Mid-Atlantic Brewing News October/November 2003
Memories: Denver Festival Celebrates 21st
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.
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.
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.
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"
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.
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.
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."
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
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
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.
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.
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.