The 30th running of the beers will commence tomorrow at 5:30 in Denver as the Great American Beer Festival gets underway. It's an excellent opportunity to reflect on three decades of (pick one: microbrewing, craft brewing, good-beer brewing) in the United States. Charlie Papazian, the pied piper of good-beer brewing, convened the first GABF in 1982, before there really was a whole lot of good beer. Anchor, Boulder, and Sierra Nevada were in the house; Cartwright and New Albion had come and gone; Hale's and Redhook were just christening new breweries. To get a sense of just how different things still were, have a look at the inaugural program (pdf):
If you click on the photo, you'll be able to read Charlie's own hand-written note in the corner: 47 beers and 24 breweries. Most of the breweries weren't small start-ups and most sold fizzy yellow beer--though oddly, there was a lot of porter at that fest. (It's poignant to page through the list and see how many of the participants were about to end their decades-long run as stand-alone regional breweries and become neglected brands in the portfolios of national conglomerates.) This year, of course, there are scads of breweries, beers, and participants (466, 2400, ~50k).
At the time of the first GABF, small-scale brewing was an almost inconceivable venture. Banks wouldn't give brewers money, small brewing equipment didn't really exist, laws were designed to accommodate large-scale production and distribution, no one knew what ales were ... and on and on. Brewers in that first generation were in equal measures hippies who wanted to make an artisanal product by hand of natural ingredients, counter-cultural iconoclasts who decided to build breweries despite the hurdles, and born salesmen who had to invent the market for their product. Events like the GABF were among the few venues they had to get the word out about their beer.
Thirty years on, there's a whole new generation of brewers. What's fascinating is the altered landscape that informed their decision to become brewers. They didn't grow up in a world of cheap, bad beer. They didn't pass around bottles of Ballantine while telling stories of the strong beers of Europe. They grew up in a world of good beer. By the time they started drinking, they knew what IPAs were. So, instead of trying to invent an industry, they came in looking to push it further. Here in Portland, most of the new breweries are the ventures of young people (I won't try to broadcast that truth out and say it's the case everywhere, but I wouldn't be surprised). Their craft beer is not the craft beer of the older generation. To them, barrel-aging is not a radical innovation, but just the way things are done. They don't think of saisons as exotic. Amazingly, most don't even hate the macros--that battle ended a long time ago.
The GABF will be a perpetually evolving festival, reflecting the trends and mores of the brewers participating in it. It will have to stop growing at some point, but it won't stop changing. I'm psyched to finally see the great fest with my own eyes--and maybe when I'm Fred Eckhardt's age, I'll look back at this event and smile at how quaint it was back in the dark old days. Wouldn't that be nice?
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