Another year, another Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in which the national competition and brewery-filled gathering crowned nearly 200 beers the best of the best. Earlier this month, the 40th edition of the country’s most respected beer event took place in Denver, where 40,000 fans sipped beers from over 500 breweries.
Behind the scenes, the annual GABF Awards Ceremony hosted 235 certified beer judges vet beers from all fifty states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, who collectively tried a combined 9,904 beers and issued gold, silver, and bronze medals in 177 different registered beer styles.
“GABF is one of those pinnacle events,” says Kelsey McNair, founder and head brewer at this year’s most awarded brewery, California’s North Park Beer Co. “The integrity behind it is incredible.”
If you couldn’t make it to Denver this year, we’ve compiled the most significant takeaways from several days of heavy drinking—er, research—at the biggest beer festival and awards ceremony in the United States.
IPA still rules the roost. But not all IPAs are created equal.
The best-selling and most popular beer style in America is still the India Pale Ale. However, “American Style India Pale Ale” overtook “Juicy or Hazy India Pale Ale” as the most competitive category at the GABF Awards Ceremony.
The winner of the gold medal for this year’s American Style India Pale Ale category was More Dodge Less RAM, a West Coast IPA made by local-to-Denver Comrade Brewing Co. The beer was named to commemorate an occasion six years ago when a Dodge Ram truck drove through the front of the taproom and put the brewery out of production for two weeks.
Asked about the IPAs enduring success, Comrade Brewing Co. Brewmaster Marks Lanham points to its potential for innovation.
“It’s a style that keeps evolving,” says Lanham, who has been brewing for almost twenty years. “Since I started, IPAs have gotten a lot lighter. They used to focus on bitterness whereas now brewers are highlighting aroma and flavor. They’re drier and they use less crystal, which makes them easier to drink. And farmers and breeders keep coming out with new varieties of hops that continue to capture peoples’ attention.”
German-style beers are making a comeback
For the past decade, the running joke amongst beer writers has been that every year is the year that German-style beers are going to make a comeback. We understand it’s not that funny. But this year, we might actually prove ourselves correct.
After American Style India Pale Ale and Juicy or Hazy India Pale Ale, the most competitive category at the GABF Awards Ceremony was… German-Style Pilsener. Top marks in that category were taken by The Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co. (ABGB), a Texas-based brewery widely known for its German-style beers.
The fourth most popular category? German Wheat Ale. The fifth? Not Pale Ale. Not Stout. Nay—it was German-Style Maerzen.
“Lagers have always been a strong product for us, but I’d say that as of late, lagers have been even more popular,” says Mac McAlister, Director of Retail and Sales Operations at North Park Brewing Co. At the 2022 GABF Awards Ceremony, North Park was the most medaled brewery, taking home four different medals—all for hoppy styles. And yet, despite the success of North Park’s hoppy beers, many of their brewery customers are showing an interest in more traditional styles.
“We just released our rye pilsner,” says McAlister. “We sold out of cans more quickly than we sold out some of our hazies and IPAs.”
Perhaps the year of the lager is finally coming to fruition.
GABF Attendance was down, but everyone celebrated
Historically, the festival has welcomed 60,000 attendees into the Colorado Convention Center. In its first live event since the onset of the COVID pandemic, however, attendance hovered closer to 40,000. Does that mean less beer than usual got consumed in Denver? Unclear. But for those at the event, that lower-than-usual attendance was hardly felt.
“On Thursday, there was a Broncos game five blocks away and we still had a full house,” says Ann Obenchain, Marketing and Communications Director for the Brewers Association, the not-for-profit organization that throws GABF. “People were just standing outside, waiting to come in. You could feel the buildup.”
After three years of pandemic-induced cancellations, those who attended the event were ready to socialize. Even the Awards Ceremony—a particularly tense time for industry professionals—was a supportive, raucous affair.
“The brewers from Bottle Logic Brewing in California were sitting behind me,” says Grace Weitz, Managing Editor of Hop Culture Magazine and a regular at GABF. “Every time another California brewery won an award, they were whooping and cheering. More so than ever, it seemed like brewers were super supportive of one another.”
Bars, breweries, and restaurants came to party
While much of the GABF magic happened inside the Colorado Convention Center, this year’s event stayed to form by turning the city of Denver into a full-week, beer-themed party. Local bars, breweries, and restaurants put on and turned out, hosting dozens of interesting events. A full schedule would be an article in itself, but highlights include:
“Iron Maidens: A Celebration of Female Owned / Operated Breweries,” a tap-takeover thrown by Denver-based TRVE Brewing with a list of beers from Keeping Together (NM), Salud Cerveceria (NC), Wahg Waan (CO), Resident Culture (NC), Lady Justice (CO), and many more…
“Denver Rare Beer Tasting,” an annual tasting event started in 2009 that serves pours of the world’s rarest beers and supports Pints for Prostates, a 501c3 that promotes early screenings for prostate cancer…
“Great Mexican Beer Fiesta,” a street party thrown by Cerveceria Colorado that features Mexican-inspired beers, Lucha Libre, Folklorico dances, and local artisans…
Suffice it to say, everyone was ready to celebrate the 40th GABF after a few years of uncertainty in the beer industry.