold-, silver-, and bronze-tone finishes.
But more significant than the medal itself is the prestige -- and all-important bragging rights -- that result from winning such a competitive event. In years past, GABF medals have been awards of distinction for the winning breweries, and become somewhat of a coup in marketing terms. (Three consecutive GABF golds inspired the now-clichéd Samuel Adams tag line "The best beer in America.") A string of medals can also build a new brewery's national reputation, as Celis did with its four-year run of medals from the competition.
So for most of the day, groups of beer experts tasted, analyzed, and ranked the liquid contestants while the Currigan Exhibition Hall prepared for three sessions of single-ounce mayhem.
The public portion of the GABF takes place during the three General Sessions,
where over 30,000 dedicated beer enthusiasts ponied up $25 for a lovely
commemorative glass and an unlimited supply of one-ounce refills. During these
sessions, one of Colorado's larger convention centers probably qualified for
Guinness World Record status as the Largest Beer-Only Shot Bar.
Rules of the Room
At over 100,000 square feet, Currigan Hall looks like Montana's High Plains enclosed by a metal roof, but during the General Sessions it becomes the love child of agitated anthill and Munich's hyperpopulated Oktoberfest. Three rows of tables reached the length of a city block, with room for kegs and pouring crews behind each one. Each of the nearly 400 breweries got roughly 15 horizontal feet of table space to store and serve their wares. The table crews were assisted by armies of radio-clad festival staff, who handled various logistical issues -- notably keeping the kegs cold, maintaining crowd control, and enforcing the festival's "one-ounce" rule.
The "one ounce" regulation evolved as a response to the Festival's incredible growth (from 750 attendees in 1982 to this year's crowd of over 30,000). The GABF started off as a simple tasting festival where beer enthusiasts could sample a diverse range of beers in a single evening. If an average sip of beer weighs in at three ounces, an average drinker could "responsibly" sample about 16 Festival beers instead of their usual three pints at their neighborhood bar. But with over 1,000 beers on tap, who wants to stop at 16? Facing pressure from insurance providers, festival organizers opted for smaller servings and the single-ounce regulation was born. Ever since then, GABF glasses have a painted dosage line -- following the logic that if the pourers know when to stop, the drinkers won't need to.
This year's Festival glass, a delicate cylinder two inches in diameter and about five inches tall, made sampling the beers a challenge and people-watching consistently hilarious. The rim, just large enough to fit snugly over the tip of one's nose, made drinking from the glass reminiscent of scenes from Pooh Bear vs. the Hunny Pot. To further complicate matters, the regulation GABF sample sits about half an inch in the glass (just high enough to seem like backwash) and the physical act of drinking required a quick backward jerk of the head -- a feat that would make most personal injury attorneys salivate.
Besides requiring an advanced grasp of fluid acrobatics, the glass comes with the Festival's standard warning -- only one per person. If your glass breaks for any reason (clumsiness, slight change in barometric pressure, freak opera accident) you're done for the night. When glass breakages occur, a deep moan goes up from the crowd, beginning at the point of breakage and rippling out to the end of the hall -- the sound of 5,000 bull moose riding a roller coaster.
After hours of equipment tests and last-minute ice deliveries, the gates would
open as the throng of beer lovers jockied for position. Before each of the
sessions, crowds gathered in front of the hall about a half hour before the
doors were scheduled to open. The sparsest crowd -- about 500 business folk and
veterans in beer shirts -- assembled on Thursday and calmly cleared the
required ID check point. Once inside, they exchanged their ticket for the
straight-sided GABF glass and were free to roam. As a band of kilt-clad
bagpipers blared out "Scotland the Brave"-- universally recognized as the
Seventies-era Old Spice jingle -- the crowd quickly spread the length of the
Compulsory Floor Exercises
As the Parkers had predicted, Thursday was the slowest night -- a warmup for
the more highly publicized weekend sessions. Most of the attendees wandered the
hall at a slow clip, thoughtfully savoring and pondering each beer's color,
smell, and finally, taste. Dressed mainly in brewpub
t-shirts and the occasional baby-carrier, the crowd maintained a focused, thoughtful pace while a bored security crew stared into space. The dull, depressive moans of breakage went up about every twenty minutes or so.
In the Friday session, however, the elbow room and relaxed pace had all but disappeared. Heavy promotion from the various radio sponsors had brought a considerably younger crowd, apparently immune to the effects of bagpipes at point blank range. The opening crowd filled the courtyard, wound around the block and twitched with anticipation. Once the doors opened, the floor filled beyond claustrophobic in fifteen minutes flat. Friday night saw a marked increase in the number of "liners," endurance drinkers attempting to drink an ounce of every beer available. Since completing said quest would mean drinking over 11 gallons of beer, liners usually find themselves talking with the friendly GABF bouncers sometime during the evening. But thanks to a particularly sedate mob (as mobs go) Friday's session went off without a hitch.
