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What I Learned at the Great American Beer Festival: A Brewer's Perspective

Editor's Note: Jesse Friedman is the cofounder and brewmaster of Almanac Beer Co., a San Francisco based brewery specializing in beers brewed in collaboration with local farms. This year was his first trip to the Great American Beer Festival as a brewer, so we asked him to share a bit about his experience. Take it away, Jesse!

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[Photographs: Jesse Friedman]

Last week Denver hosted the Great American Beer Festival (GABF)—an epic beast of a beer festival, unmatched in size or scope anywhere. I've been to GABF before, but this was my first time attending as a brewer. Stepping from one side of the beer-soaked table to the other provided me with a new perspective on the event. Here are some of the lessons I learned.

GABF is the best beer festival in the world

The size and scope of GABF is breathtaking. 624 breweries pouring over 3,100 beers simultaneously. It's a logistical nightmare that's pulled off with phenomenal grace. If you attended all four sessions for every minute and wanted to try EVERYTHING, you'd need a new 1 ounce sample every 20 seconds. You'd also be very, very drunk. So instead it's a game of tracking down breweries you love and trying new ones you've never heard of before.

Breweries rarely seen outside their home markets come to the fest and pour rare selections—and representatives from the breweries are on hand to talk about what they do. I was thrilled to try beers from beer geek favorite breweries like New Glarus, Three Flyods, Cigar City and Russian River all within minutes of each other.

GABF is a worst beer festival in the world

More beer and more breweries also means bigger crowds. As the festival goes on, these crowds become drunker, rowdier, louder and ruder. Every time a glass is dropped on the cement floor, the 'clink' sound is met with hundred of surrounding revelers shouting in unison. As drunken revelry sets in later into the session, 'friends' knock each other's glasses out of their hands, and get a little demandy for more samples from breweries and volunteers. It's crowded, loud, claustrophobic and frustratingly male-dominated. The food inside the convention hall would make most ballparks look good, and the overflow bathrooms are Porta Potties.

The brewing community really is as nice as you've heard

624 breweries each sending 5 or more representatives means that there are a lot of brewers at this festival. I was completely surprised by just how many brewers (and brewery sales reps, assistant brewers, packing line workers... everyone) came to GABF. At times it seemed like there might be more people wearing yellow brewer's badges than regular attendees.

It turns out most of these industry folks are beer geeks, just like you, only with more facial hair and more technical questions. Working at a brewery and making beer doesn't make these brewers any less excited about the beers being made, and they belly up the samples with the same enthusiasm and excitement to taste new things.

Pouring my beers for brewers (who are now my peers...it's a startling revelation) and having them host me and taste theirs was a highlight of the festival for me. For brewers from Avery—a brewery that I have long admired—to come and try my beers and say such nice things was humbling and exhilarating.

It's a beer festival. Pour festival beers.

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The phrase "festival beer" is jargon for a beer that makes a great big impression right away, even though it's only one ounce at a time. With all the beers being poured at GABF, it's hard to stand out and make an impression. Your bourbon barrel dry hopped chili beer? Great festival beer. Your delicate and balanced pale? Not so much.

With that in mind Almanac decided to go big, and poured a 100% barrel aged taplist. We broke out reserve kegs of our Farmer's Reserve No 3 with Strawberries and Nectarines, as well as our Heirloom Pumpkin Barleywine, a 12% bruiser of a beer. Barrel aging is where the excitement is right now in the beer world, and if your goal is build excitement and buzz around your beer, this is the place to do it.

Stay open-minded

One of the biggest surprises of the festival for me were the beers from AC Golden and Sandlot—two brewing projects headed up by Coors. The wild ale that AC Golden poured was in the running for best beer of the festival. It was a phenomenal American sour with that slight bitter lemon kick that makes a traditional Belgian Lambic tick. They may come from established players, but these small outfits are run by passionate technical brewers who really care about their craft, and it shows.

Losing sucks

Besides the festival, the other big part of GABF is the beer judging competition. Special judging samples are sent ahead of time, and judged by an enormous panel of certified beer experts. Beers we were pouring on the floor are automatically entered, and you can also enter up to 5 more (for a total of 10) beers to be judged.

It's a tough competition: 4,809 beer were entered in 84 categories, each vying for one of the 252 medals up for grabs. I'm not going to lie: I really wanted to win one. It's a stamp of validation from a community whose judgement is important to me. Plus, some of our specialty barrel aged beer have been pulling in nods in other competitions. I thought we had a chance.

Sadly, as the categories whizzed by, the reality set in: we were walking away empty handed. We left the award ceremony (quietly sneaking out the back after the last category we entered was called) and headed back up to the festival. We weren't alone in losing, either: breweries large and small, established and unheard of also walked away without bragging rights. I know intellectually that not winning an award doesn't really mean anything. But emotionally, the rejection stings.

Back in the main hall, my favorite session was starting up: the Saturday afternoon session, a slightly smaller session with attendance limited to members of the American Homebrewer's Association. Damian (my business partner and Almanac cofounder) had decided to give our volunteers a break, and for this four hour session, we would pour our beers ourselves. We wanted to be hands-on with the festival, interacting with beer fans directly, one ounce pour at a time.

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Going...going...gone.

Quickly a long line formed in front of our table—probably from a combination of us being slightly slower pourers than our speedy volunteers, but also because word had spread that our barrel aged beers were worth trying. The positive feedback was overwhelming, and we noticed that as our line grew, we noticed breweries next to us were moving beer rather slowly. Flanked on either side of us were Gold and Bronze medals (well deserved by great local breweries), but our line, with no medal, continued to grow. The judges of GABF had decided our beer wasn't medal worthy, but the crowd at GABF was spreading the word about our beer and had deemed it worthy of a line. If I had to choose one (a medal or a line), I'd take the line every time. (But deep down inside, I want both. There is always next year.)

Next Year

I left GABF exhausted, pained, sore, and more than a little dehydrated (I'm blaming the high elevation, rather than the amount of beer I drank I night before.) I also left energized. The community, the enthusiasm, the endless creativity, the validation of like-minded brewers from around the country trying our beer—all of it added up feeling like Almanac was stepping out of our small Northern California footprint and joining the national brewing community. I can't wait to go back next year.

About the Author: Jesse Friedman is the cofounder and brewmaster of Almanac Beer Co.

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