Beer festivals around the world come in many different iterations but none push the borders of innovation and discovery quite like the Great American Craft Beer Festival, held annually in Denver, Colorado and organised by the Brewers Association, the not-for-profit trade association for small and independent American craft brewers.
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After a three-year pandemic induced hiatus, this year the festival celebrated its 40th Anniversary beginning back in 1982 with 24 breweries, 47 beer and 800 visitors. The latest edition welcomed 500 breweries, pouring 2,000 beers enjoyed by 40,000 visitors and that’s 25% less than normal due to refurbishment works at the festival’s home, the Colorado Convention Centre. How times have changed!
It’s not only a beer lover’s paradise but a world of entertainment with crazy costumes, a silent disco, huge pretzel necklaces, Paired – the unique beer and food pairing experience – a ‘Backyard’ games area, a Brewers Studio for talks and tastings and much, much more combining to make an all-round unforgettable experience.
But American craft beer is undoubtedly the star of the show. Tickets are all-in allowing attendees to sample as many different beers one ounce/30ml pours in a 4.5‑hour session as they like. Long queues develop for ‘hype’ beers and the beer-savvy, well prepared festival goers have this down to a tee! For example, Sierra Nevada’s new collaboration with Buffalo Trace’s Colonel EH Taylor Bourbon and their Bigfoot Barleywine that had been aged in bourbon barrels for seven years and came in at a whopping 15%ABV. Samuel Adams launched the 2022 version of Utopias, an extreme barrel aged beer that consists of blends some dating back 16 years at a mind-bending 28% ABV! Fresh Hop beers were also in high demand following the perfect timing of the festival following last months’ harvest. Were such beers worth waiting for – you bet they were!
American craft brewers have long been considered the pioneers of the current craft beer world we see around the world today. Ground-breaking innovation and an unswerving commitment to quality are hallmarks of this industry and the festival had both in abundance. Top trends were as follows:
IPAs in their many iterations continue to dominate the American craft brewing scene with approximately one third of all sales. Well-made, high quality, classic IPAs featuring punchy, flavoursome American hops were highly prevalent at the festival as both brewers and drinker alike sought a return to traditional flavours and styles such as Breakside Brewery’s IPA or Coronado Brewing Co’s Weekend Vibes. The latest trend in the IPA world is for new-ish Cold IPA, a heavily dry-hopped ale/lager hybrid made using bottom fermenting yeast at warmer temperatures to give a clean, crispness with hop intensity and supreme drinkability. Gone is the pre-pandemic trend for Brut IPA, while milkshake IPAs were visible but few and far between (thankfully!).
Within the IPA category, Imperial IPAs are driving much of today’s growth and this was reflected on the festival floor.
Hazy/juicy IPAs were also popular but slightly less so than 2019 levels when some brewers offered 3–4 version of this one style. Good examples included Melvin Brewing’s Back in Da Haze or Migration Brewing Co’s MoHazeIc.
Lagers and Lighter Styles
Lighter and more approachable styles were much in evidence with a return to less palate-challenging and more easy-drinking beers. Lagers including Helles, Pilsner, Oktoberfest, Festbier, Marzen, Bocks and much more all featured heavily.
Low and No
Alcohol-free beers account for a small but rapidly growing sector of the American craft beer with .5% of the total market. This may seem small but compared to other sub-sectors of craft beer it’s a big chunk. There were more examples of low and no alcohol beers than ever before with brewers showing high levels of ingenuity and imagination, eg. Athletic Brewing Co’s medal winning Lemon Radler.
Wood & Barrel-Aged Strong Beers
Pastry stouts were less of a thing this year but intense, high ABV, rare beers were much sought after eg. Firestone Walker Parabola, imperial stout aged in Bourbon barrels for a year and The Bruery’s Ivoire, Bourbon barrel-aged ale.
