What do 60,000 beer-loving people from around the country have in common? Earlier this month they were in Denver, CO attending the 36th annual Great American Beer Festival (GABF), the largest beer festival in the country to celebrate the craft. Interested in the history of the event and how it might have changed over the years, we did a bit of research and asked some of the Iron Hill brewers to share their experiences and observations:
The consensus with the crew was how they all exclaimed how the festival has grown in size, or as Senior Head Brewer Chris LaPierre simply wrote, “BIGGER!” In 1982 there was one session as part of the American Homebrewers Association’s Conference where 800 guests enjoyed 47 beers, selected by a committee, from 24 breweries. This year there were over 3,900 beers brewed by 800 breweries available in the convention center. At an ounce per sample, that is almost 250 pints! It’s grown so quickly recently, as the industry as a whole has, that a few years ago 20,000 square feet were added to the event space. Head Brewer Pim Harmsen noticed how much of that space is taken up with food sales, vendors promoting brewery equipment or beer-related items and clothing sales.
With so many breweries, unfamiliar to many guests, one way to attract attention is to dress up your booth. As Harmsen said some displays are now “much more ostentatious, noticeable and reflect the brewery’s vision”, which he believes is an improvement over the indistinguishable tables with volunteers pouring beer. A “Meet the Brewers” section was added, that Senior Head Brewer Matt Gundrum called a “nice touch”, where brewers poured the beers and chatted with guests. Festivalgoers could learn more about the beer they were drinking and fellow brewers could talk shop and share information.
LaPierre said the growth of GABF has also had positive and negative affects on Denver and industry-related events around the city. About 10 years ago he could take a van load of friends on “pretty extensive” private tours of local breweries. During GABF this year to tour New Belgium, required a reservation for one of their bus trips from Denver, which sold out early. There are hospitality events for industry people, which he stopped attending about seven years ago due to overcrowding. The upside is the addition of restaurants and bars around the city, making it “a much better place to eat and drink” he says. There were so many things going on during the 3-day festival that Gundrum felt there wasn’t enough time to check it all out and catch up with industry friends from around the country.
More breweries also means more beers entered in the competition, including 595 first-time breweries this year, requiring 276 judges for 7,923 beers! LaPierre, who is a long-time judge, remembers when there was a limit of one judge from each brewery and they were able to get through all the beers on Friday morning then head out to a hospitality event at the Sandlot at Coors Field. This year with no limit on judges it took most of Friday to get through all that beer! With gold, silver and bronze being awarded in 96 categories, that’s a lot of medals that need to bedetermined. Winners used to receive them on a stage set up in a back corner of the GABF floor, with a small number of folding chairs set up for viewers. About five years ago the awards ceremony moved to a two-story auditorium, which the industry has already outgrown, causing many brewers to have to stand outside the theater watching on big-screen tv’s.
With the growth and changes, one thing has remained consistent, Iron Hill’s medal-winning streak. Since first entering beers in 1997, Iron Hill has won at least one medal each year, for a total of 47, putting the company in the top 10 for GABF medal wins all time. Maybe Mark Edelson, one of the owners and original brewer, rubs the same lucky penny each year, or wears the same pair of socks to each award ceremony, or maybe, just maybe it’s over a century of combined experience and dedication. Visit one of our locations, enjoy some of our award-winning beers and tell us what you think.
View a full list of Iron Hill's awards won at GABF since 1997
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With 12 locations in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey, there’s an Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant near you. Each brewpub has their own craft kitchen and scratch brewery, allowing individual chefs and brewers the creativity to pair the freshest ingredients with the highest quality grains and hops. Monthly releases vary by location, so scout out our beers on tap and visit us soon.
This article was contributed by Nadine Banks. Nadine is an assistant brewer at Iron Hill West Chester.