Mid-Atlantic Brewing News, Sept/Oct 2003

Memories of the First GABF

by Rich Wagner

Rich and Anna Wagner enjoying Boulder Stoudt, "impervious to sunlight."

Anna checks out the bottle filler.

Most of my writing has been about the history of brewing, but lately I'm finding the history I've lived through is just as interesting. It's been twenty-two years since my wife and I flew out to Colorado for the first Great American Beer Festival in 1982. Actually the title of the conference was "The American Homebrewers Association Fourth Annual National Homebrew and Microbrewery Conference and National Homebrew and Country Wine Competition." But I think it was the first year they called it The Great American Beer Festival, before they used the acronym GABF.

A friend picked us up at the airport in Denver and we drove to Coors' brewery in Golden. As we pulled up, there was Charlie Papazian, in his running shoes, with his clipboard, stopwatch and possibly a safari helmet, I can't say for sure, waving everyone off his bus for a pre-convention VIP tour of Coors. We rummaged through our luggage and found our friend some suitable footwear since there were no Birkenstocks allowed on the tour, and joined Charlie's group.

When they listed this as a VIP tour, they weren't kidding. I'd taken the public tour a few years earlier, but this was incredible! We got to see the rooms where barley was being sprouted during the malting process; we walked across the brewing floor, an impressive room full of gleaming copper domes; and proceeded through the fermentation cellars. By the time we got to packaging, we were literally climbing over the line. We even got to see the experimental "pilot brewery." But what I remember most was going to a room devoted to tasting. It was my first introduction to the science of sensory evaluation and it fascinated me. The guide introduced the flavor wheel and explained how they used it to describe what they tasted. The room was painted white, was well lit and quiet. Tasters were positioned at individual carrels to prevent distractions. Our guide explained that on her first day she was sent out of the room for wearing perfume. She had been chosen because she had a low "threshold" for recognizing certain flavors. The company encouraged employees to develop their sensory perceptions. Different people have sensitivities to different flavors and I remember her telling us at the time they were experimenting with a plastic lined can and were looking for people who could detect plastic at low levels to see if it was showing up in the product. This experience set me up perfectly for the tasting that was to come at the festival.

Among the beer luminaries involved in presentations and panel discussions were David Bruce, famous for his "Firkin" brewpub chain in England, a model for many here in the States; Brewers Ken Grossman from Sierra Nevada and Jim Schleuter from River City as well as Tom Burns and Al Nelson from Boulder Brewing Company; Bill Newman, who trained at the Ringwood brewery in England and was brewing English style ales in Albany; Michael Lewis of UC Davis and Fred Eckardt from Portland, OR; Fred Huber of Huber Brewing Co. in Monroe, Wisconsin; Ron Siebel of the famed Chicago brewing school that bears his name; Al Andrews and Byron Burch, two homebrew pioneers from California, and others were all there to discuss the finer points of brewing. Paul Shipman was on his way out to Seattle to start up his Independent Ale Brewery, Inc. in an old transmission repair shop in the suburb of Ballard. There were discussions about malts and malting, all grain brewing, brewery equipment, packaging, and beer styles. This raised beer to a new level for me. Here were people not only taking beer seriously, but making a living at it and sharing their hard-earned knowledge. This was a whole new world. I was truly inspired.

The next day I was psyched to put what I had learned about tasting into practice. We entered a banquet room set up with tables for pouring beer. We were issued six-ounce glass mugs for the two-ounce designated samples. I looked at the program to see what was on the menu, especially beers I had never tasted and sampled about half of the beers on the list. I had been introduced to "Anchor Steam Beer" on a trip to California a few years earlier but this was my first chance to taste the new "micro-brewed" beers. Sierra Nevada and River City were two of California's first microbreweries and Boulder was the only one in Colorado. Boulder even bottled a special high gravity ale just for the convention.

What an education! It was my first comparison of all-malt beers with American beers made with corn and rice. It was the first time I could try four or five porters side by side and compare them. And of course this has to be the start of my love affair with hops. Growing up drinking American beer, you didn't really distinguish any hop flavor per se, but these beers were literally bursting with hop flavors and aromas. It was fun developing the vocabulary and trying to articulate olfactory reactions into words. Of course, Michael Jackson was interviewing participants with his tape recorder. When asked for her reaction to Killian's Irish Red, my wife replied that it tasted like Coors with red dye number 2. We noticed Michael erased that part of the tape, but she still got to keep her complimentary lapel pin.

