North Carolina Goes West…and Dominates: The Great American Beer Festival

I made the pilgrimage. I went to The Great American Beer Festival last week in Denver, Colorado.

Of course, it was delicious and fun. Of course, you should go. Of course, I had all the rare beers.

But the experience was also filled with surprises. Three days prior to the festival I was offered a Wicked Weed beer at a barbecue joint in Boulder. Our waiter met my surprise with a cool, “Oh, it’s our third Wicked Weed keg.” Fast forward to a conversation with Certified Cicerone© Chris Westgard of Crafty Beer Guys, and I learn that many breweries around the country opt to distribute in popular beer cities in addition to or sometimes in lieu of local distribution. The delicious, agriculturally-focused Fonta Flora in Morganton practices this distribution method.

[Side note: It’s just another example of how there is no one right way to be in the beer business and the importance of leaving growth and distribution choices to each brewery regardless of production.]

Medals, Medals, and More Medals!

First, the medal count. North Carolina’s success this year is unprecedented. Seventeen and the best Very Small Brewing Company and Brewer of the Year (Brown Truck Brewery in High Point, opened in 2016 and yes the taproom is open daily!)

Seventeen medals. Only three states took home more: California (68), Colorado (38), and Oregon (21), which are home to some of the most popular and experienced breweries in the nation. North Carolina is a major player.

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In the  Charlotte-area, D9 Brewing Company (Cornelius) won Gold for Experimental Beer with Dry Hopped Systema of Naturae – Scuppernong & Lily and NoDa Brewing (Charlotte) won Gold for Herb and Spice Beer with NoDajito.  Suzie Ford, president of NoDa, was particularly excited for NoDajito winning gold, as it “makes us even more excited to get in and put our own twist on traditional styles; that’s what the NoDable Series is all about. Beer is fun and winning for NoDajito, a truly fun beer, reminded us of that.”

It was also a fantastic festival for some of our state’s older breweries, who have paved the way for the Wicked Weeds, Crank Arms, and Birdsongs out there. Foothills Brewing (Winston-Salem) won Bronze for Bohemian-Style Pilsner with Torch Pilsner, Olde Hickory (Hickory) won Gold for Old Ale or Strong Ale with Irish Walker and Silver for Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Stout with The Event Horizon, and Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery (Farmville) won Silver for Sweet Stout or Cream Stout with the classic Duck-Rabbit Milk Stout.

The Festival Hall: Where the Beer is Poured!

If you’ve not attended, the hall is divided up by regions, except for a Meet the Brewer area (where NoDa was located so participants could talk to Head Brewer Chad Henderson) and an area for state brewery guilds to answer questions about their state’s beer industry and try local beers that didn’t get a spot on the festival hall floor. Executive Director Margo Metzger of the NC Craft Brewers Guild was at the NC table the first night pouring Gibb’s Hundred, Ponysaurus, New Sarum, Wooden Robot, and others who did not have a table on the hall floor.

Now with 780 breweries in the festival hall, grabbing an attendee’s attention is a little like a book cover trying to capture the attention of someone roaming around a Barnes and Nobles. And despite the regional labeling, within regions there seems to be no method for where breweries are set up. For instance, an NC brewery can be found between a Florida and a Georgia brewery, not beside all the other NC breweries.

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So with all this choice and volume, first impressions and visuals mattered. And entertaining brewery names don’t hurt either. Ass Clown (Cornelius) had a significant and continuous line throughout the festival, a small circular brand sign accompanying the generic festival one. Birdsong covered up the generic sign with their big red branded banner and also saw continual business, as did Catawba Brewing with a banner and flags that attracted a steady crowd. Wicked Weed, with reputation in hand, had a branded ranch-style entrance sign, a hanging hop lamp resembling their logo, and two lines consistently 20-yards long to taste regular beers and their hard-to-get sours.

NoDa and The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery were two local breweries with tables but not the branded signage and the lines did appear significantly shorter. The group I was with felt a little bummed because we love these two breweries — the people and the beer — and felt the lack of branding was detrimental to getting more people at the tables. We wondered if it had anything to do with their respective roles with Craft Freedom, opting to keep all branding efforts stateside, but it turns out, at least in NoDa’s case, sometimes a banner just gets left unpacked – accidentally – in the rush to get out to Denver. But we did see the immediate impact of NoDa winning Gold with NoDajito on Saturday morning, as the NoDa traffic increased significantly at the evening’s imbibe session.

But What About Our Other Breweries?

There were 1,752 breweries in the competition and 780 tables. So most breweries were not lucky enough to snag a spot to pour to the public. This helps explains why Legion, Triple C, D9 Brewery, and our other breweries may not have had tables in the hall. But don’t feel too bad, while consuming all the beer, mere enthusiasts can forget that the festival is also an industry gathering place for brewers and industry folk to learn and connect. I ran into Legion brewer Alexa Long at the festival who beamed over the fact that she had been able to meet with so many other brewers, attend special tastings, and expand her network and knowledge. So while I was hoping to see her pouring her beer to attendees, it proved a proud moment to know our local brewers were engaging and networking with change-makers and influencers in the $22.3 billion-dollar craft beer industry.

Final Thoughts

This was just a small slice of the whole experience. The cheese, the hands-on learning opportunities, the Draught Quality Summit — did I mention the cheese? It is a fantastic three-day event. And for those planning to go next year, as you might imagine, each night gets a bit rowdier, more volunteers and less brewery staff at tables, more costumes, more daytime pre-gaming the event. For those who homebrew or are into sensory experiences, follow the Brewers Association and Cicerone© organization. The big guys and gals are all there, happily willing to chat.

But my main takeaway is that North Carolina is a craft beer state. I encourage you to all check out a few breweries this coming weekend and say, “Thank you.” They did us proud.

Beth Salyers is a freelance writer based in Charlotte. She can be reached at salyers.beth@gmail.com

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