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

Sycamore and Triple C win medals at the Great American Beer Festival

Sycamore Brewing

Sycamore Brewing won a bronze medal for its Southern Girl Lager at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado. Pictured from left to right: Jordy Smith (Brewery Operations Manager), Justin Brigham (Owner & Brewer), and Andrew Viapiano (Head Brewer). (Photo courtesy Sycamore Brewing)

The Great American Beer Festival is about the closest thing you can get to a Super Bowl for brewers.

Held every year in Denver, Colorado, the three-day event includes an awards ceremony in which breweries receive gold, silver, or bronze medals across nearly every style of beer imaginable. And if you weren’t streaming this ceremony live today like myself and so many others, I’m pleased to tell you that Charlotte’s Sycamore Brewing and Triple C Brewing both took home some hardware.

I likened the event to the Super Bowl, but of course that’s a bit of hyperbole. Seeing our hometown brewers win wouldn’t be like watching the Carolina Panthers hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Rather, it’s more like knowing Cam Newton or Luke Kuechly before they were national names.

Scott Kimball Triple C Brewing

Scott Kimball, head brewer at Triple C Brewing, wearing his bronze medal for 3C IPA. (Photo by Scott Kimball)

And that’s how I always feel whenever breweries from Charlotte or across North Carolina win medals, whether at the Great American Beer Festival or any other awards ceremony. There’s a sense of pride in watching the people who you’ve seen working hard for years being recognized for their efforts. I’m never surprised to hear of these breweries winning (here in Charlotte, for example, we knew how good NoDa Brewing’s Hop, Drop ‘n Roll was before it won a gold medal at last year’s World Beer Cup), but that doesn’t make it any less exciting.

So I got to live vicariously through these breweries during the awards ceremony earlier, when I heard Sycamore Brewing win a bronze in the American Style Light Lager category for their Southern Girl Lager. Shortly thereafter, their neighbors at Triple C Brewing won a bronze in the Strong American Pale Ale category for their 3C IPA.

North Carolina on the whole represented well this year, with breweries from the Old North State taking home eight medals total. In addition to the aforementioned two, the following breweries won for these beers:

  • Fonta Flora Brewery Beets, Rhymes and Life won gold in the Field Beer category.
  • Duck-Rabbit Brewery Märzen won bronze in the German-Style Märzen category.
  • Duck-Rabbit Baltic Porter won bronze in the Baltic-Style Porter category.
  • Wicked Weed Brewing Pernicious won silver in the American-Style India Pale Ale category.
  • Gibb’s Hundred Brewing The Guilty Party won gold in the Extra Special Bitter category.
  • Raleigh Brewing The Miller’s Toll won bronze in the Imperial Stout category.

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.