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Is The Great American Beer Festival Too Great?

Brewers Association

Denver's Great American Beer Fest gets underway Thursday. It can be a make or break moment for brewers - if their beer receives an award. When brewer registration slots sold out in less than two hours, many were left on waiting lists for the ‘Super Bowl’ of beer festivals.

Chad Yakobson, owner of Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project has his hands full. Not only is it GABF week, he’s also overseeing the final touches to his new tap room inside a repurposed 19th century factory known as ‘The Source.’

“[It’s an] 1880s brick foundry building, everyone hand-picked artisans,” Yakobson said. “We fit in as a community brewer in a way. There was always a brewery in all the communities – in fact in everyone’s house if you go back a couple hundred years.”

The new tap room will play host to a festival of its own Friday night when 30 breweries, some in competition at GABF and some not, will tap special brews highlighting the unique flavors of barrel aged beer. Yakobson’s wood and barrel aged sour beer Sentience took a 2012 GABF silver medal, and this year he was hoping to win more.

Credit Jim Hill / KUNC
Chad Yakobson is owner of Crooked Stave.

It hasn’t worked out that way though.

“It was great last year, Paul Gatza of the Brewers Association used Crooked Stave amongst other breweries as examples of up and coming breweries to watch and to continue to watch at GABF,” Yakobson said.

Waiting until later on registration day, Yakobson found himself on a waiting list and unable to enter the competition.

“So at first when we didn’t get in I was bummed because here we were last year an up-and-coming brewery for years to come and now this year we can’t participate,” Yakobson laments.

Barbara Fusco, sales and marketing director for the Brewers Association says she wishes every brewer who wants to participate in the yearly festival could. The Brewers Association is the host of the Great American Beer Fest; their coveted competition medals are the reasons so many want to participate.

“The GABF is the pinnacle event for craft brewing and so many breweries do want to participate,” Fusco said.

For Jeff Crabtree, owner of Greeley’s Crabtree Brewery, it took a while to convince him the time and energy he had to expend preparing for the fest was actually worth it.

“For years, I believed we didn’t really need to go, so we didn’t,” Crabtree said. “It’s expensive and we have to pay a lot of money to go. And as a small brewery we weren’t as capitally funded as most… it was hard to make that decision.”

Credit Nathan Heffel / KUNC
The tap room of Crabtree Brewing in Greeley

Then he started winning medals.

“And I felt good about that,” Crabtree said. “And then, the national recognition came into play.”

“So, I now have an approach that 'yeah, it’s a festival.' But it’s the NBA -the Super Bowl of festivals,” continues Crabtree. “You can win a bunch of tiny little festivals but until you can actually go to competition in the large festival –and win? It’s worth it. And I believe strongly behind it.”

Since the Great American Beer Festival is now considered the big game, Crabtree was ready days before game day. He was prepared before registration opened, beat the rush and secured a place for his 11 beers in the competition

He says it simply makes good business sense spending well over a thousand dollars in fees to showcase his beers and grow his brand recognition. It's an even better pay off if his beers win.

“We’re really going for that national recognition,” Crabtree said. “It’s a lot easier to go to a distributor and say, 'would you like to carry this beer, oh… by the way it’s a national or international award winning beer.' It really breaks down that barrier to sale.”

Crooked Stave’s Chad Yakobson agrees.

“It’s great exposure to be able to say, hey of this style that we’re making - that we think we’re doing really well - look we have some recognition from others," Yakobson said.

With so many brewers wanting a piece of the action organizers are having to makechanges, like limiting the number of beers a brewery can enter for competition.

“The Brewers Association is making some significant changes the format to entry, registration and the parameters of competition for 2014, so we are looking to accommodate hopefully all of the brewers that wish to participate in the competition next year,” Barbara Fusco said.

Credit Brewers Association
Competition is intense during the Great American Beer Fest.

All of the more than 300 brewerson the 2013 GABF waiting list were offered a chance to participate in the festival in some capacity. Yakobson says his brewery was able to secure slots for a couple of his beers and also received permission to pour during the public tasting sessions.

“My employees, we all love GABF,” Yakobson said. “We love to be able to go, we love being able to pour, we love [it] . It’s a very spirited event. When you have that many people in the room with that much energy going on, it’s great to be a part of.”

It’s estimated that 48,000 gallons of beer will be served during the three day event. And that’s not the only record for 2013. All 49,000 tickets to the Great American Beer Festival – that go for $80 apiece – sold out in less than 20 minutes in July.

And there’s no sign it will stop growing in the future.

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