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More than 700 american breweries shared their craft with attendees at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival.

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The Great American Beer Festival showcased industry growth, new beers, and the introduction of a comprehensive course in food and beer.

By Ken Weaver January 2015 Beer

The Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver is easily one of the largest beer events in the world, and the 2014 three-day event in October was no exception with around 49,000 people in attendance, sampling from the more than 700 American breweries pouring their wares. For this editor, it’s an annual chance to see beer writers and industry friends, plus explore what’s new and exciting in beer and food.

The growth of the GABF, which started in 1982 and is put on by the Brewers Association, has mirrored the growth of craft beer, and 14 percent more breweries were involved this past October than in 2013. The festival itself is a massive event: Huge rows of regionally grouped pouring stations offer 3,500 or so beers over the duration of the event. Plus there are marching bands, tasting panels, book signings, vendors of everything from Belgian waffles to brewing systems, and the most ambitious beer-centric costumes and pretzel necklaces likely to be seen anywhere. The pretzel-based bandoliers were particularly impressive.

One focal point of the event, beyond the festivities themselves, was the annual awards ceremony, which at the 2014 event recognized gold, silver, and bronze medalists across 90 different beer style categories as well as presented various brewery-of-the-year awards.

On the brewpub side, Small Brewpub of the Year recognition went to Bastone Brewery in Royal Oak, Michigan, known for its Belgian-style brews. Brasserie Saint James in Reno, Nevada, won for Mid-Size Brewpub, and top honors in the Large Brewpub of the Year category went to Beachwood BBQ & Brewing in Long Beach, California.

The Golden State shone brightest at the event: California breweries took home a total of 47 medals at the festival, followed by strong showings from Colorado with 40 medals, Oregon with 22, Texas at 16, and my home state of Pennsylvania with 10.

Regardless of whether a restaurant chooses to highlight GABF medals or some other industry barometer of excellence—and presuming such things jive with the restaurant’s menu format—highlighting the award-winning beers being offered can be a useful initiative for a restaurant.

For instance, when a national grocery retailer included the RateBeer.com score on its shelf tags of select beers, those highlighted beers saw increased sales of 50 percent to 60 percent. Even if a restaurant’s overall sales don’t see a major bump, highlighting award-winning beers can fuel a guest’s attachment to them. “Did you know this beer won a GABF gold medal this year?” is a pretty compelling inlet.

Beyond Beer Geeks

One key addition to the 2014 GABF over the festival of preceding years was a new Beer Geeks program, an initiative bringing together about 50 beer educators to mentor the volunteer servers at the event. The intention was to make the volunteers better equipped to discuss and answer questions regarding the beers they were pouring, should the brewer or brewery representative not be around. A similar initiative was undertaken at a recent Northern California festival, where a Craft Concierge Center was established to help attendees get their beer questions answered by knowledgeable staff members. The parallel to the increasing importance of server education in a restaurant setting is obvious, and that expectation for beer-savvy service will only increase.

The Denver conference also yielded insights into the latest stats published by the Brewers Association: At mid-year, craft beer production was up 18 percent versus the first half of 2013, export volume was up 49 percent over 2012, and there were dramatic revelations in craft beer demographics.

During the GABF media luncheon, Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, presented research indicating that the overall demographics of craft beer drinkers have broadened significantly in recent years. Specifically, the Millennial generation as a whole, as well as young women between 21 and 34, both over-index when it comes to craft beer consumption, meaning that these demographic segments are responsible for a greater percentage of craft beer consumption than their actual population percentage would predict. Additionally, there was greater geographic, economic, and racial diversity measured in the craft beer–drinking population overall. Ultimately, the key takeaway was this: Craft beer’s base continues to broaden both demographically and in total numbers.

Beer + Food Report

Each year, the importance of beer and food pairing effectively receives more emphasis at GABF, and the October event formally announced the CraftBeer.com Beer & Food Course. The festival also included a dedicated Brewpub Pavilion, a Farm-to-Table Pavilion, and even an expansive tasting booth headed by the American Cheese Society.

The Brewpub Pavilion, a special section near the center of the festival floor, included 36 brewpubs from around the country—an appropriate showing given that more than 40 percent of U.S. breweries are considered to be brewpubs.

The Farm-to-Table Pavilion, a separately ticketed section adjacent to the main festival floor, featured 14 brewery and restaurant pairings with each table offering two beers, each with its own coordinated dish. Allagash Brewing Company from Portland, Maine, served its barrel-aged Curieux (previously featured in FSR’s Sips Appeal reviews) with ginger cake using Curieux-infused caramelized apples and made by Chef Ned Maddock from Philadelphia’s Italian gastropub Alla Spina. (Translated from Italian, the name means “from the tap.”)

Another highlight in the Farm-to-Table Pavilion was Funkwerks’ Nelson Sauvin, which incorporated assertive, Sauvignon-blanc-like hops of the same name, out of New Zealand, and was paired with a curried scallop ceviche from Chef Alex Seidel of Denver’s Fruition and Mercantile Dining & Provisions. The herbaceous qualities of the beer synced perfectly with the scallops, while the other pairing from Funkwerks at the restaurants chose a more traditional footing, bringing together a cherry-forward Oud Bruin with roasted duck breast.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this year’s GABF, at least on the restaurant side of things, was the Brewers Association’s announcement of its free Beer & Food Course, now offered through CraftBeer.com. Despite all of the efforts to further educate and properly inform the industry, beer-and-food pairings and proper beer service tend to remain a bit of a mystery at the institutional and educational levels. The general idea is that culinary and hospitality educators don’t have great fundamental resources for these topics, unlike the case for food-and-wine pairings.

The CraftBeer.com Beer & Food Course, co-authored by Chef Adam Dulye, owner of The Abbot’s Cellar in San Francisco, and the Brewers Association’s craft beer program director Julia Herz, is available for download online. The 60-page manual covers topics that include presenting and pouring beers, pairing beer with food, conducting tasting and pairing sessions, and designing a beer dinner.

“This course is the most robust grouping of information on beer-and-food pairing that we have published,” Herz says. While the program’s final exam is meant to target accredited instructors and educators, Herz indicated that beverage-program directors and education-focused professionals are encouraged to take it as well. The course seems particularly useful for chefs, beverage-program directors, and waitstaff looking to improve their service.

Indeed, this course seems to be just the beginning, and it sounded like both shorter and longer versions of the curriculum are likely, with Herz adding, “This is the first of more to come.” Overall, the tone throughout the GABF was one of continued emphasis on the foodservice side.

Beyond the three-day festival, collateral events extended for about a week and included more than 130 tasting events, beer dinners, and activities in which local restaurants and bars coordinated with the visiting breweries.