Three Important Lessons We Can Learn From GABF

GABF Medals

The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery and NoDa Brewing both won silver medals at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colo. on Oct. 13.

Well, folks, it’s over.

The crowd has dispersed, the kegs have been emptied, the medals awarded, and the people returned home after, what many describe as, the most successful Great American Beer Festival to date.  While that point can be debated endlessly, what can’t be argued is that Charlotte most certainly had its best GABF ever as Olde Mecklenburg Brewery and NoDa Brewery both returned home with silver medals for Mecktoberfest and Coco Loco respectively.  This was the first time that more than one of our breweries have been decorated for their beer.  It is also the first time that Charlotte brought home more medals than any other city in the state, accounting for 50 percent of the haul.

I was unable to attend the festival this year, but I sat anxiously in my brother’s apartment in Atlanta, obsessively watching my twitter feed as the prizes were awarded.  I got to celebrate as some of my closest friends literally achieved their dreams that day, and I could not have been more proud of them or of the Charlotte beer scene as a whole.

Now that GABF is over, I think it is important to reflect on the experience and what it means for Charlotte and craft beer in general.  I came away from this year’s festival with several thoughts, a few of which I’d like to share with you here, in hopes that it continues to spark discussion about the industry, what it means for our city, and the people who make and consume this wonderful product.

Medals should be seen as a measure of success, never failure.

On the surface this seems incredibly obvious but I think it begs some consideration.  GABF brings in over 150 of the most qualified beer judges in the nation to take part in the blind tasting and scoring of brewery submissions.  These people have incredibly refined palates, and know exactly what they are looking for in a beer.

That having been said, they are still individuals with subjective tastes.

Now, before I get crucified by those who think I am demeaning or trying to take away from the accolades awarded to OMB and NoDa, hear me out.  Both of these breweries deserve every bit of recognition they have received for their beers, including their GABF silver medals.  My point, however, is that on a given year, any number of other beers could have received the same awards.

Different judges have different tastes, and the differences in the best beers at this competition are staggeringly miniscule.  Think about some of the breweries that won exactly 0 medals this year:  Stone, Founders, Bells, etc.  No one could possibly argue that these are anything but some of the finest institutions in American craft beer.  Yet, their work went unrecognized at the premier American craft beer festival.  So, what does that mean?

Americans are obsessed with rankings.  We see this with our sports teams, our schools, our business, and nearly every other aspect of society where businesses or people compete.  We’ve learned to take some of these rankings with a grain of salt, a la the BCS in college football, and I would encourage the same logic with GABF.  Be proud of the breweries that won medals, but don’t use that as your own measuring stick for quality.  A lot of amazing beer went unrecognized last week, including many great locals.  Do yourself a favor and continue to explore them all, medalist or not.

Just because a brewery is big or funded by outside sources does not mean they make bad beer.

I think one of the most important discussions going on in the craft industry right now, is what exactly makes something craft.  We used to measure craft beer by the number of barrels per year that a brewery put out, and some still stick to the old 2 million barrel measuring stick, but as some of America’s best breweries continue to expand their output, I think it is important to examine craft beer in terms of ingredients.  Craft beer, in my mind, is beer made with the highest quality ingredients with a creative, artisanal purpose.

Two of America’s largest craft breweries won gold medals at this year’s GABF:  Sierra Nevada for its Blanca Nut Brown and Estate Fresh Hop Ale, and Goose Island for its IPA.  A lot has been said over the last couple years over Anheuser Busch’s purchase of Goose Island and what that means for the quality of their beer.  At least for now, I think it is safe to say that while that move has certainly affected their business and distribution, it has not affected the quality of their beer.

I hang out with a lot of very knowledgeable people in this industry, many of whom hate all “non-craft” beers with a passion.  But how do you draw that line?  What makes Sierra Nevada different from Sam Adams or New Belgium, or Yuengling?

I don’t think there is a clear answer there.  With that in mind, I think it is important to distinguish the beer from the business.  There is no question that the big three (Bud, Miller, Coors) have attempted through a variety of methods to stamp out craft beer’s ever increasing market share.  Any true capitalist would tell you that is their right, and frankly their job.  Now that those efforts have proven ineffective on a large scale, they are beginning to realize that if they can’t beat craft, they need to join it, or in most cases, fund it.  By investing in established craft breweries like Goose Island and Terrapin, they are able to reap the benefits of their investments like a bank.  What does that have to do with the beer though?  I think in most cases that is unclear now, or at least varies on a case by case basis.

I see the arguments on both sides here.  People want to see their small, local breweries succeed, and so there is always push back against the “big guys”.  If a local brewery makes a product of equal or higher quality, I will personally choose that alternative every time as those businesses are a part of our local economy.  But viable alternatives don’t always exist, and just because something is local does not mean it is always good.  If you choose not to buy a product based on the way people do business, that is absolutely your decision, and a reasonable one at that.  What I would caution you to avoid, however, is labeling someone’s beer as bad simply because of the name on the bottle.

There are a lot of awesome new breweries popping up in North Carolina and across the nation that deserve your attention.

Virginia’s Devils Backbone was the darling of GABF this year, taking home 8 medals and winning awards for Best Small Brewpub and Best Brewpub Brewer.  In their short four year history, these guys having taken home more awards than any other brewery in the Mid-Atlantic, and yet most beer drinkers have never heard of them.  My favorite new brewery, Funkwerks, out of Colorado, won Best Small Brewery, and their saison (deservedly) took gold for the category.  They have only been open since 2011.

You know what’s crazy though?  The two Charlotte breweries that won awards have been open a grand total of four years combined.  This is something that should get you excited.  Charlotte is producing some incredibly high quality beer, despite the fact that we have fewer than half the number of breweries in Asheville, AKA Beer Town USA.  We have a highly concentrated group of passionate, talented people here who are doing, and will continue to do great things for our city moving forward.  I don’t think it is unrealistic to consider Charlotte a major contender for best beer city in North Carolina in the near future if this trend continues.  That idea would have been laughable two years ago.