On Saturday afternoon, the floor opened for a special tasting session attended
only by festival participants and members of the Association of Brewers. After
two nights of tightly packed aisles, the Member's Only Tasting gave a smaller
audience full access to the beers and the official awards ceremony. The Bitter
End's brewmaster Tim Schwartz had enough breathing room to talk about his five
entries, including the lightly smoked Scottish-style Aberdeen Amber.
And the Winner Is...
Gradually, the crowd began to gather around the awards stage for the GABF competition results. For the brewers, it was a chance to see how their beers fared against the best in the nation, and the tension matched the occasion. Peter Camps and Pierre Celis stared intently and waited for the Belgian categories to be announced. After the traditional pep talks about the state of American craft brewing and obligatory sponsor recognition, the awards were finally announced. The medals were placed around the necks of the victorious brewmasters or owners -- almost evenly split between ponytailed 20-year olds and middle-aged men with lovingly crafted beer guts. For those who tend the tanks and balance the books, this can be their proudest moment.
With each passing medal, there were cheers for industry pioneers and regional comrades alike. The winners were cheered on by friends as they took to the stage, and the Texas winners were no exceptions. The 21 Texas breweries made a strong showing, with a total of six medals split evenly between the Dallas and Austin areas (see sidebar). Waterloo Brewing Co.'s "O. Henry's Porter" won a silver medal in the Robust Porter category, following last year's Vienna Lager silver. Austin's Copper Tank also earned a silver for their Cliffhanger Alt, a Dusseldorf-Style Altbier. The Celis team's bronze medal -- awarded to their Grand Cru -- represented their lowest showing since their first GABF in 1992, but Pierre's presence on stage clearly identified him as an audience favorite. In the absence of a silver or gold, beer professionals showed their respect for his contributions with enthusiastic and universal applause.
After the last medal had been awarded (in the nearly non-competitive Non-Alcoholic Malt Beverage category), the members made their way toward the booths to taste the winning brews. Medal winners displayed their prizes proudly and openly congratulated one another -- their year of bragging rights had begun. For the rest of the contestants, the competition was finally over and the suspense that had provided most of the weekend's energy had been lifted. The fatigue of the weekend started to surface as they looked to that evening's final and most active public session. There was just enough time to grab an early dinner before the last push -- the Night of the Living Dregs.
The pressure for Saturday's public tasting had been building all week. Most of
the seven radio sponsors had thoroughly hyped the event and promised live GABF
remotes that night. After the few early-season snow days, the sky cleared for a
perfect fall afternoon.
Last Call Countdown
Saturday's pre-show lineup started early and soon looked like the starting line of the Boston Marathon. The security force, both volunteer bouncers and off-duty police, looked a bit on edge as they watched the line snake down the street in two directions. Tonight's ticketholders, mostly in their early twenties and twitching in place, considered this both a test of endurance and a race against the clock. For everyone involved, it was going to be a long night.
After a quick announcement of the ground rules ("Don't break your damn glasses"), the line streamed into the Hall, with its members slapping high fives before rushing the nearest sampling table. The evening's battle call -- "WOOOOOOOOO!!!!" -- mixed with the tortured squeal of "Scotland the Brave" and reverberated off the high ceilings of the hall. If there's a hell for school librarians, this must be the soundtrack.
The next four hours epitomized the phrase "well-contained mayhem." Every square inch of floor and wall space was occupied with people drinking, talking about, or waiting for beer. Pizza, pretzel and buffalo bratwurst flew out of the concession stands. Frenzied pourers tried to keep up with demand as staff members called for more ice and the occasional bouncer. As the clock ticked close to the 10pm close, the crowd's pace quickened and glasses started to break about every thirty seconds. Liners lunged to get a few more samples. The bagpipers returned to lead a drunken conga line around the hall.
And the crowd cheered "WOOOOO!"
Finally, last call came and went, and the PA system announced the official end of the festival. Radio crews stopped the pours and started to usher everybody out the appropriate exit. Promotional beer coasters whizzed the length of the hall. Brewery staff dismantled their displays and handed signs to anyone who asked. After ten minutes, the security force formed a line and escorted everybody out, and 10,000 tasters stumbled out into the streets. Out on Currigan's entry courtyard, groups of victorious liners congregated, looked for their rides, or just fell into circling taxicabs. The Austin breweries would clean up tomorrow, before their flights home, but now it was time to decompress and start thinking about the next festival -- still over a month away and much closer to home.