Weird and Wacky
Although not necessarily a trend, American craft brewers love pushing the boundaries of creativity and here’s three examples of ground-breaking wackiness that all tasted better than they sound:
Carrot & Turmeric Saison
Gose with marsh salt and spirulina, a food-grade algae that gave the beer a green colour
Peanut Butter Hefeweizen
The demand for IPA and juicy/hazy IPAs is mirrored in the results of the GABF competition, which ran concurrently with the festival and took place for the 36th time. This year 9,904 beers entered the competition in 177 beer styles. They were judged by 235 judges who awarded 300 members in total. As trends on the festival floor suggest, the five most entered style categories were:
- American Style IPA with 423 entries
- Juicy or Hazy IPA with 375 entries
- German Style Pilsner with 233 entries
- German Wheat Ale with 209 entires
- German Style Marzen with 207 entries
Winning a medal at GABF is highly prestigious and recognises brewing excellence. Competition amongst brewers is intense and the sheer, unbridled joy when a winning brewery is announced is testimony to that. They whoop, holler, hug and slap each other on the back before heading on stage to collect their medal and pose for a winning photograph.
Chris Williams, competition director for GABF, says: “Each year the Great American Beer Festival showcases the best that American brewers have to offer. With 9,904 entries this year’s competition was the most competitive to date and truly demonstrated why the US is the best brewing nation in the world.”
Some of the medal winning beers may make their way into export markets such as gold medal winners Deschutes Brewery’s Hachimitsu Mai, a lager brewed with puffed Jasmine rice, almost no hops and Chilean Ulmo honey or perennial favourite Allagash Brewing Co’s White, a Belgian style wheat beer that frequently medals in European beer competitions. Also look out for Sierra Nevada Brewing Co’s Sunny Little Thing, a wheat ale made with citrus, or Cigar City Brewing’s Maduro brown ale.
Some brewers liked to show off not only brewing skills but their beer-naming creativity. In this writer’s opinion, the wittiest and most irreverent of all goes to the winner of the hazy/juicy IPA category, Anhyzer Kush!
People lucky enough to snag a ticket for Paired enjoyed 25 independent American craft breweries and 25 acclaimed chefs who joined forces to create mouth-watering delicacies hand crafted to pair with 50 special beers not found anywhere else on the festival floor. Highlights were a fresh hop IPA from Fremont Brewing Co, Field to Ferment using 100% Centennial hops that takes just 24 hours from the hop vine to the brewing kettle, paired with a spicy shrimp ceviche and Great Divide’s Hoss Oktoberfest Lager with braised short rib.
After attending GABF for three consecutive days, I sampled some of the highest quality, exceptional tasting American craft beers ever and should you be lucky enough to find such beers in your market, try them!
Free downloadable resources to help you understand and enjoy American craft beer are available at www.brewersassociation.org
The complete winners list is available at the GABF page.
About the Author
Lotte Peplow is a Certified Cicerone, accredited Beer Sommelier, international beer judge and beer writer who conducts talks and tastings about American craft beer, organises events and is a keen advocate of beer and food pairing She’s been involved with the Brewers Association, a trade association representing small and independent American craft brewers, for many years and in 2019 was awarded the title of American Craft Beer Ambassador for Europe. Her role is to identify opportunities for international expansion of American craft beer and to raise awareness about the quality and diversity of beer styles from America’s small and independent craft brewers. Based in London, UK, Peplow is also a member of CAMRA’s London tasting panel.
About the Brewers Association
The Brewers Association (BA) is the not-for-profit trade association dedicated to small and independent American brewers, their beers and the community of brewing enthusiasts. The BA represents 5,500-plus U.S. breweries. The BA’s independent craft brewer seal is a widely adopted symbol that differentiates beers by small and independent craft brewers. The BA organizes events including the World Beer Cup®, Great American Beer Festival®, Craft Brewers Conference® & BrewExpo America®, SAVOR™: An American Craft Beer & Food Experience, Homebrew ConTM, National Homebrew Competition and American Craft Beer Week®. The BA publishes The New Brewer® magazine, and Brewers Publications® is the leading publisher of brewing literature in the U.S. Beer lovers are invited to learn more about the dynamic world of craft beer at CraftBeer.com® and about homebrewing via the BA’s American Homebrewers Association® and the free Brew Guru® mobile app. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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