Wednesday, September 27, 2023

On the 2023 GABF and a trip 20 years past

Photo © Brewers Association.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first time I attended the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), the brewing industry's premier event put on by the Brewers Association. I walked the hall strictly as a consumer then, and it would be seven years before I returned to cover the event as a media attendee.

Looking back, things were certainly different in 2003.The event hadn't grown to the level it would get to a few years ago, but it still felt big to a first-time attendee. Naturally, the brewery roster wasn't nearly the same, and who knows how many firms from those days have come and gone. Beyond that, there were more brewers, owners and beer celebrities in attendance, volunteers were happy to spill a bit more beer into your sample glass, and you couldn't help but walk out with a bag full of brewery swag.

Of course, GABF attendance and participation numbers would eventually peak right before Covid struck. But now, the festival has scaled back, thanks in part to economics and the after-effects of the pandemic. Breweries are still entering the competition, but fewer are choosing to make the trip to pour their products for festgoers.

For some, pouring at GABF simply doesn't move the meter in terms of attracting more everyday customers. If you distribute out-of-state (especially to Colorado), there's potential to expand your reach, but for hyper-local breweries, an appearance at GABF probably isn't a priority.

As for breweries from North Texas, only six were accounted for on the festival floor - 903 Brewers of Sherman, Bankhead Brewing Co. of Rowlett, False Idol Brewing of North Richland Hills, Martin House Brewing Co. of Fort Worth, Siren Rock Brewing Co. of Rockwall and Twin Peaks Brewing Co. of Irving. And yes, a couple of those - 903 and False Idol - do sell their products in Colorado.

Something else you wouldn't have encountered in 2003 was a beer like the one I began the festival with in 2023 - Cream Cheese Rangoon Gose (a gose with cream cheese, wonton wrappers and sweet & sour sauce) from Weldwerks Brewing of Colorado. In terms of non-standard ingredients, the most you could have hoped for in 2003 was maybe a simple fruit or nut addition, though a jalapeño lager was among the medal winners.

There were plenty of IPAs in 2003, as always, but a wider spectrum of style choices was available for sampling at the time. More recently, there's been a scarcity of Baltic porters, barleywines, classic Belgians (dubbel, tripel, quad, witbier, Flanders), and certain German styles (hefeweizen, schwarzbier, Vienna lager), just to list some things I typically seek out.

If there was a trend to identify in 2023, it might be the proliferation of light lagers. In fact, as you'll see later, "Light Lager" was a popular entry among style categories this year. And to be clear, there's nothing wrong with a well-made craft light lager...but for me, I generally prefer beers with a little more strength, as evidenced by this list of favored festival pours:

  • 2012 Angel's Share (barrel-aged strong ale) from The Lost Abbey of California.
  • Arcane Rituals (barrel-aged English barleywine) and Fundamental Observation (imperial vanilla stout) from Bottle Logic Brewing of California.
  • Nevermore Black Barleywine (barrel-aged with cocoa beans and smoked figs) from Ex Novo Brewing Co. of New Mexico.
  • Comshaw Roggenbock from Deep Draft Brewing of Washington.
  • Dusk 'Til Dawn (imperial coffee porter) from Pizza Port Brewing Co. of California.
  • In the Darkness Below (oyster stout with purple dulse kelp, squid ink and black Hawaiian sea salt) from Dogfish Head Craft Brewery of Delaware.
  • Let it Loose (wheated bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout) from Firestone Walker Brewing Co. of California and Side Project Brewing of Missouri.

So, are things better or worse than they were in 2003? I'd say it depends on your preferences. There are more breweries, but lately it seems there are fewer style options available to drink on a daily basis. Who knows, maybe the industry is just going through a (haze) phase, and we'll eventually circle back around to more style diversity. Let's just hope it doesn't take 20 years!

With that, a summary of this year's competition is provided below, along with my annual recap of area taproom excursions.


Competition results

Statistics for this year's competition show 9,298 beers were judged based on entries sent in by 2033 breweries from all 50 U.S. states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico. From these submissions, judges awarded a total of 303 medals across 101 style categories.

As has become the norm, IPAs represented the two most-entered categories, with "Juicy or Hazy India Pale Ale" leading the way, followed by "West Coast-Style India Pale Ale," a newly named category for 2023. In third position, though, was "Light Lager," which overtook "German-Style Pilsener," last year's number three ranked style.

Three medals went to North Texas breweries this time around, with two going to Bankhead Brewing Co. of Rowlett and one to Windmills Brewery of The Colony.

Both Bankhead and Windmills have placed at GABF in the past, making them two of only eight active breweries to medal multiple times since 2012. Plus, Windmills has now won medals in back-to-back years, an impressive result considering the brewpub has only been open since early 2021.

Gold: Bankhead Brewing Co. for Hootenany - Bock.
Silver: Windmills for Black Market Liver - Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Stout.
Bronze: Bankhead Brewing Co. for Hoofer's Hef - South German-Style Hefeweizen.

Representatives of Bankhead Brewing Co. of Rowlett take the stage to accept
one of two medals won by the brewpub at this year's event (Photo © Brewers Association).

Source: Individual research.

Source: Individual research.

Taproom trips

  • Having visited most breweries in and around Downtown Denver over the years, I've recently made a point to explore a bit more out in the area's suburbs. This year, I stopped off in Castle Rock, based on the promise of a cluster of breweries in the city's downtown district. Had my stay been longer, I probably would have spent more time at Iron Mule Brewery, if for no other reason than to enjoy additional pours of the brewery's Mule Skinner Baltic Porter and Little Hoppy Mule Black IPA.

    The beertender at Iron Mule even convinced me to abandon the downtown cluster for 105 West Brewing Co. in another part of town. There I was met with a taplist of over 25 house beers that included standouts Wee Fella, a barrel-aged Scottish wee heavy, and Deez Nuts, a hazelnut and peanut butter ale.
Craft beer destinations in Castle Rock, Colorado, include Iron Mule Brewery and 105 West Brewing Co. (Photos © Brian Brown/Beer in Big D). 

  • Further out, the continuing quest for brews with a view led me to a pair of mountain ski towns. Outdoor ambiance was achieved at Vicious Cycle Brewing in Fraser, but you also can't go wrong with a stop at Hideaway Park Brewery in Winter Park. During my visit to Hideaway Park, I paired their super crushable More Smiles Per Mile Dry-Hopped Cream Ale with a Wild Boar Bratwurst from Fraser Valley Hot Dog in the same building.
Right: Training Wheels Apricot Wheat and Oktoberfest center a flight at Hideaway Park Brewery in Winer Park, Colorado.
Left: Mountain views enhance the experience at Vicious Cycle Brewing in Fraser, Colorado (Photos © Brian Brown/Beer in Big D).

  • Speaking of beer and food, we'll close out this year's GABF trip coverage with a little BBQ aside. Purveyors of Texas BBQ are hit or miss in Colorado, but there's a promising new(ish) brewery/BBQ spot on the east side of Denver called A Bit Twisted Brewpub. I also enjoyed a burnt end bite at Post Oak Barbecue in Denver's Berkeley neighborhood this trip, and it's worth mentioning that Smok at The Source in the RiNo District consistently delivers on its smoked offerings as well.
Options for Texas BBQ in Denver include Brisket Tacos at A Bit Twisted Brewpub and
the Brisket Burnt Ends Sandwich at Post Oak Barbecue (Photos © Brian Brown/Beer in Big D).

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