One of the best parts was the conviviality of the crowd, communicating, exchanging reactions. It was the first time I talked with experienced homebrewers and it was probably those discussions that prompted me to make my first batch the following year. Homebrewing had recently become legal and the AHA was gathering momentum, promoting homebrewing as a hobby and educating people about different styles of beer. Something big was happening and it was electrifying. I don't know if any of us could fathom how big the festival would grow, or that it would go on for more than twenty years!

Most beers were from regional breweries that still made some type of specialty beer. There were twenty-two brewers represented and forty brands to sample. Anchor, Boulder, River City and Sierra Nevada were the only microbrewery products.

Anchor B.C., San Francisco, CA: Anchor Steam Beer, Anchor Porter

Blitz-Weinhard Co., Portland, OR: Henry Weinhard's Private Reserve

Boulder B.C., Boulder, CO: Boulder Extra Pale Ale, Boulder Porter, Boulder Stout

Champale, Inc., Trenton, NJ: Black Horse Ale

Adolph Coors B.C., Golden, CO: George Killian's Irish Red Ale

Falstaff, Ft. Wayne, IN: Balantine IPA, Fallstaff Porter

Genesee B.C., Rochester, NY:12 Horse Ale, Genesee Cream Ale

Geyer Bros. B.C., Frankenmuth, MI: Frankenmuth Bavarian Light and Dark

G. Heileman B.C., Inc.LaCrosse, WI: Special Export

Joseph Huber B.C., Monroe, WI: Augsburger Light and Dark

Hudepohl B.C., Cincinatti, OH: Christian Moerlein

Fred Koch Brewery, Inc., Dunkirk, NY: Black Horse Ale and Beer

Latrobe B.C., Latrobe, PA: Rolling Rock Premium Beer

Jacob Leinenkugel B.C., Chippewa Falls, WI: Leinenkugel Beer

F.X. Matt, Utica, NY: Matt's Premium Beer, Maximus Super

Rainier B.C., Seattle, WA: Rainier Ale

River City B.C., Sacramento, CA: River City Dark and Gold

August Schell B.C., New Ulm, MN: Schell's Deer Brand, Schell's Export, Ulmer Lager

Christian Schmidt B.C., Philadelphia, PA: McSorley's Cream Ale, Prior Double Dark, Birell, Birch Beer

Sierra Nevada B.C., Chico, CA: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Stout

Stevens Point B.C., Stevens Point, WI: Point Special Beer

D.G. Yuengling B.C., Pottsville, PA: Yuengling Premium Beer, and Porter, Lord Chesterfield Ale

My tasting notes indicate that the security guards told the volunteers to stop pouring at 10:00 P.M. We found a restaurant, got something to eat and I remember insisting we stop at a convenience store for some generic BEER to "clear our palates."

The next morning, Papazian took us out to the "the goat farm" in a double-decker bus. This was starting to feel like the Merry Pranksters. After tasting the beloved Boulder beers the day before, here we were on a pilgrimage to the source! These were the days when homebrewers-turned-professional created their own brewing systems out of dairy tanks and whatever they could muster. There was a custom made rectangular mash tun, a wort chiller made out of a garden hose, there were open fermenters and a primitive bottling outfit. We saw where spent grain was fed to the goats, and the compost pile of hops. Then we sat on wooden cases emblazoned with the Boulder Beer "brand" and drank Boulder Extra Pale Ale, Porter, Stout and brunched on the covered dishes provided by local homebrewers. This was the first time I ever paired beer with food for breakfast! After the VIP tour at Coors, this was the opposite end of the spectrum, production-wise, and in every other way!

If Rip Van Winkle had fallen asleep at the end of that festival, with program in hand, to what would he awaken in 2003? His surprise would certainly begin with the size of the room required to handle the size of the crowd as well as the the number of beers there are to sample. And in the competition portion of the event, the entire spectrum of the American brewing industry is now represented. Despite the fact that eight of the regional brewers on 1982's tasting list are out of business, others survived and many have made all-malt contract beers and developed their own lines of specialty beers. There are more categories and beer styles than ever, and GABF medals have become prized symbols of achievement used in brewery advertising across the board. What has transpired in a little over twenty years has exceeded our wildest expectations! We've gone way beyond the early homebrewers taking their talent to the next level and if size is any indication, look how big Anchor and Sierra Nevada are today, not to mention the number of microbreweries that have exceeded the old 10,000 barrel per year limit that used to define them.

Back in the day, tasting a Canadian ale or a Utica Club Cream Ale that someone brought back from vacation were the odd treasures in a marketplace of national "blands." This year's festival offers more variety and flavor than ever before. So compare what's on tap and who wins the medals this year and try to imagine just what we were tasting back in June, 1982. To quote Carly Simon, "these are the good old days."