The Great American Beer Festival. The name alone conjures up visions of yummy malted goodness, but the festival is much more. It is a celebration of American craftsmanship, pride and ingenuity. The festival, known to most as GABF, began way back in 1982 and although it may seem not that long ago, with all that has transpired in craft beer in the last 30 years, it feels like a lifetime.
30 years ago the American Home Brewers Association (AHA), the precursor to the Brewers Association, was in its 4th year of existence, having formed in 1978 when the federal government officially legalized home brewing. Coming up on(Approaching) its fourth annual conference, AHA decided to hold a festival celebrating American craft breweries. This was a momentous occasion, as the beer scene in the United States was virtually non-existent since prohibition ended and the U.S. was only recently seeing a resurgence of breweries opening up, with Jack McAuliffe’s New Albion Brewing having kick started the revolution in the mid 70′s. Although New Albion lasted only a few years, Jack inspired many to start their own breweries, most notably the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
In 1981, Charlie Papazian, co-founder of the AHA, was invited by a friend, and notable beer guru Michael Jackson, to attend the Great American Beer Festival in England. Wondering why we couldn’t have a festival like that in the U.S., Papazian quickly organized 24 commercial breweries and 50 volunteers to have the first ever Great American Beer Festival. The event was held in a 5,000 square foot ballroom at the Hilton Harvest House in Boulder, Colorado. The event was a huge success and saw 800 attendees sample 47 American craft beers over 5 hours.
Since then the festival has blown up and has come to rival the Great British Beer Festival. In its 30th year, GABF saw 49,000 thirsty fans of craft beer make their way to the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver, Colorado to sample 2,400 beers from 466 breweries around the United States. Packed into a room spanning 290,000 square feet, it took many months of preparation and around 3,300 volunteers to make the 3 day festival a giant success.
Of those 47 beers served at GABF in 1982, Anchor Steam, Anchor Porter, Genesee Cream Ale, Killian’s Irish Red Ale, Leinenkugel’s, Rainier Ale, Rolling Rock Lager, Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale and Stout, Stevens Point Special Lager, as well as Yuengling Brewery’s Premium, Lord Chesterfield Ale and Porter are all still served today. Of the 24 breweries that participated in 1982, Anchor Brewing Co., Boulder Beer Company,F.X. Matt Brewing Company, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and Stevens Point Brewery Co. still participated this year.
I was fortunate enough to attend again this year, and although I am a Colorado native, it was only my second opportunity to attend. It certainly will not be my last. Despite all the craziness that ensues during the festival and over the days leading up to it, it is a rare and incredible opportunity to sample and learn about beers from all over the U.S. in one hall. An opportunity most would never get to try in our lifetimes. Not to mention the camaraderie of being with those passionate about good beer and those who make it. It is an event like no other. Cheers to Charlie Papazian and all those past and present who bring this amazing example of the American spirit.
My thanks to the Huffington Post,; Julia Herz, Program Director at the Brewers Association; Spencer Powlison, Marketing Director at the Brewers Association, and the Brewers Association for their contributions to this article. More to come!