Why the Great American Beer Festival Matters to Restaurants
Whether it's branding or just street cred, nothing reflects a thriving beverage program better than menuing the best choices in the country.
Winning a gold, silver or bronze at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) is about much more than bragging rights for brewers who managed to leave the Denver event with any of the 286 medals awarded in Denver. It’s branding; it’s street cred; it’s a press release that pretty much writes itself. Most importantly, it puts many up-and-coming producers on beer drinkers’ radars when they may have not been there previously. And it becomes a scavenger hunt of sorts to track down the winning brews that are available in a consumer’s immediate geographic area.
“I, personally, definitely pay attention to the GABF, as well as other, major medaled events,” says Josh Fernands, bar and beverage director for Pizzeria Paradiso, whose two locations in Washington, D.C. and one in Alexandria, Virginia, have gained a following for their well curated beer program.
Fernands pays particular attention to winners based in D.C., Northern Virginia, and Maryland. “I look at the list of winners to see how many local breweries have won—that’s part personal because a lot of them are personal friends.”
But beyond personal attachments, Fernands says a brewery’s track record with awards could be a bit of a “litmus test” for that producer’s sales potential at the restaurants. It also encourages him to give those brewers a second look.
“Any small brewers that seem to have been well awarded are maybe ones that had slipped by my view initially,” Fernands explains.
If a brewery is a repeat winner, it serves as a vote of confidence in that brewer and its products. “If a brewery consistently wins, then I can take that as an indication that they make quality beer from top to bottom and I can purchase almost anything form that brewery with a high degree of confidence,” says Alex Davis, general manager at Santa Monica, California’s Library Alehouse, whose lengthy beer list pairs with an eclectic menu that features everything from burgers and pasta to short rib Bourguignon an ahi tartare.
If your restaurant happens to be based in a famous craft beer mecca like Asheville, North Carolina, you’re surrounded by so many quality breweries that it’s very likely you’ve got the local winners on tap before they even win. “We’re really lucky to be surrounded by some really great breweries in Asheville,” says Brand Grogan, bar manager at the city’s Buxton Hall barbeque restaurant, which opened in the fall of 2015. Right off the bat, Grogan was able to name two brews the restaurant had been pouring when the news broke that they had medaled at GABF last month. The producer of one of those, Hi-Wire Brewing, is located right in Buxton Hall’s immediate neighborhood, Asheville’s South Slope; one of the brewery’s two locations is a four-minute walk from the restaurant. Hi-Wire won a gold medal in the German-style Märzen category for its Zirkusfest Oktoberfest seasonal. Another Asheville brewery, Wicked Weed (a five-minute walk from Buxton), won a silver for its Lunatic blonde ale. “We’ve been running that one for a while,” notes Grogan. “We kind of keep on what we like and keep it local and regional.”
However, it’s not always so easy for a restaurant to get its hands on an award-winning beer, even if it’s brewed within a 100-mile radius of the dining establishment. Part of the reason for that is, many times, brewers are producing extremely limited batches, which, in some instances, are brewed exclusively for sampling and awards consideration at major festivals like GABF.
“I feel like over the years breweries have submitted more and more beers that are either one-offs or something that they brewed especially for GABF, or something that they typically don’t brew in the season of GAB,” says Fernands. “It’s happened several times. “I tried to put together a GABF tap takeover event, I reached out [to a brewery] and they said, ‘sorry this was just a small-batch thing we brewed for our taphouse to specifically send to GABF,’—which I feel is becoming a little more common.”