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Great American Beer Festival founder reflects on its beginnings

Charlie Papazian is the founder of the Great American Beer Festival, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

DENVER — Anyone who knows the beer industry will likely know Charlie Papazian’s name, though his nicknames might be more common knowledge: brew guru, beer guru, the godfather of craft beer. 

“No one understood what we were doing,” said Papazian. “The circumstances in the beer business were so dire in those days.”

Papazian is the founder of the Great American Beer Festival, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. 

“1982 is when I founded the Great American Beer Festival,” said Papazian. “Visions of 40 years later were distant to think about. Just pulling off this crazy idea was the priority, which was a pretty hairy adventure.” 

Papazian has spent a lifetime with beer, beginning before beer became big business in the United States. 

His passion dates back to his time as a student at the University of Virginia after a neighbor introduced him to the concept of home brewing. 

He then brought that passion to Colorado. 

“Beer’s my business and I’ve worked late,” said Papazian with a laugh. “The only beer enthusiasts that existed in those days [were] home brewers and I was teaching home brewing classes. 

Papazian held those classes in his Boulder home from 1973 to around 1983. 

Credit: 9NEWS
Charlie Papazian

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We’d get together on my living room floor in my house and we introduced them to the whole idea of homebrewing,” said Papazian. “We’d brew a batch of beer every class.” 

Papazian founded the American Homebrewers Association in 1978, which went on to become the Brewers Association. 

Three years later, a trip overseas provided the inspiration for the Great American Beer Festival. 

In 1981, I went to the UK and I went to the Great British Beer Festival for the first time,” said Papazian. “There were tens of thousands of people having a good time at this beer festival that celebrated a national beer culture. I couldn't help but think, this is a pretty cool idea. 

Credit: Great American Beer Festival

To hear Papazian tell it, after a few beers, he began to wonder whether it was an idea that could be pulled off in the United States. 

He took it to Michael Jackson, a beer guru back in the day. 

He said, ‘yeah, Charlie, it’s a great idea. Where are you going to get the beer?’” recalled Papazian. 

At that point in America’s history, the beer industry was small, consisting of around 40 breweries that many thought wouldn’t last. 

“There were the big three, four big, giant breweries dominating 99% of the beer market and these regional breweries,” said Papazian. “People were predicting there would only be three breweries left in the United States.” 

Papazian was determined to see the Great American Beer Festival happen, though it took some convincing for others to get on board. 

In all, 20 breweries pledged to participate in year one of the Great American Beer Festival, which was held in June 1982 at the Hilton Harvest House, what is now the Millennium Hotel in Boulder. 

“It worked really, really well,” said Papazian. “They must have thought there was a glimmer of hope for the beer business, maybe something would come out of it. 

Something definitely came out of it. 

Over the next 40 years, those 40 breweries were joined by more than 9,000 others. 

Data from the Brewers Association shows a total of 9,247 breweries were operating in the United States as of 2021. 

Colorado is home to more than 400 of them. 

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As the beer industry has grown, GABF has grown as well, as has the number of beer festivals nationwide. 

“We actually encouraged them and gave seminars and presentations and stories and articles and interviews on how to do these kinds of festivals,” said Papazian. “We wanted to raise the water, so to speak, the ocean of beer to a level where it was accessible to everyone here in this country. 

Put together, Papazian has helped to create an entire culture of beer in a country where once there was none. 

As for why Colorado has become the hub for all things beer, the answer, says Papazian, is simple. 

“It’s because I live here,” he said. 

The Great American Beer Festival’s 40th year kicks off Thursday, Oct. 6 at the Colorado Convention Center. 


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