Mid-Atlantic Brewing News October/November 2003

GABF Memories: Denver Festival Celebrates 21st Birthday

By Rich Wagner

(Editor¹s note: If the Great American Beer Festival were a person, it would now be old enough to drink legally. This year¹s festival, to be held Sept. 25-27 in Denver, will feature 1,400 beers from 320 breweries. Rich Wagner, Pennsylvania beer historian, reminisces on the first ever GABF held 21 years ago).

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 21 years since my wife and I flew out to Colorado for the first Great American Beer Festival in 1982.

 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, 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.

VIP Treatment

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; 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, 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 Co.; Bill Newman, who trained at the Ringwood brewery in England and was brewing English style ales in Albany; and beer writer Fred Eckardt from Portland, OR. 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. 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-oz glass mugs for the two-oz designated samples. I looked at the program to see what was on the menu, especially beers I had never tasted. There were 22 brewers represented offering 40 brands. I 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.

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 a number of 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.

Beer Talk

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.
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. They had a custom-made rectangular mash tun, a wort chiller made out of a garden hose, 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 and 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 crowd as well as the number of beers available to sample. And in the competition portion of the event, the entire spectrum of the American brewing industry is now represented. 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!
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."

This article contained a photograph of the original Boulder brewery in Longmont, CO.

The Beers of GABF 1982

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, Falstaff 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

The sidebar contained a photograph of the beer label which was used on the beer bottled by Boulder for the event.

Related Articles

Wagner, Rich. "The Brewpub Phenomenon, A Complex New Beer Marketplace...Now It's Come to Pennsylvania." Observer, Journal of the Pennsylvania Liquor Industry, June 6, 1988.

Wagner, Rich. “Breweries Gone But Not Forgotten.” (25 Years of Craft Brewing in the Mid-Atlantic Issue). Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. October, November 2009.

Wagner, Rich. “Breweries Reincarnated as Breweries.” American Breweriana Journal. Nov./Dec. 2014.

Wagner, Rich. “Brewing into the Twenty-first Century in Montgomery County.” Bulletin of the Historical Society of Montgomery County Pennsylvania. Volume XXXVIII. 2018.