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Brewers Association: The spirit of the Great American Beer Festival remains even in a virtual environment

Despite not welcoming beer lovers in person for the first time in its history, GABF will still be fun, says the Brewers Association.

DENVER — “It’s going to be fun,” said Ann Obenchain, Marketing Director for the Brewers Association.

She’s referring to the largest ticketed beer festival in the United States, which is put on by her organization.

The Great American Beer Festival is celebrating its 39th year amidst a global pandemic.

For the first time in its history, beer lovers will not gather in long lines around the Colorado Convention Center, waiting with pretzel necklaces around their necks to taste thousands of beers from hundreds of American breweries.

RELATED: GABF to be held as an online event in 2020

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The Brewers Association had to make the tough decision to cancel the in-person festival months ago, but it was not the first casualty of COVID.

“In March, when the world started to fall apart and we started to hear about COVID-19, we canceled our large craft brewers conference and Brew Expo America,” said Obenchain. “At that time, we started to look at all of the other events that were coming up with an eye to Great American Beer Festival.”

Discussions soon began to determine how to maintain the beer competition, the world’s largest beer competition, that’s run every year with GABF.

“We know how much winning a medal means to our brewers,” said Obenchain. “So, we wanted to figure out how to still hold the competition and then, if possible, how we were going to hold the actual festival.”

So, the Brewers Association reached out to brewers with a question: If a competition and festival were held, what’s the likelihood they’d attend?

“In April, we had a 70% likelihood from our brewers that yes, they would participate in the competition, but as far as traveling, leaving their breweries, not knowing if they would be open, they had a much lower uncertainty on if they would be able to attend an in-person festival.”

However, in the span of a month, the decision on whether to hold an in-person festival became clear.

“On the 20th of May, the governor extended the use of the Convention Center as a field hospital to the end of the year,” said Obenchain. “We knew we didn’t have a convention center to hold and with that brewery feedback, we decided it would probably be in the best interest of everyone to start planning for an online festival.”

The Brewers Association began by focusing on the competition, knowing also that judging would take longer than years past.

Then, organizers turned to the festival aspect of GABF, talking through ideas that would provide breweries the easiest and most flexible opportunities to participate.

From that, a national passport program was created.

“It’s a passport to over 1,100 participating breweries nationwide,” said Obenchain. “We have 146 participating breweries in Colorado.”

Those who buy the passports, which cost $20, have access to deals at participating breweries.

“Those deals can be savings on premise at their brewery, brewpub or taproom,” said Obenchain. “They can be coupons or discounts on to-go or delivery beer or on merchandise. It’s really up to the brewery to decide what they want to do. We wanted to make it as flexible and easy for everybody to participate.”

The passport also allows access to two days of online content that will become available after the medal awards ceremony in two weeks.

“We’ve got two evenings of original beer content,” said Obenchain. “That ranges from beer and pairing advice, how to better enjoy your beer through glassware to some human interest stories about what are the latest trends happening in beer culture and some of our icons.”

That passport program, which launched on October 1st and lasts through October 18th, makes up the festival portion of GABF.

The 1,100 participating businesses also represent an increase in the overall number of breweries participating in GABF this year.

“A normal festival, we have about 800 breweries,” said Obenchain. “This has enabled a lot of our smallest breweries and taprooms and brewpubs to participate where they may not have been able to travel in the past to Denver.”

As for the competition, around 1,700 brewers are participating this year.

“That’s down slightly from about 2,200 in 2019,” said Obenchain. “However, the number of entries is about the same as last year.”

That means judges have more than 9,000 entries to judge, but the pandemic has forced changes to that work as well.

“In a normal year, we would have about 300 judges from all over the world that come into Denver and they spend three days judging about 9,000 beers,” said Obenchain. “Because of traveling and COVID, we have about 124 judges this year that are coming in from about 25 states and we have spread out that judging from three days to three weeks.”

Precautions are also being taken during the judging sessions, which are held at the Brewers Association’s warehouse.

“We have a maximum of 35 judges judging at any one time,” said Obenchain. “They’re six feet apart, they are wearing masks as well as full face shields. So, they take the mask off to judge and taste the beer, but they’re wearing their face shields at all times.”

The judging is in its third week.

“It just takes… well, a lot of extra time and patience to get through all of those beers,” Obenchain said with a laugh.

The changes made this year due to the pandemic may also influence the Great American Beer Festival’s 40th anniversary next year.

“We’ve learned a lot from the competition already and ways to streamline that for next year,” said Obenchain. “For the festival, we’re going to learn a lot over the next 18 days and be chatting with our passport purchasers as well as our breweries to find out what works for them and what we can incorporate for next year.”

In the meantime, GABF 2020 goes on.

“The festival may look different this year, but the spirit and excitement still remain,” said Obenchain.

Key GABF Dates:

  • Passport Program: October 1-18, 2020 (Passports cost $20) (Click here to see the list of breweries and deals included)
  • GABF Awards Ceremony: October 16, 2020 - 5pm (Free to watch)
  • Virtual Festival: October 16-17, 2020 (Included in passport program) (Find the virtual programming schedule here)
  • GABF 2021: October 7-9, 2021